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By Dr. Afua Cooper
The seven collections featured in Under a Northern Star speak to critical themes in African-Canadian history and are connected to each other in more ways than seemed possible at first glance. What is brilliant about these collections is that each one speaks to the historical experience of African Canadians in different parts of the country at different time periods. Moreover, each one tells a story of the important contributions Blacks made to Canada as pioneers, enslaved persons, explorers, citizens and settlers. Of great import is that these collections lay to rest the myth of Black people just "came off the boat," but reveal that they were a part of what became known as Canada from its very inception. The collections reveal the multi-layered history of Black Canadians, and explore, in depth, Black people's vast achievements and their contributions to Canadian society.
These documents have now been digitized—and what a good fortune that is! As an African Canadian, and an 18th- and 19th-century history specialist living in Toronto, I have many times had to make the trek to Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa, and to research centres elsewhere, to access documents that pertain to my research. This costs time and money, and sometimes my well-being. What benefits I would have gained if these documents had been available in digital online formats. Imagine if I had been able to read Voice of the Fugitive online instead of travelling hundreds of kilometres to do so. Numerous Canadian and international researchers of the Black experience will also undoubtedly be grateful that these collections will be made available to them, without the need to leave the comfort of their homes or offices. I attended a conference in Halifax on the 200th anniversary of the end of the British slave trade. Also at the conference were scholars from the United States and Europe who do work on the Black Loyalists, and on the migration of Blacks to and from Canada during the 18th and 19th centuries. The Black Loyalist muster roll, as well as the documents from British Columbia and Ontario,1 will be of great use to researchers now that they can access these records from anywhere in the world.
We begin this discussion with the Black Loyalists. Having fought for Britain in the American Revolutionary War, these pioneers evolved a unique identity as Africans, Blacks, Americans, Maritimers and British subjects. The first Black Loyalists arrived in Halifax and other Maritime ports in the summer of 1783 at the end of the American Revolutionary War, in which Britain was defeated. The British had promised freedom to any enslaved Black American who was willing to fight for the Crown. Thousands of enslaved Blacks answered the call. At war's end, they and thousands of others, now called "Loyalists," were evacuated to British-held territories in the New World. The majority of the Black Loyalists were sent to Nova Scotia. And though they had fought for the British Crown and were promised, on their evacuation to Nova Scotia, the same rights, privileges and freedoms that their white counterparts were to receive, they were blatantly betrayed by the colonial and metropolitan governments, who denied them these benefits.
The Black Loyalists were given the worst land—or no land at all. Many were corralled into indentureship. Some were even tricked and sold as slaves to the West Indies and, in the worst cases, many starved to death. The Black Loyalists had to fight endlessly for their human rights and dignity. They fought racism. They fought re-enslavement. When it appeared to many of them that their life in Canada would be one of unrelenting struggle, they decided to leave that oppression behind. In February 1792, over 1,200 Black Loyalists boarded 15 ships in Halifax Harbour and sailed to Sierra Leone, West Africa. It was a radical move, one that revealed that these individuals were serious about their freedom. Those who remained in Canada continued the struggle. What all the Black Loyalists exhibited was tremendous agency and fortitude.
The Black Loyalist muster rolls provide a singular history of one of the most important Black Loyalist settlements—Birchtown. They do even more. They reveal that Black Loyalist Maritime history adds a unique strand to early Canadian history. They show that such values as freedom and the "rights of man," cherished by Canadians then and now, were denied to the Black Loyalists. The muster rolls also show that Canada was not a refuge or land of the free for most of them, as Black Loyalist history also challenges the dominant narrative of Black Canadian history, such as that of the Underground Railroad, with its central Canadian (especially Ontario) focus—and the mythology of the "free North."
Sir James Douglas is known as the father of British Columbia for his groundbreaking work in securing the colony for Britain, and for cementing the Hudson's Bay Company as the most powerful trading force in the Pacific Northwest. What is not so familiar, however, is Douglas's relationship with the early Black settlers on Vancouver Island and other places in British Columbia. Moreover, the role these early Canadians played in making the colony "British," and their contributions to its development, is little known in Canadian history. A main reason for this is that the role Black people have played in Canadian history has been erased or minimized.
