Academic journal article Journalism History

Representation of Slaves in the Eighteenth-Century Virginia Press

Academic journal article Journalism History

Representation of Slaves in the Eighteenth-Century Virginia Press

Article excerpt

The predominant image of colonial Virginia is one filled with the evils of slavery and of black1 people treated as property and less than human. The history of the colony and the state it became is closely intertwined with the involuntary labor of slaves. The verbal imagery within the eighteenth-century press of Virginia prior to the American Revolution generally supports this idea of Africans and African Americans being treated as property rather than as humans deserving of kindness. Newspaper advertisements constantly asked for readers to be on the lookout for runaway slaves, notices to sell slaves were mixed within other ads for household goods and real estate, and short news articles appeared about revolting slaves elsewhere who "committed terrible devastations upon their masters."2

Recently discovered print materials from Virginia of the 1760s belie the concept that the images in the local publications were consistently negative and without sympathy toward slaves. This research uncovers two examples of slaves being considered as people worthy of considerate treatment, in contrast to the typical images. These two writers expressed surprisingly liberal sentiments for this early date and place.

This researcher discovered four pages of an almanac until now not known to have been in existence, buried within the archives of the Library Company of Philadelphia. While historians often ignore almanacs (their contents considered too trivial to be meaningful), one verse about a slave in this almanac fragment has a wealth of significance for readers willing to examine it closely. An unknown author, referred to as a "young Lady of Edinburgh," wrote the verse portraying a slave as a person deserving of sympathetic and kind treatment.3 These lines of poetry, published in the slave-holding colony of Virginia in 1767, suggest empathy toward a slave as a person, rather than the more typical piece of property.

A newly discovered issue of the Virginia Gazette from 1764 also presents an alternative attitude towards slavery. In the Rockefeller Library archives at Colonial Williamsburg, this newspaper- not known to be extant until recently-contains an extremely revealing and intriguing article. This anonymous allegorical essay, "A dialogue between a Gentleman and his Dog" was written ostensibly by a dog named "Othello" complaining to his master about the treatment of his kind. It offers an important and critical outlook on the treatment of slaves in this slave-holding colony.4

While not opposing slavery per se, when placed in the context of the time and place, these two published writings add an important perspective to our knowledge of attitudes towards slaves at this time and place. They not only display sympathy for those generally considered less than human a decade earlier than most such writings, but they were published in a slave-holding colony where the press was tightly controlled, giving more weight to their appearance at this time and place.

The colony of Virginia was settled in 1607 by the English, who were looking for financial gain rather than for the religious freedom that motivated the New England Puritans. The new residents were primarily beggars and underemployed Englishmen led by a few gentlemen adventurers.' Life was extremely hard, half the colonists died each year, and labor was always in short supply/' While Africans were imported to Virginia as early as 1619, indentured servants imported from England made up most of the labor force until the late 1600s, when the importation of Africans enslaved for life became more common.' The commercial revolution in Europe and its colonies brought about ruthless exploitation of commodities, including labor and slavery. Lands in the new world needed labor to clear and farm them, and the native Indians and whites proved to be an unsatisfactory solution. Slaves imported from Africa proved to be more controllable and cheaper in the long run. They were commodities. …

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