Canada and slavery in literature
Ahead of her talk for the British Library’s Feed the Mind lunchtime lecture series (31 October, 12.30-13.30), Collaborative PhD student Ellie Bird delves into the Americas collections to discuss her research into the complicated relationship between Canada and slavery. Tickets for Ellie’s talk can be purchased online, or at the box office.
As a PhD student in English Literature at the University of Sheffield, with a collaborative doctoral award with the British Library, I get to work closely with the Library’s collections in my research.
My PhD research looks at Canada and its relationship to slavery. There is a dominant national narrative for Canadians today that Canada was an anti-slavery haven for American slaves in the mid nineteenth century. This reflects a part of Canada’s history in that thousands of former American slaves escaped to Canada in the nineteenth century. However, the privileging of this history is also problematic as Canada has an earlier history of enslavement of individuals from Indian nations and of African origin slaves until at least the early nineteenth century. What literary works can we examine to find out more about Canada’s history of slavery and slaveholding? What collection items does the British Library have for exploring Canada’s relationship to American slavery?
Looking at Solomon Northup’s slave narrative Twelve Years a Slave [10881.b.38.] we get one version of Canada’s relationship to American slavery. The Canadian carpenter Bass engages in a verbal spar with plantation owner Epps about American slavery in which Bass argues that American slavery is ‘an iniquity and ought to be abolished’ (268). By Solomon’s own admission the Canadian plays a key role in helping him secure his liberty ‘Only for him, in all probability I should have ended my days in slavery.’
Canada plays an important role in the first conversation between Solomon and the Canadian carpenter Bass. This dialogue is significant because it is a turning point in the plot that ultimately results in Solomon securing his freedom. By the end of this conversation Solomon has revealed his true identity as a free man to Bass, and Bass has agreed to help him send letters to Saratoga to ask for his free papers. Solomon begins by questioning Bass about the country of his birth, and what follows is a dialogue through which Solomon demonstrates his knowledge of Canadian places, which makes Bass start to ask questions about how Solomon came to be at Epps’ plantation. When Solomon claims he has been to Canada Bass laughs ‘incredulously’ (270), and he anticipates that Solomon would not know of Canada: 'You wouldn't know if I should tell you', but Solomon lists the places he has been in Canada:
I have been there. I have been in Montreal and Kingston, and Queenston, and a great many places in Canada, and I have been in York State, too—in Buffalo, and Rochester, and Albany, and can tell you the names of the villages on the Erie canal and the Champlain canal.
Bass’s response to this, related by Solomon in the narrative, reflects that Solomon’s knowledge of Canada has ignited his interest in Solomon’s story:
Bass turned round and gazed at me a long time without uttering a syllable.
"How came you here?" he inquired, at length,
"Well, how's this?" said he. "Who are you? You have been in Canada sure enough; I know all the places you mention. How did you happen to get here? Come, tell me all about it."
In this exchange, Solomon, who has already heard the Canadian Bass making arguments that American slavery is morally wrong, brings up the topic of Canada and this provides him a way to develop a rapport and trusting relationship with Bass as he asks him to help him to secure his liberty. The exchange functions as a way for Solomon to lead Bass to enquire after his story and to question his status as an enslaved man on the plantation. Following this opening, Bass believes Solomon’s account that he is a free man and offers to help him secure his freedom. Earlier in the narrative Solomon underscores the role that his time spent in Canada has had in helping him secure his freedom: noting that it has given him ‘a knowledge of localities which was also of service to me afterwards’ (23).
Is it surprising that Canada plays an important role in this pivotal exchange between Solomon and Bass? I would answer no; as even a quick scout at the US slave narratives in the Library’s collections attests, the geography of Canada is very much part of the African American slave narrative. Its use in the passage I examined above as a short hand for freedom (it encourages Bass to question Solomon’s history and how he has arrived at the plantation as a slave because of the strong association of Canada in this period with anti-slavery) reflects how Canada is presented in many slave narratives in this period:
Canada was so associated with freedom for American slaves within literature in this period that it was described as having no ‘footprint of a slave’ (51) in former slave Henry Bibb’s slave narrative first published in New York in 1849 [YC.2002.a.13700].
Slave narratives by American slaves were also written and circulated in Canada, although this has been overlooked in Canadian anthologies of its literature (Clarke, 2006, 14 and 7-9). In slave narratives in the 1850s Canada is often a part of the story as many former slaves reflect on their experiences of slavery and as free black men and women living in Canada. The British Library holds rare copies of several of these narratives, and examples are: The Life of Josiah Henson [10882.a.21.3.], A Narrative of Thomas Smallwood (Mic.F.232 [no. 64728], and Samuel Ringgold Ward’s Autobiography [10881.b.40.] These narratives all contain accounts of former slaves living as free men in Canada.
Other items in the Library collections present an earlier history of enslavement in Canada which problematises Bibb’s suggestion that Canada has no ‘footprint’ of a slave: The Quebec newspapers published in the eighteenth century contain many runaway slave notices. Two such newspapers are the Quebec Gazette and the Montreal Gazette [MFM.MC271B] and [MFM.MC270]. Slavery in Quebec existed under French colonial rule and later, after 1760, under the British. Indeed, the 47th article of the 1763 Treaty in which the French ceded Canada to the British stated that French Canadians could maintain their property rights in their black and indigenous slaves.
The Quebec Gazette, 26 June, 1788, p.2
The runaway slave notices in the bilingual Quebec newspapers often appear in both English and French, and this makes them quite distinctive compared to those elsewhere in the Americas. During this period there was at least one enslaved man working at the Quebec Gazette, a man called Joe who was owned by the newspaper editor William Brown.
By Eleanor Lucy Bird
Clarke, George Elliott, ‘This is no hearsay: Reading the Canadian Slave Narratives’, Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada, 43.1 (2005)
Cooper, Afua, The Hanging of Angelique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montreal, Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2007
Rushforth, Brett, Bonds of Alliance: Indigenous and Atlantic Slaveries in New France, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012
Winks, Robin W., The Blacks in Canada: A History, Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1997