By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
“On March 14, 1793 Chloe Cooley, an enslaved Black woman in Queenston, was bound, thrown in a boat and sold across the river to a new owner in the United States. Her screams and violent resistance were brought to the attention of Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe by Peter Martin, a free Black and former soldier in Butler’s Rangers, and William Grisley, a neighbour who witnessed the event. Simcoe immediately moved to abolish slavery in the new province. He was met with opposition in the House of Assembly, some of whose members owned slaves. A compromise was reached and on July 9, 1793 an Act was passed that prevented the further introduction of slaves into Upper Canada and allowed for the gradual abolition of slavery although no slaves already residing in the province were freed outright. It was the first piece of legislation in the British Empire to limit slavery and set the stage for the great freedom movement of enslaved African Americans known as the Underground Railway.”
From a plaque dedicated (August 23, 2007) to the memory of Chloe Cooley located on the east side of Niagara Parkway, three km north of York Road (Road 81) in Queenston
On March 14, 1793 Chloe Cooley, an enslaved African woman, made history when she fought for her freedom. Cooley was being sold once again and she vigorously resisted one more indignity to her sense of self, her humanity. Being tied up and sold was just one more incident in a lifetime of indignities against her personhood. Cooley’s struggle for her freedom gave the lie to the myth of the happy slave and set in motion an unsuccessful effort to end slavery in Upper Canada (Ontario.)
During the four hundred years enslavement of Africans by Europeans there was a concerted effort to portray the enslaved Africans as being happy with their lot. The image of the fat grinning desexualized mammy who loved the White family more than she loved her own life was used by White people to rationalize the inhumanity of slavery. To deal with the cognitive dissonance of holding other humans in captivity and exploiting their labour White people had to convince themselves that enslaved Africans enjoyed being enslaved and loved the people who enslaved them. Members of White families would brutalize enslaved Africans on a daily basis and then on Sunday attend church and worship so they had to convince themselves that as good Christians the brutality they meted out to the Africans they enslaved was justified.
In the 1982 book, “The Plantation Mistress: Woman’s World In The Old South”, White American history professor Catherine Clinton explains: “The Mammy was created by white Southerners to redeem the relationship between black women and white men within slave society in response to the antislavery attack from the North during the ante-bellum period. The Mammy was the positive emblem of familial relations between black and white. She existed as a counterpoint to the octoroon concubine the light skinned product of a ‘white man’s lust’ who was habitually victimized by slaveowners’ sexual appetites.”
There is no evidence that Cooley was sexually exploited by her owner or his friends and relatives but it is hardly likely that this would have been documented, unlike the infamous slaveholder of the Jamaican plantation, Egypt. In 1989 African Jamaican history professor Douglas Gordon Hall published the diary of British slaveholder Thomas Thistlewood. In his diary Thistlewood documented his systematic and matter of fact rape of enslaved African women on his plantation.
He had the time and the opportunity for rape and documentation of these rapes because he did no work since he was the owner of a plantation and had enslaved Africans who were forced to do the work. Reading “In Miserable Slavery: Thomas Thistlewood in Jamaica, 1750-86” about the abuse of enslaved Africans on Thistlewood’s plantation (in the parish of Westmoreland) is not for the faint of heart. In his 2007 book “The Trader, The Owner, The Slave: Parallel Lives in the Age of Slavery”, White British historian James Walvin comments on the diary of Thistlewood: “Thomas Thistlewood left a 14,000 page diary. He details the daily life of a slave owner and the quite extraordinary levels of brutality he meters out to his slaves; the sexual brutality to the women, and the physical brutality to all of them.”
Walvin also muses on the oxymoronic reasons given for the continued enslavement of Africans and the hypocritical reality: “One of the justifications for slavery put forward by the planters was that you could treat slaves like this because they were not like us: they were sub-human. But against that of course was the fact that all the planters had sex with their slaves, so if they’re sub-human what were they doing have sex with them, and having children with them?”
African women, whether they were enslaved in the Caribbean, Central, North or South America or even in Europe, suffered the same fate.
Cooley’s struggle against her enslavement in Ontario, Canada also helps to explode the myth that there was no slavery in Canada. The popular stories of enslaved Africans fleeing slavery in the USA to find freedom in Canada continue into the 21st century. Documentation of slavery in Canada is mostly ignored and the few books that have been published are not particularly popular, even during February, African History Month.
I found it truly ironic that Toronto celebrated 180 years since it was incorporated as the capital of Ontario on March 6, 1834 because the enslavement of Africans in this city and throughout this country ended on August 1, 1834. Coincidentally, the same year (1793) that Cooley made a valiant effort to gain her freedom is the same year Toronto (the home of the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation) was occupied by the British. In an article published on March 6, 2014 by CBC News commemorating Toronto’s 180th birthday this information was provided: “The British settlement formally began with John Simcoe, who renamed Toronto in 1793, proclaiming the town of York and centring around Fort York, which was located in the area around the present-day St. Lawrence Market. It would be 41 years and one five-day American invasion later that York would revert to its native name, Toronto, on March 6, 1834.”
It is not surprising that there was no mention of Chloe Cooley even though her struggle happened in 1793 and led to Simcoe passing the first legislation in the British colonies to restrict the slave trade. It is also not surprising that the same people who held Africans in slavery also cheated the rightful owners of this land.
The CBC News article commemorating Toronto’s 180th birthday provided this information about the history of White occupation of this land: “That history begins with the contentious purchase of the land that would become metropolitan Toronto from First Nations. In the Toronto Purchase of 1805, the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation were given 10 shillings for the land — somewhere in the area of $45 today.”