The Douglas Papers speak specifically of the middle decades of the 19th century, and are an invaluable source of history for the province of British Columbia, the Pacific Northwest, British imperialism and the northwest region of the Hudson's Bay territory. Equally important is the gap they fill in the seminal history of the Black pioneers of British Columbia. The founding colony was Vancouver Island, where the majority of Black pioneers settled, but they soon began to settle on the mainland as well, especially in the area that became known as Vancouver.
The people known as the Black Pioneers landed in Victoria in the colony of Vancouver Island in April 1858. They had fled California hoping to leave behind racial injustice, economic disadvantage and, for many of them, the likelihood of re-enslavement. Prior to their arrival, they sent a delegation to Victoria to investigate the conditions to see if it was suitable for their needs. At the same time, the new governor of Vancouver Island, James Douglas, needed loyal settlers. Thus Douglas's desire dovetailed with the plans the Californians had for leaving the state.
By the time of the final migration, at least 800 Black Americans had arrived at the colony, mainly in Victoria and the outlying islands. They quickly settled in and began building new lives. As a whole, this group of settlers was well-educated, had money and brought important skills. They formed the "loyal" backbone of the settler population, fulfilling Douglas's hope of acquiring settlers loyal to the Crown. And for a brief moment, these Black pioneers formed the majority non-Native population on Vancouver Island.
The Black Californians did not come to the colony as supplicants but as empowered immigrants who contributed tremendously to the development of Victoria and British Columbia—as they were farmers, businessmen, entrepreneurs, skilled workers, schoolteachers, miners, and politicians. Mifflin Gibbs, for example, built British Columbia's first railway, served as deputy mayor of Victoria and was instrumental in getting the colony into the Canadian Confederation. Sylvia Stark, known as the mother of Salt Spring Island, was a midwife who not only delivered numerous babies, but also saw the island pass through its frontier stage to the modern era. She died at the age of 106.
The Douglas Papers are a brilliant example of how official history can be used to shed light on the experience of people considered marginal and theorized to be of little importance to history. As a historian of Black Canada, I have been told more times than I care to remember that there is "not much" on Black history, only to find information at that particular research centre. What I realized is that the well-meaning archivist or librarian who makes such a pronouncement is looking in the wrong place. If one checks under the card profile for "Blacks," nothing might be found. But if one creatively accesses the documents of great leaders, such as the Douglas Papers, then much can be discovered about Black people in Canada. Douglas was one of the "great leaders" of Canadian history; but of crucial importance, it was the little people—in this case, Black Canadians—who helped to make him great. His documents will be of tremendous help to anyone interested in Canadian race relations, cross-border studies, Black and ethnic history, and imperial studies.
From British Columbia in the 1850s, we come to Ontario, or rather Canada West, as it was called during that period. The Elgin Settlement, popularly called Buxton, was a utopian experiment launched by Scotsman Reverend William King and his 15 or so former slaves. And it is the papers of William King that we look at to get a better understanding of the Elgin settlement.
King inherited his slave property through marriage. The irony was that King was an abolitionist. He freed his slaves and took them to Canada West. With money raised by the Elgin Association, he purchased land in Kent County where he forged a new path with these new Black Canadians. Buxton became a beacon of light and a haven for runaway American slaves, and for free Black people whose security and pursuit of happiness were profoundly affected by virulently racist laws and customs in the United States.
Reverend King was able to take his former slaves to Ontario because, at the time, the province had become a veritable refuge for American fugitive slaves and free Blacks. But slavery had been part of the history and life of the colony of Upper Canada since its earliest days. Slaveholders included members of the clergy and the government, farmers, businessmen and entrepreneurs. Many of the enslaved Blacks had arrived with their Loyalist owners after the American Revolutionary War. In 1793, the new Lieutenant Governor, John Graves Simcoe, passed an act banning the importation of any new slaves into the colony. The act did not abolish slavery itself, nor did it prevent the buying and selling of enslaved people within the borders of the province, or even the selling of enslaved persons across international lines. The most important point of the act was to ensure that any new slaves arriving in the province after its passage would be entitled to their freedom. Thus, the act favoured the freedom of foreign slaves, not those already in Upper Canada.
By the War of 1812, news of the intent of the act began circulating in the United States, and by 1815, runaway American slaves began to trek to Upper Canada. This was the beginning of the Underground Railroad era. By 1834, Britain had abolished slavery in all its overseas colonies, including Canada. Upper Canada became an important locus of the fight against American slavery, making it possible for King and the Blacks he freed to come and live there.
