"'Said Negro has been guilty of theft and many misdemeanors': Fugitive Slave Advertisements as Imperial Infrastructure in late Eighteenth- and early Nineteenth-Century Canada and Jamaica"
Charmaine A. Nelson, William Lyon Mackenzie King Visiting Professor of Canadian Studies, Canada Program. Professor of Art History, Department of Art History and Communication Studies, McGill University, Montreal, Canada.
Panagiotis Roilos, Faculty Associate. George Seferis Professor of Modern Greek Studies, Department of the Classics; Professor of Comparative Literature, Department of Comparative Literature, Harvard University.
Found throughout the Transatlantic World, fugitive slave advertisements demonstrate the ubiquity of African resistance to slavery. Produced by white slave owners seeking to recapture their runaways, standardized icons of enslaved males and females became a staple of such print advertisements. However, the more complex textual descriptions were also fundamentally visual and arguably comprise an archive of unauthorized “portraits” that have sadly come to stand as “the most detailed descriptions of the bodies of enslaved African Americans available.” (Graham White and Shane White, 1995, p. 49). Besides noting things like names, speech, accents, language, and skills, fugitive notices frequently recounted the dress (hairstyles, adornment, clothing etc.), branding, scarification, mannerisms, physical habits, and even the gestures and expressions of runaways. Recalling fugitive slave advertisements as a form of visual culture, this paper positions them as one part of the colonial infrastructure and network (including slave owners, printers, and jailers) that sustained the racialized distinction between free and unfree populations. This paper shall also highlight the ways in which the advertisements inadvertently disclosed the ingenuity, persistence, bravery, and intelligence of the enslaved and the brutality and callousness of the enslavers; an unintended consequence which in time would be taken up by abolitionists and used against the slave owning classes.