Who were the subjects of advertisements in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“A CARGO OF ONE HUNDRED and FIFTY-FIVE Sierra-Leon NEGROES.”
When it came to advertising, Charles Crouch, the printer of the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal, did good business in terms of notices about enslaved people. Such advertisements, whether offering enslaved people for sale or offering rewards for the capture and return of those who liberated themselves by running away, generated significant revenue for Crouch and other printers. Consider the June 1, 1773, edition of the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal. It carried sixty-one advertisements. Among those that hawked a variety of consumer goods and services appeared two notices from the printer, seven legal notices from courts held in various towns throughout the colony, and sixteen about enslaved people. Thirteen concerned upcoming sales, while the others the described enslaved people, including Flora, a “Washer and Ironer,” who escaped from their enslavers.
Visual images made the preponderance of advertisements about enslaved people all the more striking. Enslaved people populated the page just as they populated the busy port of Charleston as well as towns and plantations in the countryside throughout the colony. Images adorned fourteen of the advertisements in the June 1 edition, four of them depicting vessels at sea for advertisements seeking cargo and passengers and ten of them depicting one or more enslaved people. Nine of those woodcuts of enslaved people appeared in a single column on the third page, the repetition and proximity making them all the more difficult to overlook.
Those advertisements described captives who arrived in Charleston “after a short Passage from AFRICA,” “from the Gold Coast,” “directly from GAMBIA,” “directly from the Coast,” “from GAMBIA,” “From CAPE-MOUNT, (A RICE COUNTRY),” “from Angola,” “directly from the Coast of Africa,” and “from the Gold-Coast.” The images not only represented the presence of enslaved people in Charleston and throughout the colony; they also testified to the scenes in the ships that transported enslaved people across the Atlantic and the scenes at auction sites that put Black bodies on display for examination and scrutiny by prospective buyers, though sanitized for consumption in the public prints. Printers, like Crouch, helped perpetuate slavery and the slave trade via the words and images that they allowed (and encouraged) advertisers to publish in their newspapers.