By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
Run away on the 11th September last, a negro woman, named Susannah, about 27 years of age, 5 feet 10 inches high (!) smooth faced, speaks French a little and English. Whoever apprehends and secures the said negro woman so that her master may have her again shall receive a reward of ten dollars by applying to Messrs. Dobie & Frobisher, merchants of Montreal or to the Printer here.
N.B. Whoever harbors and conceals (?) said negro woman, shall be prosecuted to the utmost rigor of the law.
Quebec Gazette, October 19, 1769.
This is some of the information educator Natasha Henry shares with teachers who are interested in teaching about the history of Africans in Canada. Even among African Canadians this history is not well known but those who are interested can learn by reading about the history of Africans in Canada or attending one of Henry’s workshops.
October is Women’s History Month in Canada but when we read about women’s history in Canada it is mostly about the history of White women. Even the women who are indigenous to this land are hardly ever included in Canadian women’s history. There is an African proverb which says that until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter. Similarly, until African Canadians began to write about our stories all we heard and read was “their stories”. We were left out of the history books and although Africans have dwelled on this land since the 1600s it was as if we were invisible.
During this month, while the history of Canadian women is celebrated, you would have to listen very carefully to hear about African Canadian women, so we need to support our historians.
It is important for us as African people to recognize and celebrate the women in our community and ensure that “ourstory” includes the achievement of all people from our community regardless of gender. This month as the country celebrates “Women’s History Month,” take the opportunity to recognize and celebrate African women who went before us regardless of where they were born, when they lived or where they lived. We know the names of many African women who sacrificed much to move us forward as a people. Sometimes we forget what they endured and how they resisted, believing that the rights we have today were given to us. Whatever we have access to in 2013 did not come easily. We need to pause and think about those women who went before us and the sacrifices they made to get us to where we are today.
Although our history did not begin with slavery, that institution shaped who we are today. The internalized racism that many of us struggle with in various forms is a result of the enslavement of our ancestors. Slavery was a brutal institution that sought to dehumanize an entire race of people.
Female enslavement was different from that of men. It was not less severe, but it was different. Sexual abuse, child bearing and child care responsibilities affected how enslaved females conducted their lives and their patterns of resistance. The enslaved woman’s choices of seizing her freedom were limited compared to the males because she had to consider her children. As a mother she had different responsibilities. Women were less able to leave their chains and children behind. In her 1999 book, “Aren’t I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South”, Deborah Gray White wrote: “For those fugitive women who left children in slavery, the physical relief which freedom brought was limited compensation for the anguish they suffered.”
The routine rape of enslaved African women is well documented by mostly White men who were the perpetrators. Thomas Thistlewood, an Englishman, went to Jamaica in 1750 as a manager of a plantation. He eventually bought his own plantation and in a 10,000 page diary documented his systematic abuse of the enslaved Africans on his plantation, especially the sexual abuse of the women. The book: “In Miserable Slavery: Thomas Thistlewood in Jamaica 1750-1786” published in 1998 is not for the faint of heart. Documented court cases also illustrate the routine rape of enslaved African females, not only adult women but young girls.
In the book, “Celia A Slave”, the author uses court documents to tell the story of a 14-year-old enslaved African child, bought by a 56-year-old White plantation owner who brutally raped her the day he bought her. Repeatedly raped over the next four years, she gave birth to two children sired by her rapist. In 1855 when the court case is documented she is pregnant with the third child and charged with murder of her owner. She was tried, found guilty and hanged after she gave birth to the child. The abuse of enslaved African women occurred wherever they were enslaved regardless of which group of White people practiced this criminal activity. In the book, “Caetano Says No: Women’s Stories from a Brazilian Slave Society”; an eerily similar case is documented of the rape of an enslaved African female child by the much older Portuguese man on the same night he bought her.
Enslaved women in Canada were also brutalized and even sold away from their families. In her 2007 book, “The Hanging of Angelique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montreal (Race in the Atlantic World, 1700-1900)”, Dr. Afua Cooper researched court documents to tell the story of Marie Joseph Angelique, an enslaved African woman who was hanged in Montreal on June 21, 1734. Angelique was accused of setting fire to her owner’s home in an attempt to camouflage her escape after learning that she was being sold. A confession was tortured out of her and on June 4, 1734, Judge Pierre Raimbault handed down his sentence: “Marie Joseph Angelique, negress, slave woman of Thérèse de Couagne, widow of the late François Poulin de Francheville, you are condemned to die, to make honourable amends, to have your hand cut off, be burned alive, and your ashes cast to the winds.”
The valiant struggle of an enslaved African woman led to John Graves Simcoe’s effort to limit slavery in Upper Canada in 1793. On Wednesday, March 21, 1793 Peter Martin, a free African man, appeared before members of the Executive Council of Upper Canada (Ontario). Present were Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe, Chief Justice William Osgoode and Peter Russell, a prominent citizen who owned slaves. Martin informed the Council that a “violent outrage” had occurred to an enslaved African woman named Chloe Cooley.
Martin had witnessed a resident of Queenston named William Vrooman attempting to sell Cooley to someone in New York State. When she resisted being sold (she fought and screamed), Vrooman and two other White men violently subdued her, tied her with ropes and forcibly transported her across the Niagara River to her new owner. Cooley’s loud and vigorous resistance compelled Simcoe to make the effort to end slavery in Ontario. His effort was unsuccessful which is not surprising since many of the men who were in power at the time were slave owners. Peter Russell, who acted in Simcoe’s position when Simcoe left Canada, has an advertisement in a Toronto (York) newspaper dated February 10, 1806 where he has for sale a 40-year-old Black woman named Peggy and her 15-year-old son, Jupiter. What is not included in the advertisement is that Peggy was married to a free African man, Mr. Pompadour. However, Russell and his sister Elizabeth, “owned” Peggy, her son Jupiter and her two young daughters Amy and Milly. Even though their father was a free man, Peggy’s three children belonged to the Russells, since the law conferred the status of enslaved women on their children. The Russells could then sell Peggy Pompadour and her three children.
Celia, Peggy Pompadour, Chloe Cooley, Marie Joseph Angelique and many other enslaved African women whose names we do not know risked their lives in resisting their enslavement by any means necessary. The enslavement of Africans would have lasted much longer than it did if women had not resisted in their own way. We must continue to tell their stories.
October is Women’s History Month in Canada and our stories are also important and must be included.