This Lent, Think of Primus

The Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire, which has earned a reputation for relative enlightenment, decided that each day in Lent this year, beginning Feb. 14th, Ash Wednesday, they would offer a short reading to promote reflection on a person in the African American community who has shaped New Hampshire’s history. Their hope is that those reflections will help the congregation to use Lent as a time to broaden their knowledge, to say prayers in a way that assists in repentence and fosters appreciation of the contributions of those named.

The Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire invited us to write about Primus. Being deeply in his debt, we were honored to oblige with the following item, scheduled for the 9th day of Lent, February 22nd:

According to the laws and customs of his place and time, Primus was, in a very literal sense, a man of no account. As a black African in 18th century New England, he could be, and he was, considered to be mere property in the eyes of the law.

Thousands of others who suffered that intolerable condition lived and died in utter obscurity. Not Primus.

For thirty years or more he was made to pull the lever of a wooden common press, forcing blank paper to accept black-inked type, in the process printers call making an impression. That work made an impression on him; it bent his back so, he could not stand upright.

But, though he was dealt a life of drudgery, and though he died centuries ago, still, something of Primus lives on today. The world did its best to crush him, but he left his impression on the world.

Primus first appears in 1730, his purchase noted in the account book of Hugh Hall. Before, and for two decades after, his life is a mystery. When Hall’s daughter Lydia married the printer Daniel Fowle, Primus was, apparently, Lydia’s dowry.

A few years after the marriage, Daniel and the Massachusetts legislature fell into acrimonious disagreement over “The Monster of Monsters,” a scurrilous satirical pamphlet. Under interrogation, Daniel admitted that Primus—“my Negro”—may have been involved in the printing of “the Monster.”

We know this story because Daniel published a pamphlet about being locked up in Boston’s “stone gaol.” Its tone was indignant rather than jocular, but there’s irony in its title: a slave-owning man complaining about “A Total Eclipse of Liberty.”

Daniel, Lydia, and Primus soon moved to Portsmouth, where Daniel established the province’s first print shop. Lydia died at 36, in 1761. It was at her funeral that we begin to see Primus as more than a cipher.

According to Portsmouth printer Charles Brewster’s Rambles About Portsmouth, Primus “mourned the loss of his mistress, and called her an old fool for dying.”

Tobias Ham Miller, yet another printer, gives a fuller account: Primus “inadvertently got on the right hand [of the funeral procession], which in this case, was evidently the wrong side.” Through nods and gestures, Daniel tried to get Primus to exchange places.

“At last [Daniel] whispered, ‘Go to the other side,’ expecting to be promptly obeyed in so slight and reasonable a request; but, to his surprise and that of the bystanders, Primus screamed out, ‘Go tudder side ye’se’f, ye mean jade.’ The master of course complied, and the procession moved off.”

Primus didn’t even own his own body, but he knew who he was—and so did those around him. On his death in 1791, he achieved a unique distinction for an enslaved black man: he was eulogized in the very paper over whose pages he had once labored.

He may even have left undiscovered surprises, waiting for us yet. In 2015, a Dartmouth librarian, inspecting a broadsheet printed in Daniel’s shop, discovered, written in a faded but elegant hand, the words, “Prime Fowle a man of handsome color 1760.”

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