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In Search of Primus Fowle

NH Gazette (c)

New Hampshire's first black printer worked his life away at "the nation's oldest newspaper". Although he likely printed the stirring words of the Americn Revolution, Primus Fowle was born and died a slave. What little we know of him shows a fascinating and strong character, well known in his seaport home.



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Recently an online auction bidder paid $504.00 for a single, tattered copy of the New Hampshire Gazette. Dated February 10, 1775, it was likely printed by an enslaved African called Primus, or Prime. Primus was owned by Daniel Fowle, publisher of the first newspaper in colonial New Hampshire. Each week, as the American Revolution against British tyranny played out in the pages of the Gazette, this enslaved man ran the printing press.

Everything we know about Primus comes from accounts written by white males.

NH Gazette Printing PressThe Annals of Portsmouth (1825), the town's first history, was written by Nathaniel Adams. Born in 1756, the year the New Hampshire Gazette first appeared, Adams would certainly have met Primus, and may have been among the boys who were said to have taunted the elderly slave as he walked through the city. Adams refers to Primus as "a negro servant," and says he was "brought from Africa." He states categorically that he was "very illiterate" bur a "good pressman," and that he was "upwards of ninety years old" at his death.

Our best portrait of Primus comes from Portsmouth Journal editor Charles Brewster. His short essay on local slaves , republished in Rambles About Portsmouth (1859), reminds readers that Portsmouth was home to almost 200 slaves just before the Revolution. Brewster was a good, if not always accurate reporter, and fascinated by the oral history of his elders, on whom his accounts relied. He sketches a few "Negroes of distinction" and says "there was nearly as much ebony as topaz gloss on the face of society."

It is from Brewster that we learn that Primus was bent permanently forward at the waist, to an angle of 45 degrees. Historians then and now have suggested that this was due to the repetitive motion of pulling on the handle of Daniel Fowle's printing press, but we have no evidence that the presswork caused his disability, and no evidence of similarly deformed press operators from that era.

And it is to Brewster that we owe the story of a public skirmish between Primus and Daniel during the funeral of Daniel's wife Lydia in 1761. Tradition held that members of the funeral party walk in a strict hierarchy, with the closest relation first. Whites stood to the right, slaves and servants to the left. Primus, the legend says, had other ideas, and stood on the right. Brewster writes:

His master whispered, "Go the other side." Prime did not move. His master touched him and whispered again, "Go the other side." This was too much. The old peppery Negro sputtered out, as loud as he could, "Go tudder side ye sef, ye mean jade."

This lone anecdote seems to have earned Primus his reputation for irascibility. In contrast, Nathaniel Adams described Daniel Fowle as "pacific" and "agreeable."

This funeral story was retold and exaggerated at a newspaperman's convention, and then published around 1870 by Tobias Ham Miller. Miller, a partner of Brewster, said he had heard the tale from an actual witness to the event, but that seems unlikely since Lydia Fowle's funeral occurred more than a century earlier. Brewster, Miller's likely source, was born in 1802, more than a decade after the death of Primus.

Nineteenth century historians were amused by tales of "uppity" slaves, like Portsmouth's Prince Whipple , who reportedly bargained for his freedom in exchange for his service in the Revolutionary War. Daniel Fowle's apparent compliance at his wife's funeral was seen as further evidence that enslaved African Americans in the North were generally better treated than those in the South, a balm for New England sensibilities. Thomas Bailey Aldrich also mentions Primus, "a full-blooded African", in his own Portsmouth history An Old Town by the Sea (1895). Aldrich, who all but paraphrases Brewster's ramble on Portsmouth slaves, sums up the white liberal 19th century viewpoint. "Their bondage," he writes, "happily, was nearly always of a light sort, if any bondage can be light." Brewster and Aldrich and others most admired blacks who most effectively emulated whites.

Steven Fowle , current editor of the New Hampshire Gazette and a collateral descendent of Daniel Fowle, offers a 21st century interpretation of the funeral scene. He suggests that Primus may simply have been overcome with grief due to his attachment to Lydia Fowle, who died so young. (She was just 36, while Primus may have been in his early 60s at her death.) He further speculates that Primus may have been a part of Lydia's dowry. There is no indication that Daniel Fowle owned any slaves before he married Lydia in 1751. Lydia's father, Hugh Hall, was a man of property, and had been a trader in the West Indies, a key market for African slaves. If Primus had been owned by Hugh Hall, he might have known Lydia from her birth.


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