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In Search of Primus Fowle


Primus Fowle (continued)

 

NH Gazette Office

Nathaniel Adams notes that Daniel and Lydia arrived in Portsmouth in 1756 with one male and two female slaves. Lydia, we know from Daniel Fowle's writing, was not in the best of health. The trip north, and separation from her friends and family, may have been difficult for Lydia, and for Primus, and might help explain his "peppery" attitude toward his master, when Lydia died just five years later.

The move north was prompted by an incident Daniel found rather traumatic. In October of 1754 he was taken from his dinner table in Boston, interrogated by members of the Massachusetts legislature, and put into prison, "on mere suspicion" of publishing a scathingly satirical pamphlet entitled, The Monster of Monsters.

Daniel spent five days in jail, and might have stayed longer, but the authorities were having second thoughts and Lydia was deathly ill. Daniel later publishing a spirited pamphlet about the incident, entitled A Total Eclipse of Liberty.

"Primus appears for the first time that we know of in A Total Eclipse," Steve Fowle says today. "Daniel tells the legislators that his brother Zechariah printed The Monster of Monsters, not him. But he admits that he loaned Zechariah his 'negro.'"

Daniel Fowle died childless in 1787, leaving his entire estate to his former apprentice and adopted son John Melcher. A detailed list of Fowle's estate survives. It includes several trunks of old newspapers, "the wearing apparel of the deceased (much worn)," and "a basket with a Christening blanket & sundry matters in the womens way," but no mention of Primus. Melcher was "encumbered" with the care of the elderly Primus. He thus became the caretaker of a slave who may have helped him learn the printing trade.

Primus, though robbed of his birthplace, his culture, his freedom and his name, seems to have become a minor celebrity on Paved Street in his elder years. Tobias Ham Miller describes him "sitting on the door-steps" as boys "[offered] him a copper to stand up straight, and he would always make the trial, with many grimaces, but of course he could not succeed."

No record of Primus' birth or enslavement has yet been found, but his death is especially well documented. An obituary appears in the May 19th, 1791 issue of the New Hampshire Gazette. It reads:

"In this town, Primus, a Negro, late the property of Daniel Fowle, Esquire, deceased - his funeral will be tomorrow at six o'clock, P.M. from the dwelling house of the printer hereof, where his acquaintances may attend and pay the funeral obsequies."

Such recognition for an 18th century African American was rare, if not unique.

An extraordinary twenty-line poem printed a week after his death serves as Primus' epitaph. It demonstrates, as closely as the times allowed, the respect of a white community for a distinctive and skilled man of a different race. The tone is warm, yet patronizing, and tinged with just a hint of guilt. It mentions the jibes of the local youth and alludes to Prime’s affection for liquor.

Steve Fowle & Valerie Cunningham

Daniel Fowle's original print shop just off Pleasant Street is gone. A plaque in his honor nearby is faded and almost unreadable. But the site is now part of the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail , and a prominent brass plaque, installed in January, honors the slave who printed New Hampshire's first newspaper, week after week, year after year, as the American Revolution loomed.

The graves of Daniel, Lydia and Primus Fowle are unknown. Blacks were reportedly laid to rest in the town's "Negro Burying Ground" during the 18th century. Historians believe that the cemetery was closed between 1790 and 1800, to make way for the growing city's streets. Its exact location was lost, until workers rebuilding a sewer main discovered a coffin beneath Chestnut Street last October , just about where Charles Brewser had said the burying grounds used to be. Before the digging was halted, archaeologists located a dozen more graves.

If this is the lost "Negro Burying Ground," an unknown number of coffins may still lie just below the street. Eight coffins are currently undergoing forensic analysis. Archaeologists are cautious. Analysis of bones, if bones survive, may not reveal a lot about the lives or identities of the dead. It may be possible, they say, to determine the age, the sex, and possibly the race of the exhumed remains. But bones, they add, can sometimes reveal significant physical deformities. If the remains of a 90-year old black man, bent sharply at the waist, are among those recovered, then Primus might be found. If not, the search goes on.


 

By J. Dennis Robinson. Copyright © 2004 SeacoastNH.com. All rights reserved by the author.

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