Roundtable: Cash’s Bundle: Fugitive Slave Advertisements, Clothing, and Self-Care

This Colonial Couture post is by guest contributor Charmaine A. Nelson, professor of art history at McGill University. Her latest book is Slavery, Geography and Empire in Nineteenth-Century Marine Landscapes of Montreal and Jamaica.

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It is a remarkable fact that everywhere that Africans were enslaved in the transatlantic world, they resisted in a myriad of ways. While scholars have frequently examined the more spectacular and violent forms of resistance (like slave revolts and rebellions), a far quieter type of resistance was ubiquitous across the Americas, running away. Where printing presses took hold, broadsheets and newspapers soon followed, crammed with all manner of colonial news. Colonial print culture and slavery were arguably fundamentally linked. More specifically, as Marcus Wood has argued, “The significance of advertising for the print culture of America in the first half of the nineteenth century is difficult to overestimate.”[1]

One staple of colonial newspapers was the runaway or fugitive slave advertisement. Often published by the slave owner and sometimes by a sheriff or jailer, such notices sought to criminalize the enslaved for what Wood has called an act of “self-theft.” [2] Such advertisements are what Shane White and Graham White have referred to as, “the most detailed descriptions of the bodies of enslaved Africans Americans available.”[3] I would argue that their contention also applies in general to all of the regions of the Americas that practiced transatlantic slavery, particularly places where abolition predated the development of photography.[4]

While such advertisements came to include gendered icons (generally of a lone male or female), the bulk of the advertisements were comprised of text. As David Waldstreicher has noted, such advertisements were generally premised on four categories, “clothing, trades or skills, linguistic ability or usage, and ethnic or racial identity,” categories, the manipulation of which, could alter the perception of one’s class and race.[5] Indeed, the appearance of the fugitive’s body both biological (skin color, hairstyle and texture, height, build) and how the fugitive adorned themselves (the color, material, type and style of clothing and footwear, wigs, scarification) were paramount. As such, I would argue that the text, too, was abundantly and deliberately visual; its aim to turn the reader into a viewer and a co-conspirator who would capture the fugitive, often for a reward.

One area over which the enslaved sometimes retained a modicum of control was their clothing. The use of rations of cheap oznaburgh fabric for slave clothing in tropical regions like Jamaica at times circumscribed the enslaved population’s ability to distinguish themselves through their dress. However, in the slave minority areas of British North America (later Canada) where slave owners’ customarily bestowed their hand-me-down clothing upon the enslaved, some interesting and even dramatic variations occurred. A case in point is Cash, an enslaved black woman who fled from the white male Quebec City tailor, Hugh Ritchie, with a large and socially significant bundle of clothing. When the twenty-six-year-old Cash ran away, she did so with,

“a large bundle of wearing apparel belonging to herself, consisting of a black sattin Cloak, Caps, Bonnets, Ruffles, Ribbons, six or seven Petticoats, a pair of old Stays, and many other articles of values which cannot be ascertained, it is likely she may change her dress.”[6] (italics mine)

There are several things worth noting. The first is that, as Waldstreicher argues, in a world in which for poor people, “describing the clothes was a good as describing the man or woman,”[7] Ritchie (as many slave owners) had surmised that fugitives regularly sought to quickly change their clothing to render themselves less recognizable.

Second, whereas many slave owners used fugitive slave advertisements to vilify the enslaved often by accusing them of all manner of theft, Ritchie conceded that some of Cash’s clothing was her own. But lastly and perhaps most compelling was the nature of much of the clothing which Cash owned. “Ruffles, Ribbons, and Petticoats” did not comprise the normal attire of an enslaved woman.

Indeed, Cash’s possession of this middle or upper class dress should draw our attention to her likely role as the producer of such clothing, as well as the awareness amongst the enslaved of the use of upper class dress to transform their appearance, allowing them to “pass” as free blacks. It is likely that Cash used her seamstress skills to make beautiful things for herself, at the same time that Ritchie was actively stealing her labour.

I would argue that the enslaved African’s investment in self-adornment and self-beautification in the midst of the cultural prohibitions, material deprivation, violence, and prolific surveillance of slavery, was an act of self-care and a means of retaining African cultures or developing African-American (meaning continental) ones. Therefore, the significance of Cash’s bundle of clothes is not to be underestimated.

______________

[1] Marcus Wood, “Rhetoric and the Runaway: The Iconography of Slave Escape in England and America,” in Blind Memory: Visual Representations of Slavery in England and America, 1780-1865 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), 89. Wood notes, citing Hornung and Johnson, that the first thirty years of printing history in the nineteenth century has been designated the “Classified Ad Period”(89). Hornung and Johnson, American Graphic Satire, 36.

[2] Wood, “Rhetoric and the Runaway,” 79.

[3] Graham White and Shane White, “Slave Hair and African American Culture in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries,” Journal of Southern History 61, no. 1 (February 1995): 49.

[4] Two places where the fugitive slave archive may pale in comparison to photographic archives of slaves are Cuba and Brazil where slavery was not abolished until 1886 and 1888 respectively. Laird W. Bergad, The Comparative Histories of Slavery in Brazil, Cuba, and the United States (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), xiii. For more on photography of the enslaved in Brazil see: Margrit Prussat, “Icons of Slavery: Black Brazil in Nineteenth-Century Photography and Image Art,” Living History: Encountering the Memory of the Heirs of Slavery, ed. Ana Lucia Araujo (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009)

[5] David Waldstreicher, “Reading the Runaways: Self-Fashioning, Print Culture, and Confidence in Slavery in the 18th c. Mid-Atlantic,” The William and Mary Quarterly 56, no. 2 (April 1999): 249.

[6] Hugh Ritchie, “RAN-AWAY, From the Subscriber,” Quebec Gazette, 4 November 1779; reproduced in Mackey, “Appendix I: Newspaper Notices,” 323, 536n34.

[7] Waldstreicher, “Reading the Runaways,” 252.

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6 comments on “Roundtable: Cash’s Bundle: Fugitive Slave Advertisements, Clothing, and Self-Care

  1. […] Fugitive Slave Advertisements, Clothing, and Self-Care […]

  2. […] Roundtable: Cash’s Bundle: Fugitive Slave Advertisements, Clothing, and Self-Care […]

  3. […] How enslaved Africans used personal adornments as resistance […]

  4. Barbara Nelson says:

    EXCELLENT AS USUAL !!

  5. Readers may be interested a workshop highlighting classroom use of fugitive slave advertisements. “Many Thousands Gone: Using Primary Sources to Teach about Slavery in the Hudson Valley,” will be held at the Home of FDR & Presidential Library, Hyde Park, NY, Sat., March 25. It features Susan Stessin-Cohn, co-author of “In Defiance: Runaways from Slavery in New York’s Hudson River Valley, 1735-1831.” Details: http://www.teachingthehudsonvalley.org/many-thousands-march-2017/.

  6. […] A. Nelson recently discussed the use of clothing in runaway slave advertisements. The amount of control slaves had over their appearance varied, and while David may not have had […]

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