April 12

GUEST CURATOR: Bryant Halpin

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Georgia Gazette (April 12, 1769).

“RUN AWAY … A NEGROE FELLOW, named JACK.”

This advertisement for a runaway “NEGROE FELLOW, named JACK,” includes a description of some injuries: “a large scar on left side of his head cut by a hanger, and a scar upon his ear by the same stroke, and several cuts upon his body.” These injuries could have been a reason why Jack was motivated to try to escape. Running away was one form of resistance enslaved men and women attempted. According to James H. Sweet, “Slave resistance began in British North America almost as soon as the first slaves arrived in the Chesapeake in the early seventeenth century.” This advertisement was part of a long history of slave resistance that had been going on ever since slaves arrived in America almost 150 years earlier. Slaves resisted in other ways if masters “increased workloads, provided meager rations, or punished too severely … by slowing work, feigning illness, breaking tools, or sabotaging production.”

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

Jack’s story was not unique. The advertisements in the April 12, 1769, edition of the Georgia Gazette chronicled the attempts of several other enslaved men in their endeavors to escape from bondage. Immediately above the advertisement that described Jack, another announced that a “NEGROE FELLOW, named ABRAM” who “talks good English” had made his escape nearly three weeks earlier. Almost immediately to the left, another advertisement documented the escape of a “NEGROE BOY named ROBIN, well known in Savannah” as well as “SEVEN NEGROE FELLOWS, named QUAMINA, PRINCE, HARRY, SAWNEY, POMPEY, JAMIE this country born, and another of the same name of the Angola country.”

That same issue also included advertisements about enslaved men, women, and children whose attempts to escape had failed. One reported that a “NEGRO FELLOW, and A WENCH, with A CHILD about two months old” had been “TAKEN UP” about twenty miles from Augusta near the end of January. The arrival of the child may have been the primary motivation for Sampson and Molly to flee when they did, departing shortly after Molly gave birth. Two other advertisements described captured runaways who had been “Brought to the Work-house” until slaveholders claimed them, a “NEW NEGRO FELLOW, who calls himself CATO” and Michael, a “TALL STOUT ABLE NEGROE FELLOW … of the Coromantee country.” These prisoners each considered the possible punishments for running away worth the risk of obtaining their freedom if they managed to make it to safety without being captured.

Georgia Gazette (April 12, 1769).

Some of their advertisements were among the most visible items in the Georgia Gazette. The advertisement about Abram, for instance, featured a crude woodcut of an enslaved man on the run. It was one of only four visual images in the entire issue. Two other advertisements for freight and passage had woodcuts of ships; the masthead depicted a lion and unicorn flanking a crown. The woodcut drew attention to the description of Abram, just as the headline “Brought to the Work-house” in gothic type distinguished those advertisements from others. The compositor deployed that font sparingly throughout the rest of the issue, but did so consistently for “Brought to the Work-house” advertisements, not only in the April 12 issue but week after week. These decisions about typography and graphic design significantly increased the visibility of many advertisements about enslaved men and women who attempted to escape, underscoring how disruptive and dangerous colonists considered such acts of resistance.

December 12

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

dec-12-12121766-south-carolina-and-american-general-gazette
South-Carolina and American General Gazette (December 12, 1766).

“RAN AWAY … NERO … many scars about his head.”

Woodcuts frequently accompanied advertisements offering slaves for sale or warning about runaway slaves. As a result, images of Africans and African Americans appeared in newspapers regularly, in contrast to white colonists who were rarely illustrated with visual images. These woodcuts did not depict particular enslaved men, women, or children. Instead, they were stock devices used interchangeably, erasing the individuality of any of the slaves they purported to represent. Significantly, images of black bodies appeared in eighteenth-century newspapers at all because Africans and African Americans were marketed as commodities, just as the multitude of woodcuts depicting ships represented imported goods.

Last week I discovered that I have access to digitized copies of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette, a newspaper not previously incorporated into the Adverts 250 Project. As a result, today I chose to feature an advertisement from that newspaper rather than one either of the other two published 250 years ago today. Both the New-London Gazette and, especially, the New-Hampshire Gazette have contributed a good number of advertisements to this project over the past year. Featuring an advertisement from the South-Carolina and American General Gazette not only increases the number of newspaper included in this project, it also further augments the geographic scope of the project, bringing the number of newspapers printed in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1766 that have since been digitized to three. This rivals Boston with four, New York with three, and Philadelphia with two.

As I perused the December 12, 1766, edition of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette to make my selection for today, I was drawn to this runaway slave advertisement because of the woodcut. This is not the first time that I have examined a woodcut depicting a slave, but this one had an interesting aspect that was not part of similar woodcuts in other newspapers. The torso of the escaped slave was emblazoned with a capital “R,” presumably for “runaway.” The imaginary slave’s body was marked, almost as if it had been branded, while the actual slave – Nero, a sawyer and woodcutter – was also marked with “many scars about his head.” Advertisements for runaway slaves usually included some sort of physical description that allowed readers to scrutinize the black bodies they encountered beyond the pages of the newspaper. Those descriptions often included marks that had been inflicted upon them by masters and overseers. Nero’s scars may have derived from African cultural traditions or they may have been the result of his labors as a sawyer and woodcutter, but it was just as likely that they were indications of punishment and mistreatment. The real Nero was not marked with a capital “R,” but his body may have born other evidence of his enslavement.