Canada was not immune to the horrors of slavery

By Murphy Browne Wednesday February 06 2013 in Opinion
COMMENTS
1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (4)
Loading ... Loading ...


 

By MURPHY BROWNE

 

TO BE SOLD

 

A BLACK WOMAN, named Peggy, aged about forty years; and a Black boy, her son, named Jupiter, aged about fifteen years, both of them the property of the subscriber.

 

The woman is a tolerable cook and washer woman and perfectly understands making soap and candles.

 

The boy is tall and strong of his age, and has been employed in county business, but brought up principally as a house servant. They are each of them servants for life. The price for the woman is one hundred and fifty dollars – for the boy two hundred dollars, payable in three years with interest from the day of sale and to be properly secured by bond & c. But one fourth less will be taken in ready money.

 

PETER RUSSELL

 

York, Feb. 10th, 1806.

 

The infamous 1806 advertisement offering Peggy and Jupiter Pompadour for sale is proof that slavery was a Canadian institution. Although our history did not begin with slavery, the enslavement of our ancestors is very much a part of our history and affects how the descendants of those enslaved Africans are treated today wherever they live.

 

It affects how they think, how they behave, how they view themselves and others who look like them. It also affects how they are treated in places like Canada, where the people in power are White and their mind set is influenced by that history.

 

In the movie Django Unchained, the character played by Leonardo DiCaprio uses the flawed White supremacist reasoning popular during that time to explain why he is convinced that Africans are inherently inferior and exist to be enslaved by White people. A popular school of thought bandied about by a “doctor” Samuel Adolphus Cartwright around 1851 was that any enslaved African who resisted their enslavement was suffering from a mental illness he identified as “drapetomania”.

 

Cartwright and the vast majority of White people believed in the inherent inferiority of anyone who was not White. That any intelligent person can assume that a whole race of people existed to serve and be used as chattel boggles the mind.

 

However, when we read some of the skewed reporting about our community in the White newspapers today, that mind-set can emerge between the lines. The many studies and reports on racial profiling in the justice system and policing in the education and health systems certainly point in that direction.

 

Usually when the history of Africans in Canada is told, those who recognize that Africans have been in this country for several centuries will point to the Underground Railroad history of enslaved Africans fleeing slavery in the United States of America to be rescued by kind-hearted White Canadians. Hardly ever is the enslavement of Africans in Canada part of that narrative.

 

However, Peter Russell, who advertised Peggy and her son Jupiter for sale in the Upper Canada Gazette dated February 10, 1806, was not unique. There are numerous advertisements of enslaved Africans for sale in Canada and also for help in recapturing those who managed to escape the brutal system. The history of the African presence in Canada is not part of the curriculum at any level of the education system in this country.

 

Perhaps that is why I recently heard a White woman telling an African-Canadian to go back to the “island” where they came from. She was ignorant of the fact that the person to whom she was referring was an eighth-generation African-Canadian. As quiet as it is kept, Africans have lived in Canada at least since the 1600s as both free and enslaved people (Matthew Da Costa, member of the Champlain expedition, 1603).

 

Some of them were enslaved by the French (beginning with six-year-old Olivier LeJeune, 1628) when they settled on this land and others were enslaved by the British who retreated here after they were defeated by their American brothers during the American War of Independence (1775-1783).

 

There were African men who gained their freedom during that war and came to Canada as members of the United Empire Loyalists. However, many White Loyalists brought their “slaves” with them and continued to enslave those Africans in Canada. Slavery in Canada was eventually abolished on August 1, 1834 and slaveholders throughout the British Empire were compensated for losing their “property”.

 

Peggy Pompadour and her three children (Jupiter, Amy and Milly) were owned by Peter Russell and his sister, Elizabeth Russell. Russell was a member of the Family Compact of Upper Canada. The Family Compact was a group of men who controlled the government in Upper Canada (Ontario) and included Lieutenant-Governor, John Graves Simcoe; William Jarvis, William Osgoode and Peter Russell.

 

Russell was appointed to act in Simcoe’s position when Simcoe left Upper Canada in 1796. Peggy Pompadour’s husband was a free African man who worked for Peter and Elizabeth Russell. However, his family was owned by the Russell siblings, who had complete control over their lives and could sell members of his family at will.

 

Slavery existed throughout Canada and was just as brutal as slavery in America or anywhere else Africans were enslaved by White people. Enslaved Africans were not allowed to name themselves or their children, they were not allowed to speak their languages or practice their spiritual beliefs.

 

They were forced to bear European names, speak European languages and adhere to European religious doctrines. After several generations of this forced disconnection, the names, languages and spiritual beliefs of Africans almost disappeared from the consciousness and memories of the enslaved Africans. As a result, their descendants today will deny that they are African. However, fragments of the culture have remained in specific communities and some families.

 

In Django Unchained, there were several comments about the name of the Kerry Washington character, Broomhilda von Shaft. It may seem unusual to hear an enslaved African woman bearing a German name but that should not be surprising since Europeans of all stripes enslaved Africans.

 

The names that Africans of the Diaspora have borne and still bear is proof of that. We Africans in the Diaspora have been named Edison Arantes do Nascimento (Portuguese), Nicomedes Santa Cruz Gamarra and Álvaro José Arroyo González (Spanish), Toussaint L’Overture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Olivier LeJeune (French), Joseph Hughes (Welsh), Kelly Murphy Jonas (Irish). These names came from European enslavers and are a testament to the pervasive custom of renaming Africans. Some enslaved Africans were renamed several times during their lifetime, depending on the language spoken by the White person who bought them.

 

The fact that Africans have been in Canada since the first White occupiers of this land came here is carefully ignored until sometimes during February if people can take their minds off of the entertainment that they tend to associate with our community.

 

While we think about the history of our ancestors, it is important to acknowledge that they resisted their enslavement in various ways. Enslaved Africans did not quietly accept that White people were in control of their lives. Their resistance was in some cases blatant (fleeing and in some instances establishing Maroon communities) or more subtle – malingering, breaking tools, destroying crops.

 

Even Stephen/Steven, the character played by Samuel L. Jackson in Django Unchained, was a malingerer and ably manipulated his “intelligent” owner.

 

The unpaid labour of enslaved Africans, which even today contributes to the wealth of many European nations and families, must be acknowledged with reparations for the descendants of enslaved Africans. It will happen in spite of naysayers because the universe continues to cry out against that dreadful inhumane crime against African humanity.

 

tiakoma@hotmail.com

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

*

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Columnists

Archives