BLACK SLAVERY AND SLAVE NARRATIVES IN CANADA
Black Slavery and Freedom in Canada
Slavery became a common practice in Canada during the French colonization in the early 1600s. When the British conquered the colony from France in 1763, they maintained the practice. Growing British abolitionist lobbying and Canadian slave escapes moved the British authorities to restrict slavery in Canada since the 1790s. It was terminated when Britain abolished slavery throughout its colonies in 1834.
Canada became the most popular destination for African Americans seeking freedom from bondage and racial discrimination in the United States. The first waves of Black American migration to Canada followed the American Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. Black American Loyalists (aides to the British side in these wars) fled across the borders, settling especially in the Atlantic Seabord provinces. More immigrants arrived following abolition in Canada in 1834, and they mostly moved to Upper Canada/Canada West (today Ontario). Their numbers further grew after the United States passed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, a law that required US residents to help recapture runaway slaves.
African Canadians formed a visible minority in Upper Canada, establishing their own schools, churches, and settlements. Some of them also played a major role in the international antislavery movement. A series of Black settlements and organizations were founded, for example, the Wilberforce Colony, the Dawn Settlement, the Refugee Home Society, and the Elgin Settlement. They aimed to improve black economic independence and upward social mobility, primarily through education, land ownership, and other professional opportunities. Although these settlements gave much-needed support to Black Canadians, most of them did not last long due to leadership disputes, mismanagement, and funding problems.
Canada and the Black Slave Narrative
Canadian slave narratives are mainly autobiographies from the Anglophone Americas, written by former slaves between the late 18th and late 19th century, with most appearing during the 1840s and 1850s. Writers of these narratives modified the genre of the African American slave narrative into a transnational body of writings and a means of international political activism. They strategically depicted Canada in their texts to validate individual and collective black experiences, inspire black transborder migration, and mobilize audiences in North America and Britain to fight American slavery.
Their discourse presented an idea of Canada as a haven for fugitives from American slavery, drawing from a Biblical image of enslaved Blacks as new Israelites seeking freedom and safety from bondage. This approach to the genre treats Canada not only as a destination for American fugitives but also chart their American-born narrators’ transborder mobilities and lives in Canada after fleeing slavery in the American South and racial discrimination in the North.
These narratives aligned with a larger black Canadian public discourse directed at British and American readers. Contrasting American slavery to Canadian antislavery, proponents of this discourse framed themselves as loyal subjects embracing the British abolitionism that had enabled their freedom. Transborder black slave narratives offered more nuanced portrayals of the African Canadian experience, as they addressed not only the black immigrants’ achievements and opportunities but also their struggles with racism, social alienation, and economic exploitation in Canada.
The following are three case studies of black-authored accounts of American-Canadian slave narratives from 1840-1860. Click on the men’s names to learn more about them and their texts.
JOSIAH HENSON fled with his family to Upper Canada (today Ontario) in 1830, where he established himself as a preacher, community leader, and abolitionist.
The merchant AUSTIN STEWARD escaped slavery in 1814 and in 1831 moved to Upper Canada. Although he became a black community leader, he returned to the USA after a few years.
SAMUEL RINGGOLD WARD was a minister, abolitionist, and journalist, who had only spent his infancy in slavery. Forced to flee to Canada in 1851, he continued his activism there and in the UK. In 1855 he settled in Jamaica.
SELECTED RESEARCH LITERATURE
Black Slavery and Freedom in Canada
- Asaka, Isuko. Tropical Freedom: Climate, Settler Colonialism, and Black Exclusion in the Age of Emancipation. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017.
- de b’Béri, Boulou Ebanda, Nina Reid-Maroney, and Handel Kashope Wright, eds. The Promised Land: History and Historiography of the Black Experience in Chatham-Kent’s Settlements and Beyond. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014.
- Cooper, Afua. “The Fluid Frontier: Blacks and the Detroit River Region—A Focus on Henry Bibb.” Canadian Review of American Studies / Revue canadienne d’études américaines 30.2 (2000): 129-149.
- Gallant, Sigrid Nicole. “Perspectives on the Motives for the Migration of African-Americans to and from Ontario, Canada: From the Abolition of Slavery in Canada to the Abolition of Slavery in the United States.” Journal of Negro History 86.3 (2001): 391-408.
- Paul, Heike. “Out of Chatham: Abolitionism on the Canadian Frontier.” Atlantic Studies 8.2 (2011): 165-188.
- Rhodes, Jane. “The Contestation over National Identity: Nineteenth-Century Black Americans in Canada.” Canadian Review of American Studies / Revue canadienne d’études américaines 30.3 (2000): 175-186.
The Black Canadian Slave Narrative
- Bird, Eleanor Lucy. Canada and Slavery in Print, 1789-1889. Phil.Diss., University of Sheffield, 2018. Leeds, Sheffield, and York: White Rose eTheses Online, 2018. Bird_Diss
- Clarke, George Elliott. “‘This is no hearsay’: Reading the Canadian Slave Narratives.” 2005. In Directions Home: Approaches to African-Canadian Literature, 19-29. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012.
- Kang, Nancy. “‘As if I Had Entered a Paradise’: Fugitive Slave Narratives and Cross-Border Literary History.” African American Review 39.3 (2005): 431-57.
- MacLean, Alyssa Erin. Canadian Migrations: Reading Canada in Nineteenth-Century American Literature. Phil. Diss., University of British Columbia, 2010. Vancouver: UBC Theses and Dissertations Collection, University of British Columbia, 2011. MacLean_Diss
- Sawallisch, Nele. Fugitive Borders: Black Canadian Cross-Border Literature at Mid-Nineteenth Century. Bielefeld: Aisthesis, 2019.
- Siemerling, Winfried. The Black Atlantic Reconsidered: Black Canadian Writing, Cultural History, and the Presence of the Past. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2015.
ONLINE RESOURCES AND LINKS
- Black History in Canada. Ottawa: Library and Archives Canada. → Several collections and links to other institutions’ collections and online sources. https://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/discover/immigration/history-ethnic-cultural/Pages/blacks.aspx
- Baker, Nathan. “Anti-Slavery Society of Canada.” Canadian Encyclopedia, 2019. → Information and links to online sources. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/anti-slavery-society-of-canada
- Siemerling, Winfried. The Black Atlantic Reconsidered: Black Canadian Writing, Cultural History, and the Presence of the Past – A Companion Website: Documents and Sources. 2015. → Links to online sources. http://blackatlantic.ca/