02 August 2023
Antislavery Print Culture in Nineteenth Century Canada West
Nina Reid-Maroney is Professor of History at Huron University College and was a 2021 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library.
In the summer of 1861, the physician, editor, and Black abolitionist, Dr. Martin Delany returned from a scientific expedition in west Africa to his home Chatham, Canada West. Immersed in the news of the American war, preparing for a lecture tour, and at work on the second section of his serialized antislavery novel, Blake, or The Huts of America, Delany found time to oversee a corrected edition of his Official Report of the Niger Valley Exploring Party, first published in 1860. His preface reviewed the work’s publication history, noting that the previous edition, left in the hands of a friend in England who had subsequently taken ill, found its way into print without important endorsements, editorials, and the table of contents. Delany’s attention to the details of the text and his concern that “many things of much importance, which should have been included, were omitted” speaks to his engagement in abolitionist print culture not only as an author, but as an editor and publisher who understood the activist power of print across a transatlantic network that he had helped to build.1
The 1861 Official Report of the Niger Valley Exploring Party is part of a significant body of British Library material - including scientific writing, ethnography, literature, freedom narratives, sermons and memoir - created by Black abolitionists and their antislavery allies based in nineteenth century Canada West. Starting from the recognition that each book is an archive, my Eccles Centre fellowship focused on the material history of abolitionist texts linked to Canadian abolitionist communities. The project examined copy-specific features, variations among editions, endorsements, advertisements, illustrations, and typography. Using the insights of history of the book and a comparative approach to copies of texts on both sides of the Atlantic, the project helps to reframe Canada’s antislavery history by tracing Black activist networks constituted in print.
From this perspective, familiar texts and authors appear in a new light. The 1851 London edition of Josiah Henson’s narrative is one of three versions and multiple editions of Josiah Henson’s autobiography published between 1849 and 1883. The British Library’s copy of the London edition, part of the third thousandth print run, varies significantly from the Boston edition of the text on which the 1851 edition was based. The London edition includes an account of the Black abolitionist community and school that Henson helped to found, placing Henson’s emancipation narrative in the context of the activist network of underground railroad and the practical resistance to the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Introductory material from its editor, the Congregationalist minister and antislavery reformer, Thomas Binney, focuses on Henson’s visit to Britain as an exhibitor at the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace. The paratextual materials of Preface and Appendix and advertisements help to situate Henson in British antislavery networks a year before the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the subsequent long and tortuous association of Josiah Henson with that work’s title character.
Ephemeral texts from the Library’s collections add depth and detail to the study of antislavery print culture, revealing connections between the aural culture of Black abolitionist work in Britain and the antislavery networks of the Great Lakes borderlands.2 In 1861, the Reverend Thomas Kinnaird, Black abolitionist and minister in the British Methodist Episcopal Church in Hamilton (Canada West) produced a four-page pamphlet distributed in support of his lecture tour in Britain, raising funds for a new church building and school. The pamphlet, one of only two extant copies, gathered recommendations from a long list of antislavery supporters in Canada West, London, and Glasgow. Its content maps an antislavery network grounded in small Canadian communities and extended across the Atlantic world, while its physical form, creased as though folded and tucked into a pocket and carried home, speaks to its material history and circulation as an antislavery text.
Other works draw attention to the period beyond the 1850s and 1860s, and to the continued conversation across the Black Atlantic in which a new generation of Black authors amplified and gave fresh resonance to voices of the antislavery movement. In 1889, Black activist S. J. Celestine Edwards met the Canadian Bishop of the British Methodist Episcopal Church, Walter Hawkins of Chatham. Hawkins’ time in the UK working on behalf of the BME Church brought him into the activist circles of Edwards, who used his activist platform as a writer, lecturer, and editor to address contemporary issues of race, civil rights, and identity. Edwards’ biography of Walter Hawkins (From Slavery to a Bishopric: The Life of Bishop Walter Hawkins, 1891) is often discussed in relation to the traditional genre of “slave narrative”; when placed alongside Edwards’ other writings in the British Library’s collections, the Hawkins biography can be read in new ways. A fragile copy of Edwards’ lecture titled “Political Atheism”, delivered, as the title page announces, to an audience of 1200 people and published in 1890, helps to situate From Slavery to a Bishopric in the context of Edwards wider political work, and points to an emerging historiography in the post-Emancipation Black Atlantic, in which Walter Hawkins narrative spoke with a voice of resistance that reached beyond the geographic, temporal, and ideological scope usually afforded early narratives histories of the underground railroad.
The project has implications for teaching antislavery history in my home institution of Huron University College, which has links to evangelical Anglican antislavery work, and is situated close to historical abolitionist communities in places such as London, Buxton, Chatham, Dresden, Amherstburg, Lucan (Wilberforce) and Windsor. In February 2023, I was able to share research with Huron students and colleagues, as part of a transatlantic undergraduate research project on colonialism, slavery, and resistance in history and memory. Following in the footsteps of Martin Delany, Samuel Ringgold Ward, Josiah Henson, and William Howard Day, whose activism brought them from London (Canada) to London in the years leading up to the American Civil War, students used methodologies of place-based history and history of the book to trace the complex transatlantic world of Black activists. In a workshop facilitated by the Eccles Centre and Huron colleague Scott Schofield (English and Cultural Studies, Huron University) students were able to compare editions and copies of antislavery texts at the British Library with works they had consulted in the Archives and Research Collections Centre at the University of Western Ontario. Steven Cook, Curator of the Josiah Henson Museum of African Canadian History in Dresden, Ontario, accompanied Huron students and faculty on the research trip, and spoke of the importance of the workshop in reconnecting community memory to the complex textual history of Josiah Henson.
The Eccles Fellowship has also laid the foundation for a new research partnership with the Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society, Scott Schofield (Huron) and Deirdre McCorkindale (University of Guelph). Using research from the British Library as well as ongoing work with the Archives and Research Collections Centre at Western University, we are building a comparative database of rare antislavery books linked to nineteenth-century Chatham. The Fellowship demonstrated the significance of reconnecting books - material artefacts of the nineteenth-century's greatest struggle for human freedom - with the historical communities and context in which they were written, published, read, reprinted, and circulated.
1. Martin Delany, Official Report of the Niger Valley Exploring Party. New York, Thomas Hamilton; London, Webb, Millington & co; Leeds, J.B. Barry, 1861.
2. R.J.M. Blackett, Building an Antislavery Wall : Black Americans in the Atlantic Abolitionist Movement, 1830-1860. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983; Hannah-Rose Murray, Advocates of Freedom : African American Transatlantic Abolitionism in the British Isles. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020.
3. Douglas A. Lorimer, “Legacies of Slavery for Race, Religion, and Empire: S.J. Celestine Edwards and the Hard Truth (1894).” Slavery & Abolition 39 (2008): 731–55. https://doi.org/10.1080/0144039X.2018.1439670.