By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
The Honorable Marcus Mosiah Garvey famously said: “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”
Garvey was born on August 17, 1887 and transitioned on June 10, 1940 in London, England, when he was almost 53-years-old. He is considered the father of the modern Pan-African movement and his philosophy of “Africa for Africans at home and abroad” has influenced generations of Africans on the African continent and in the Diaspora.
His activism and dedication to the education of African-Americans made him a target of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), an organization of the U.S. government which eventually orchestrated his imprisonment and deportation.
Garvey’s work while he was in the U.S. has borne fruit with the successive generations of African-Americans becoming aware of their history although there is much work still to be done. The history of African-Americans is well-documented and for those who choose to read there are numerous books that include the stories of the struggle for civil and human rights by African-Americans.
The history of the African presence in the U.S. is included in books, magazines, television programs and movies. Names like “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa, Oklahoma and “Rosewood” in Florida, which were thriving African-American communities that were destroyed by Whites are fairly well known. The names of African-American freedom fighters like El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Malcolm X), Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer and Medgar Evers are also fairly well known. Garvey also famously said: “A reading man and woman is a ready man and woman, but a writing man and woman is exact.”
While visiting Canada in October, 1937 Garvey delivered a speech at Menelik Hall in Sydney, Nova Scotia where he is quoted as saying to his followers:
“We are going to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery because whilst others might free the body, none but ourselves can free the mind. Mind is your only ruler, sovereign. The man who is not able to develop and use his mind is bound to be the slave of the other man who uses his mind, because man is related to man under all circumstances for good or for ill. If man is not able to protect himself from the other man he should use his mind to good advantage.”
Garvey published his Nova Scotia speech in the July 1938 edition of his Black Man magazine. Some of his famous words have been immortalized by the Honorable Robert “Bob” Nesta Marley in his popular 1980 released “Redemption Song” from the album Uprising.
The history of Africans in Canada is not well known because of the White supremacist culture which permeates the education system. Many Canadians therefore do not know that there has been an African presence in this country since at least the 1600s, beginning with Matthew DaCosta.
DaCosta was a member of the Champlain expedition as an interpreter for the French with the Mi’kmaq people, who are indigenous to Canada. In his 1981 book, The Freedom Seekers: Blacks in Early Canada, African-American historian Daniel G. Hill wrote: “Mattieu Da Costa, though not a permanent resident of Canada, was the first known Black to set foot on Canadian soil. He came with the expedition Pierre de Gua, sieur De Monts which founded Port Royal in 1605. It is probable that Da Costa had spent some time in Canada even earlier, for he served as interpreter for the French Habitation with the friendly Micmac of the area.”
The first documented presence of an enslaved African in Canada is that of a six-year-old child who was kidnapped from his home in Africa and sold by David Kirke, an Englishman, to a French family in Quebec in 1628. This child, whose African name is not known, was sold several times during his short life (he was buried May 10, 1654) and was given the name Olivier LeJeune.
In 1796, a group of Africans who had lived as free people in Jamaica were transported to Nova Scotia by the British even though they had been promised their destination would be Africa. This group of almost 600 African men, women and children were members of a community that had seized their freedom in 1655 when the British expelled the Spanish from the island.
The Maroons, as they were called by the British, lived in the mountains of Jamaica and refused to submit or be enslaved by the British, who attacked them regularly. On July 21, 1796 (after the second Maroon War) the Africans arrived in Nova Scotia on three ships: Anne, Dover and Mary. The Maroons were put to work building the fort (Fort George) that still stands today on Citadel Hill in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Many of the Maroons who arrived in Canada in July, 1796 were eventually successful in achieving their desire to live in Africa when they were taken to Sierra Leone, West Africa.
The enslavement of Africans in Canada did not end until August 1, 1834 with the passing of the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 in the Parliament of the United Kingdom, which abolished slavery throughout the British Empire. With the abolition of slavery in Canada a group of Africans settled in what became known as Africville in Nova Scotia. Although there were other communities of Africans in Canada, Africville is the community that suffered a similar fate to the African-American communities of “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa, Oklahoma and “Rosewood” in Florida, but is not as well known.
Documented purchase of land by Africans in the community of Africville was made between 1842 and 1848 by five families with the last names: Arnold, Brown, Carvery, Fletcher and Hill. In 1849, the community of Africville built the Seaview United Baptist Church that served as the community’s spiritual and cultural centre. The attack on the community by the Nova Scotia government began almost immediately.
Beginning in the 1850s, railroads and railroad expansions (Canadian National Railways) ran through the community. A city prison, an infectious disease hospital, a slaughterhouse and a city dump were built and operated in areas surrounding the community of Africville. Although the members of the community paid taxes they were never connected to water and sewer services. The members of the community relied on local springs that became contaminated by the railway and surrounding industrial waste.
The community was severely neglected and ostracized until the government decided on its destruction. Within three years (1964-1967) the Nova Scotia government forced the African Canadian community of Africville out of their homes, destroying their church, their homes and their community, bulldozing some homes that were occupied. After resisting for months, the last resident of Africville, the elderly Aaron “Pa” Carvery, was forced out of his home on January 2, 1970. On January 6, four days later, the destruction of the historic African Canadian community established since the 1800s was complete (www.nfb.ca/film/remember_africville).
The government of Nova Scotia, after evicting the Africville community and razing their homes, established “Seaview Park”, which is an off-leash dog park in its place. After suffering the horrific abuse of chattel slavery and the complete destruction of their homes by the government the members of the community continue to meet every year. The Africville community and their descendants gather at “Seaview Park” every summer at the end of July to remember the community of Africville.
Marcus Mosiah Garvey, who is the first National Hero of Jamaica, spent his life advocating, educating and working to improve the lives and minds of Africans. During his lifetime he successfully established factories in the U.S. to employ African-Americans and the organization which he established helped to raise the awareness of Africans.
On July 20, 1914, Marcus Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Through the UNIA, Garvey urged Africans worldwide to be proud of their skin colour, the texture of their hair, the fullness of their lips, the shape of their noses, bodies and everything about their perfectly made selves as Africans.
He urged Africans to see themselves through their own “spectacles” made in the image of the God they worshipped:
“If Negroes are created in God’s image, and Negroes are Black, then God must, in some sense, be Black. If the White man has the idea of a white God, let him worship his God as he desires. Because once our God has no colour, and yet it is human to see everything through one’s own spectacles, and since the White people have seen their God through their white spectacles, we have only now started to see our God through our own spectacles.”
In 2014 the words of Garvey remain pertinent, 74 years after he transitioned: “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”