Enslaved Africans in Canada fought for their freedom

By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)

On Monday, August 1, Torontonians will celebrate Simcoe Day in honour of John Graves Simcoe, Ontario’s first Lieutenant Governor. When Simcoe was appointed to the position Ontario was known as Upper Canada and Africans were held in slavery throughout this country. Slavery in Canada and throughout the British Empire was abolished on August 1, 1834 but lasted in a different form (apprenticeship) in British Guiana (Guyana) and the British occupied Caribbean Islands until August 1, 1838. (Enslaved Africans in Antigua and the Bahamas were not subjected to an apprenticeship period.)

As quiet as it is kept, enslaved Africans fought for their freedom and it was not granted through the benevolence and kind heartedness of White abolitionists. Some of the African abolitionists whose names are not widely known include Jamaican Robert Wedderburn, Nigerian Olaudah Equiano (Gustavus Vassa), Ghanaian Ottabah Guoano and Ignatius Sancho (supposedly born on a British slave ship off the coast of Guinea.)

Simcoe’s claim to fame in the abolition movement occurred in 1793 when he attempted to abolish slavery in Upper Canada. He was not successful in his attempt because many of his peers – including William Jarvis (Jarvis Street, Jarvis Collegiate), Peter Russell, Alexander Grant, James Baby, Richard Cartwright and Robert Hamilton – were slave holders.

Simcoe was galvanized into action when on March 14, 1793 an enslaved African woman, Chloe Cooley, resisted mightily as she was beaten, tied up, thrown into a boat and rowed across the Niagara River to be sold in America. Chloe Cooley did not go quietly; she resisted with everything she had. Here was a woman who was a slave in Canada and was being sold away from everyone she knew. Life as she knew it was at an end so she had nothing to lose. She screamed and fought her enslaver, William Vrooman, and two other White men as she was being brutalized, bound and thrown into the boat and rowed across the river from Upper Canada to the United States.

Chloe Cooley’s plight was documented when Peter Martin, a free African man who had witnessed the outrage, made an official report to Simcoe and the Executive Council of Upper Canada at a meeting on March 21, 1793.

On July 9, 1793 An Act to Prevent the further Introduction of Slaves and to limit the Term of Contracts for Servitude was passed in the House of Assembly of Upper Canada.

Although Chloe Cooley was not saved from slavery, her resistance was the catalyst that led to the first piece of anti-slavery legislation in Canada which even though it did not free any enslaved African immediately it at least gave them hope that their descendants would one day be free.

While life did not change for those enslaved Africans living in Upper Canada (Ontario), the passing of the Act meant that any enslaved African who escaped slavery in the U.S. and made their way to Ontario was a free person. Naturally, as the word spread, enslaved Africans fled the U.S. to freedom in Ontario and a community of free Africans lived in Ontario alongside their enslaved brethren and sistren which made for some strange relationships. An example was the Pompadour family where Mr. Pompadour was a free man while his wife Peggy and their children were owned by Peter Russell and his sister Elizabeth. According to the law in every country where Africans were enslaved, regardless of the origin of the enslavers including British, Dutch, French, Spanish, Portuguese etc., the children of enslaved African women shared the mother’s enslaved status even if the father was the White slave holder.

In the case of the Pompadour family, Peter Russell placed an advertisement in a York (Toronto) publication dated February 10, 1806 to sell his property, Peggy, 40 years old ($150.00) and her son Jupiter 15 years old ($200.00), the wife and son of a free African man, Mr. Pompadour.

Peter Russell was the member of the Ontario Legislature appointed to replace Simcoe when he left Ontario in 1796. As a member of the Family Compact and of the Executive and Legislative Councils of Ontario, Russell was a power to be reckoned with in the province so it is not surprising that Simcoe’s attempt to abolish slavery in Ontario in 1793 was a failure.

The enslaved Africans who fled to Ontario seeking freedom after the passage of the 1793 Act were not the first group of enslaved Africans to cross the border in search of freedom from slavery. The movement had gone in both directions even before 1793. In 1777 when Vermont abolished slavery, enslaved Africans fled from Canada to freedom in Vermont. Following the American Revolution, enslaved Africans who fought on the side of the British retreated to British North America (Canada) as members of the United Empire Loyalists. White members of the United Empire Loyalists brought enslaved Africans with them as their property so there were free and enslaved Africans coming to Canada. 
The well known story of the Underground Railroad which features Canada as a safe haven for enslaved Africans has another side; that of enslaved Africans in Canada who were not freed until August 1, 1834. 
The entire story needs to be told because there are people whose names decorate streets and buildings regardless of their role in the brutality and misery that was chattel slavery. Jarvis Street and Jarvis Collegiate both bear the name of a slave holder while there are no streets or buildings named in honour of African Canadians who contributed to the development of this city. Where is the Lucie and Thornton Blackburn building, street or square? (They were the owners of Toronto's first taxi cab business in 1836.) Where is the William Peyton Hubbard building, street or square? (He was first African Canadian elected to public office in Toronto in 1894 as an alderman. He also acted at mayor.) 
It is a shame that in 2011 the International Year for People of African Descent there is hardly any recognition of the contributions Africans have made and even as we recognize August 1 as a holiday most Canadians do not know that the unpaid coerced labour of enslaved Africans contributed to the development of this city and this country.

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