Primus Fowle Ran First NH Press
Written by J. Dennis Robinson
Page 1 of 3
A few years ago an online auction bidder paid $504.00 for a single, tattered copy of the New Hampshire Gazette. Dated February 10, 1775, the paper was certainly printed by an enslaved African called Primus, or Prime – a man who never tasted freedom. (Continued below)
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.
The little we know about Primus comes from accounts written by white males. The 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 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 enslaved Africans just before the Revolution. Brewster was a sincere, if not always accurate reporter who relied heavily on oral histories of his all-white elders. He wrote about a few “Negroes of distinction” and says “there was nearly as much ebony as topaz gloss on the face of society.”
Primus stands up
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 walked 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. According to Brewster:
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 among whites for irascibility. In contrast, Nathaniel Adams described publisher Daniel Fowle as “pacific” and “agreeable.” History suggest otherwise.
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, but it was slavery all the same.
Writer Thomas Bailey Aldrich, who fully accepted the concept of American slavery, mentioned Primus, “a full-blooded African”, in his own Portsmouth history An Old Town by the Sea (1895). Aldrich, who largely paraphrased Brewster's ramble on Portsmouth slaves, sums up the white 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 emulated whites and abandoned their African traditions.
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