However, as Shannon Prince notes, the founding of the Elgin Settlement was not without opposition. Though Upper Canada offered legal freedom to fugitive American slaves, it did not mean that its citizens were anti-racist or believed in the equality of the races. Many were Negrophobes who resented and objected to the increased Black migration that occurred at mid-century, and some took measures to prevent the founding of the colony. But in the end, they lost. At its peak, the Elgin Settlement was home to 1,200 people. William King was a patrician and patriarch who established strict rules. Yet, as his papers reveal, it was the Black people themselves who were the principal actors in the making of their own history.
At the same time, it must be borne in mind that although the Elgin Settlement was an important all-Black colony, it was not the only Black settlement at the time. In the Windsor area, a Black abolitionist couple, Henry and Mary Bibb, founded the Refugee Home Society, which by 1870 had settled over 100 families. Today, many descendants from these original families still abound in the area. The Dawn Settlement in Dresden, Ontario, was founded by fugitive slave and abolitionist leader Josiah Henson. At its height, the Dawn Settlement had an industrial school for children of Black fugitives, one of the first in its kind in Canada. Furthermore, in 1829, Austin Steward, a Black antislavery activist, founded the Wilberforce Settlement in what is now the London area of Ontario. Thus, the settlement at Buxton was part of a greater story of Black action and achievement.
All these settlements were by no means the only places where Black Ontarians lived. However, they were models of initiative and determination. Buxton is unique because it was the most documented of these colonies and received the most support, especially from the Presbyterian elite. The fact that the history of Buxton has been so richly documented with literary artifacts such as the King Papers, helps us to understand in greater detail Black life in 19th-century Ontario and Canada.
The story of Africville—that is, the demolition and bulldozing of the community by the Halifax City Council between 1964 and 1970—has been told and retold in the African-Canadian community, especially that of Nova Scotia. Deemed an "eyesore" by the city council, Africville was destroyed and its residents scattered to different parts of Halifax and the province. The residents were unwilling to relocate but, lacking political power and economic clout, they had no other choice. The city refused to see that Africville was not a "slum" for its residents, but their home and community. In the end, racial discrimination was at the heart of the displacement of the Africville residents.
The photographs of Africville are warm, touching and poignant. They show families, homes and daily life. They provide a human face to the disparaging stories that emerged in officialdom about Africville. The existence of these photographs challenges those who would wipe away the community's Black presence and history.
As Irvine Carvery has shown in his introduction to the Africville photographs, the settlement provided solace, comfort and community to its residents. Carvery speaks with authority because he was an Africville resident when he was a child, and so he knows first-hand its history and story. The words of Carvery make us realize that Africville is still with us in spirit.
These documents are the only ones to focus on a woman. They chronicle the life and historical experiences of a Black woman, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, and by extension, a Black community during the middle decades of the 19th century. Shadd Cary was a schoolteacher, newspaper publisher and editor, abolitionist activist, and women's rights advocate. These papers thus make a valuable contribution to African-Canadian studies, Canadian feminist history, print culture and early Canadian education.
Mary Ann Shadd Cary lived at a time when the majority of Black people, both male and female, were either enslaved or, for those who were free, suffering from the sting of racism. Therefore, her race and gender gave particular meaning to her various endeavours—whether she was protesting the terrible conditions of segregated Black schools or calling attention to the plight of the poor. White women engaged in women's rights activism did not have to consider the "race question;" they took their skin colour as the norm and rarely questioned the privileges that came with their white status. Yet even though they too struggled for women's rights, it was not the Black or other minority women they had in mind. This attitude of considering the white woman as the "representative" woman is revealed throughout feminist history and historiography in Canada and the United States.
For example, Canadian feminism is regarded as having begun with Emily Stowe and the women's literary guild she founded in Toronto in 1876. Yet 20 years before, Shadd Cary, a Black woman, was running a newspaper and was a publisher in her own right. Other Black women, such as Mary Bibb and Amelia Freeman, had also founded women's literary and mutual improvement clubs in the early 1850s. But because Shadd Cary, Bibb and Freeman were Black, they were not seen by mainstream feminist and women's historians as representative women. The activism they engaged in was seen as "Black," whereas the work by Stowe and other white feminists was not seen as "white" but as "women's" activism.
