Joe the Pressman: How an African-born Man Refused a Life of Slavery

Joe the Pressman: How an African-born Man Refused a Life of Slavery

by Charmaine Nelson
  • biography
  • history-politics-current-affairs
  • literary

Joe the Pressman tells the unknown story of an exceptional man, who was kidnapped from Africa as a boy, and brought to Quebec City.

William Brown, the owner of the newspaper there, needed slave labour for his shop, and turned for a solution to his friend and mentor, William Dunlap, the postmaster general of Philadelphia. Brown requested an American-born “Negro boy,” but the African-born Joe soon arrived. A prisoner in Brown’s print shop, Joe worked on the newspaper, which required his fluency in both French and English, unlike most slaves for whom literacy was illegal. Joe would exploit this knowledge and the information he gained in the print shop to plan his many escapes.

Surrounded by Indigenous and black American-born slaves, in Quebec City Joe was isolated from home, kin, culture, and language. Joe’s memory of Africa, his family, and of freedom fueled his multiple escapes over a period of fifteen years, making him one of the most resistant enslaved people ever documented in the Americas.

Charmaine Nelson weaves together Joe’s remarkable story, following Joe from the shores of Africa, across the Atlantic, to pre-Revolutionary America and on to Canada. Nelson expands our knowledge of the northern sites of slavery, a neglected terrain that, upon examination, reveals the deep connections among various regions in British North America that facilitated the slave trade.

Joe’s story reveals his growth from a frightened child into a man of great skill, intelligence, fortitude, and bravery.


Charmaine Nelson, author

Dr. Charmaine A. Nelson is a Professor of Art History, and an accomplished scholar, writer, and public intellectual. She received her PhD in Art History from the University of Manchester (UK) in 2001, and has taught at McGill University since 2003. Nelson’s research and teaching interests include postcolonial and black feminist scholarship, Transatlantic Slavery Studies, and Black Diaspora Studies. Her scholarship examines Canadian, American, European, and Caribbean histories, art, and visual culture, mainly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Her book, Joe the Pressman: How an African-born Man Refused a Life of Slavery is her first for a trade audience. She lives in Montreal.

Rights Holder

Rights Holder: Transatlantic Agency



rights available: World

Additional Information

age range: Adult

number of pages: 0

publication date: 09/30/2021

Original language of pub: English

Materials Available: proposal