Canadian Slave Narratives

The Black Canadian Slave Narrative 

Black Slavery and Freedom in Canada

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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.

Case Studies

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

more to be added soon


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