Canadian Museum of History–Virtual Museum of New France–labouring under the eye of the overseer, end of the eighteenth century
Years ago I visited The Hermitage, located just east of Nashville, Tennessee. Established in 1804, this historic plantation was the “Home of President Andrew Jackson,” and also to over 200 enslaved men, women, and children.
The property also included a kitchen, smokehouse, and three log slave cabins that date to Jackson’s occupation of the property from 1804 to his death in 1845. Some slaves lived in yard cabins, as close as ninety feet away from the main house. I personally spent more time in one of the slave cabins than the main house and could not imagine what it was like to live a life basically in shackles. Reduced to poverty, denied their humanity and individuality as a person– surely, this only happened in the United States I thought. Wasn’t Canada one of the ‘good guys” known for the Underground Railroad that the oppressed found freedom in Canada between 1840 and 1860?
No Canadian legislature actually abolished slavery. As with all British Imperial society, the institution of slavery came part and parcel with colonialism —Toronto Standard
For anyone that would think we were nothing but innocent in Canada you would be wrong. Slavery existed in Canada for years, yet only 30 years before Canadian Confederation was it made illegal. Slaves were imported from other British colonies, and the migrations to Canada of the United Empire Loyalists were responsible to a great extent for the existence of slavery in Canada.
The first recorded slave brought to Canada was in 1629 when a negro slave was brought to Quebec. In 1784 there were 88 negro slaves in Quebec City alone and even the local clergy owned slaves. The memoirs of the founder of the Anglican Church of Canada, Rev. John Stuart D. D. revealed that he was a slave owner for some time after he settled in Kingston, Upper Canada in 1784. His Negros were his personal property he wrote and that was that. Surely he had to be breaking some commandments somewhere I thought. Slaves were sold in Lower Canada in 1783 and 1788, and strong healthy men were advertised and sold at a value of $50 each.
After the American Revolution the Loyalists brought their slaves with their other ‘chattels’ and were allowed to keep them as their slaves in Canada, no questions asked. Unlike racist laws that were found in the United States, Canada had largely unwritten racist codes, which many could argue made it more difficult for black people in Canada.
I wondered how Canadian slaves were treated, but documented proof in a Toronto newspaper made me understand all was not well here also. No one was innocent, from farmers to heads of government and in 1806 Peter Russell, who had been the administrator of the government of Ontario, placed the advertisement below:
“To be sold a black woman named Peggy and her son named Jupiter about 15 years-old-both of them property of the subscriber. The woman is a tolerable cook, washerwoman and understands making soap and candles. The boy is tall and strong for his age and has been employed in the country business, and brought up principally as a house servant.
They are each of them servants for life and the price of the woman is $150 and for the boy $200 payable in three years with interest from the day of sale and to be secured by bond. But one-fourth less will be taken for ready money.”– York, February 19 1806.
The York Gazette December 20, 1800.
Another advertisement said:
“To be sold a healthy negro woman about 30 years of age. Understands cooking, laundry and taking care of poultry. She can also dress ladies hair.”
On March 1, 1811, William Jarvis, the secretary of the province, applied to the Ontario courts for the reimprisonment of a Negro boy and girl who had escaped. Were they criminals? Of course not–they were his slaves.
The last slave sold publicly in Canada was in 1797 and Young Emmanuel Allan was sold in Montreal in 1797 for 36 pounds. Finally in 1793 in the first Parliament of Upper Canada under the directorship of John Graves Simcoe (Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada) introduced an act to stop this atrocity. Finally, someone had the decency to end slavery-but it was only aimed at the gradual abolition of slavery. It had to be gradual, history documented, because they had to preserve the rights of private property.
Historians believe there was an estimated 4,000 slaves who were forcibly brought to Canada, either directly as property, or shipped through the trans-Atlantic slave trade from other British colonies. But, it was hard to document, and when you read there was 100s of slaves alone in St. Armand, Quebec (see related reading) you have to wonder how correct these figures really are.
Canadian Museum of History–Announcement of sale of slaves appeared in the Quebec Gazette May 10, 1785
Finally, no new slaves could be brought into Canada and children born of slaves would be freed after their 25th birthday. Seeing the life expectancy of a slave was 36, how fair was that.
In reality, there was no complete freeing of slaves in the province of Ontario until 1834, as some of the leading prominent families were still slave owners and did not want to give up their labour force. Sir John A. Macdonald is best known to Canadians as the country’s first prime minister and a father of Confederation also had a family connection to the slave trade and now a new database shows just how much his father-in-law received in compensation from the British government in return for freeing roughly 100 slaves in 1833.
Many went out of their way to make sure that their black fellow citizens didn’t have an easy go of it after they were freed. Peter Gallego wrote that on a tour of the province of Ontario after he was freed he had been assaulted in taverns and steamships, denied passage on stagecoaches, forced to vacate inns and, finally, had been imprisoned and fined. He was also beaten by a crowd of white individuals when the judge presumed that they had somehow been provoked by the presence of a black individual.
We brag about the War of 1812, Laura Secord, Champlain, Cornwallis, and Louisbourg, and a million other things that existed before 1867, but Colonial Canadians owned slaves and it was part of Canadian culture. A more extensive system of slavery in the U.S. does not give us license to dismiss its presence and impact here. I would love to see lists of descendants of slaves brought by Canadian Empire Loyalists written up as also the founders of Canada in all Canadian history books and not as outlanders. Canadian slavery has long been a neglected area of our historical background and nature made no one a slave.
We have seen the mere distinction of colour made in the most enlightened period of time, a ground of the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man.
JAMES MADISON, speech at the Constitutional Convention, June 6, 1787
Chloe Cooley and the Act to Limit Slavery in Upper Canada
Although little is known about Chloe Cooley, an enslaved woman in Upper Canada, her struggles against her “owner,” Sergeant Adam Vrooman, precipitated the Act to Limit Slavery in Upper Canada, 1793 — the first legislation in the British colonies to restrict the slave trade.
The Book of Negroes more than 3,000 slaves and freed black people were secured safe passage and their freedom to Nova Scotia, Canada. These African-American British Loyalists became the first settlement of Black Canadians.
Information where you can buy all Linda Seccaspina’s books-You can also read Linda in The Townships Sun andScreamin’ Mamas (USA)
Come and visit the Lanark County Genealogical Society Facebook page– what’s there? Cool old photos–and lots of things interesting to read. Also check out The Tales of Carleton Place.