Tuesday, September 28, 2010

An Enslaved Sailor in Spotted Swanskin (Pennsylvania Gazette, 3-7-1771)

Sam was "a bright Mulattoe man slave" who ran away from the sloop Tyrall in December of 1770. Stafford Lightburn, Junior, advertised for him in March of the following year on behalf of Charles Yates of Fredericksburg, probably Sam's master.

"He was bred to the plantation and farming business, and sometimes employed as an axe man and sawyer, in shipbuilding, has only been about six months by water, so that he cannot be supposed a compleat sailor."

The advertisement for Sam represents the dehumanization common in depictions of enslaved individuals in this period. For Lightburn and Yates, Sam had been "bred" for manual labor and probably was rented out to the master of the Tyrall. Petty theft had prompted his abscondment from the sloop when he took "some mixed coloured broadcloth" and a "a new spotted rug" (a coarse shag cloth with spots likely used as a bed covering).

Sam's clothing was "such as is worn by seamen; and were imported from England ready made." By the 1770s, English manufacturers were shipping thousands of ready-made garments to America for distribution in the slave economies and among working people. Sailors often wore ready-made "slop" clothing procured onboard ship or from shops along the wharves in major colonial ports. In the 1770s, Sam's ready-made sailor clothes would have included trousers or perhaps a pair of breeches with "petticoat breeches" (a baggy garment worn to protect breeches), a checked shirt, and a short jacket. This jacket was the only garment which Lightburn thought notable enough to describe in detail, as an "underjacket of spotted swanskin, the sleeves of which are much too short for his long arms." Swanskin, in this period, referred to a fleecy cotton or woolen textile akin to flannel. Otherwise, we are led to believe, Sam's attire was indistinguishable from innumerable other seamen in Virginia. He may not have been considered a "compleat sailor," but Sam certainly dressed like one.


  1. It seems apparent that finding reports of runaway people before 1770 is not easy. A pitty because earlier clothing styles can be worn later, but later styles can not be worn earlier.

  2. It is another symbol of Indian power dressing. Although the uses of Jodhpur breeches are many, it is the main riding apparel as well as the main item of Equestrian clothing, hunting clothing