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In Search of Primus Fowle

New Hampshire's first black printer
earned praise, but suffered injustice

SEE: Black History Section Daniel Fowle's Printing Press 

Last week 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.

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 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.

Daniel Fowle's print shop


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.

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.

Black Heritage Trail marker


 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.

See the Latest: NEW HAMPSHIRE GAZETTE

Primus Epitaph

 

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