Monday, March 26, 2007

Abolishing Slavery In Canada

Stephen Harper's statement on the 200th Anniversary of the British Abolition of Slavery. Once again engaging in historical revisionism.

On this day we should also recall the important role that Canadians played in the struggle against slavery, most notably the leadership of Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe who persuaded the Legislature of Upper Canada to adopt the first meaningful restrictions on slavery within the British Empire in 1793; and those who made Canada the North Star of the Underground Railroad for thousands of escaped slaves.

Slaves were freed in Quebec, 1736, these included blacks, Irish, French and native slaves as well as indentured servants. Slaves in British/Tory controlled Canada were not freed until 1799.

In fact despite the degree of 1793, the Black Loyalists in Nova Scotia who had been promised freedom by the British found the conditions so bad that many had already left for Sierra Leone in 1792, see below.

While slavery was in effect abolished its function was replaced with indentured servitude for debt.


JSTOR: The Slave in Upper Canada 1

JSTOR: The Slave in Upper Canada 2

Who were the Black Loyalists?

The Black Loyalists arrived in Nova Scotia between 1783 and 1785, as a result of the American Revolution. They were the largest group of people of African birth and of African descent to come to Nova Scotia at any one time.

 Miltary Buttons

Regimental buttons
for military uniforms
Photo by Richard Plander,
Learning Resources &
Nova Scotia Museum.

In 1775, some people in the British North American colonies were arguing with the British government about how much control Great Britain should have over taxes and life in the colonies. The colonists wanted to influence decisions about laws and taxes but had no representation in the British Parliament. They declared themselves independent of Britain when they weren't able to come to an agreement. The American Revolution, also called the American War of Independence, was the result.

People of African birth, who were brought forcibly to the colonies to provide slave labour, and their descendants, were caught in this war. In the late 1600s and 1700s, the British had established rice, indigo, and tobacco plantations in the southern part of North America. Plantation owners required lots of labourers to do field work and other jobs. To reduce costs, they used slaves. At first they enslaved the native Indians but then used mostly African slaves.

In the northern colonies, slaves worked as farm hands or at various jobs as domestic workers or at semi-specialized trades, such as lumbering, mining, road-making, black smithing, shoemaking, weaving and spinning.

When Lord Dunmore, Royal Governor of Virginia, lost control of that colony to the rebels in the summer of 1775, the economy of Virginia was based on slave labor. Lord Dunmore issued a proclamation that any slave or indentured person would be given their freedom if they took up arms with the British against the rebels. As a result, 2,000 slaves and indentured persons joined his forces. Later, other British supporters in the colonies issued similar proclamations.

Then the British Commander-in-chief at New York, Sir Henry Clinton, issued the Philipsburg proclamation when the British realized they were losing the war. It stated that any Negro to desert the rebel cause would receive full protection, freedom, and land. It is estimated that many thousands of people of African descent joined the British and became British supporters.

When the Americans won the war and the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783, British forces and their supporters had to leave the new United States. They gathered at New York, waiting to be evacuated. In the meantime, the Americans wanted their lost property returned. Sir Guy Carleton, the new British Commander- in-chief, refused General George Washington's demand for the return of those slaves who had joined the British before November 30, 1782. The two men agreed that the Americans would receive money instead.

 Certificate of Freedom

Certificate of freedom, 1783
Nova Scotia Archives and
Records Management.

The British-American Commission identified the Black people in New York who had joined the British before the surrender, and issued "certificates of freedom" signed by General Birch or General Musgrave. Those who chose to emigrate were evacuated by ship. To make sure no one attempted to leave who did not have a certificate of freedom, the name of any Black person on board a vessel, whether slave, indentured servant, or free, was recorded, along with the details of enslavement, escape, and military service, in a document called the Book of Negroes.

Between April and November, 1783, 114 ships were inspected in New York harbour. An unknown number of ships left New York and other ports before and after these dates. Over 3,000 Black Loyalists were enrolled in the Book of Negroes, but perhaps as many as 5,000 Black people left New York for Nova Scotia, the West Indies, Quebec, England, Germany, and Belgium.

A Difficult Life for Black Loyalists

Most Black Loyalists couldn't make a living from farming because either they had no land, or their land was unsuitable for growing crops. Black Loyalists with skills as blacksmiths, bakers, shoemakers, carpenters, teachers, ministers, coopers, boatbuilders, laundresses, seamstresses, tailors, military persons, midwives, domestics, cooks, waiters, sailors, a doctor, pilots of boats, and navigators were in a better position to make some kind of a living.

But Black workers were not paid as much as White workers. In July 1784, a group of disbanded White soldiers destroyed 20 houses of free Black Loyalists in Shelburne in what was Canada's first race riot, because the Black Loyalists who worked for a cheaper rate took work away from the White settlers.

Many of those who did not have a trade had to indenture themselves or their children to survive. Indentured Black Loyalists were treated no better than enslaved persons. Slavery was still legal and enforced in Nova Scotia at this time. People could still be bought and sold until 1834, when slavery was abolished in the British Empire. One of the biggest fears of Black Loyalists was to be kidnapped and sold in the United States or the West Indies by slave traders, who sometimes sailed along the coast of Nova Scotia. At the same time, since Nova Scotia did not have a climate to support the plantation system, many White Loyalists abandoned their slaves because they could not afford to feed them.

y 1791, Black Loyalists realized that the dream of a Promised Land, with freedom and security for their families, was not being fulfilled. Some of the Black Loyalists of Brindley Town, outside Digby, met and decided to send a representative to England with a petition asking the British government for the land they had been promised. While in England, their representative, Thomas Peters, a member of the Black Pioneers corps, was approached by a business group that had established a colony in Sierra Leone, West Africa. Peters was told that the Black Loyalists would receive free land if they were to settle there. He returned to Nova Scotia with Lieutenant John Clarkson of the Royal Navy, to convince Black Loyalists to leave Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

On January 15,1792, 1196 Black Loyalists, including the notable leaders David George, Boston King, and Moses Wilkinson, left Halifax in fifteen ships, for Sierra Leone. This was slightly less than one third of the number of Black Loyalists who had arrived in Nova Scotia in 1783. It seems that neither John Clarkson nor Thomas Peters recruited in northeastern Nova Scotia, so none of the Black Loyalists from Tracadie went to Sierra Leone.


The Truth Shall Set Ye Free


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geo said...

Thank you for this.

I was born in Dartmouth, NS and I remember one of my best friends was a little black girl. Very possibly her ancestory was a similar story.

I moved to BC when I was 6 and I was shocked that everyone was white. I missed her so much, she was so pretty. Pretty shallow at 6:)

Every now and then I wonder about her and how she is doing. It's almost 50 years later and I hope the years have been good to her.

Thanks for the fascinating read.

eugene plawiuk said...

Your welcome