What do mainstream historians of Canada have to lose if they date the beginning of Canadian feminism to Shadd Cary and other Black women like her? The Shadd Cary Papers thus present themselves as tools for theorizing about the women's movement in Canada and the United States. Moreover, they highlight the problems of the historiography of such movements as the Underground Railroad, with its emphasis on fugitive runaway slaves.
Writings about the Underground Railroad are replete with examples of the "poor and illiterate" fugitives who fled to Canada with only "the clothes on their backs." These fugitives, we are told, were grateful to be in Canada and often kissed the ground on arrival. Shadd Cary was not only freeborn, but was also educated, articulate and had a sense of herself as a community builder. And grateful she was not. The articles and editorials in her newspaper, The Provincial Freeman, reveal the anger she felt at the discrimination against the Black population in Ontario by the larger white community.
Nowhere was this issue better highlighted than in the educational system. By 1850, segregated schooling had become the law in the province, and in most of the cities and towns of Southern and Southwestern Ontario, Black children were herded into substandard separate schools. Shadd Cary used the pages of her newspaper to protest this terrible situation. She also used her education to do something about the problem by teaching Black children and founding at least three schools. Though she stated that the schools were open to all races, the reality was that Black students were the ones who flocked to her school because the need for an education was greatest among them.
Her work as a teacher and her letters to various individuals and organizations regarding Black education and the Black community at large provide much insight into Black life and culture at mid-century. More important, the letters shed much-needed light on the state of education in the province, and establish Shadd Cary as one of the pioneers of education in Ontario. The Provincial Freeman also stands as a stellar example of Canadian journalism and print culture.
In my recent historical work, I spoke of the invisibility of Black history in the dominant narrative of Canadian history.2 These digitized collections will ensure this can happen no more.
Bibb, Henry. Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave. New York, published by author. 1849, reprint 2001.
Bristow, Peggy. We're Rooted Here and They Can't Pull Us up: Essays in African Canadian Women's History. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 1994.
Clairmont, Donald. The Spirit of Africville. Halifax, NS: Formac Publishing, 1992.
Cooper, Afua. "Acts of Resistance: Black Men and Women Engage Slavery in Upper Canada, 1793–1803." Ontario History. 99, 1, (Spring 2007), p. 5–17.
Edmunds-Flett, Sherry. "'Abundant Faith': Nineteenth-Century African-Canadian Women on Vancouver Island." In Catherine Cavanaugh, ed., Telling Tales: Essays in Western Women's History. Vancouver, BC: University of British Columbia Press, 2000.
Killian, Crawford. Go Do Some Great Thing: The Black Pioneers of British Columbia. Vancouver, BC: Douglas & McIntyre, 1978.
Mensah, Joseph. Black Canadians: History, Experiences, Social Conditions. Halifax, NS: Fernwood Publishing, 2002.
Nelson, Camille and Charmaine. Racism, Eh? A Critical Inter-Disciplinary Anthology of Race and Racism in Canada. Concord, ON: Captus Press, 2004.
Perkins, Dorothy. Last Days in Africville. Toronto, ON: Dundurn Press, 2003.
Prince, Bryan. I Came as a Stranger: The Underground Railroad. Toronto, ON: Tundra Books, 2004.
Rhodes, Jane. Mary Ann Shadd Cary: The Black Press and Protest in the Nineteenth Century. Bloomington, IA: University of Indiana Press, 1998.
Ripley, C. Peter. The Black Abolitionist Papers: Volume Two: Canada. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1986.
Smith, Dorothy Blakely. James Douglas: Father of British Columbia. Toronto, ON: Oxford University Press, 1971.
Ullman, Victor. Look to the North Star: A Life of William King. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1969.
1. A note on terminology. The province of Ontario was first named Upper Canada (1791–1842), then Canada West (1842–1867), then Ontario (1867 to present time). These names are used interchangeably throughout the text.
2. See the preface of Afua Cooper's, The Hanging of Angélique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montréal. Toronto, ON: HarperCollins, 2006; and La Pendaison d'Angélique : L'histoire de l'esclavage au Canada et de l'incendie de Montréal. Montréal, QC: Les Éditions de l'Homme, 2007.