By BARRINGTON A. MORRISON
The Act abolishing slavery throughout the British Colonies was approved in England in 1833. However, as early as 1793, the Legislature of Upper Canada passed a law forbidding the importation of slaves and providing that children of slaves already in the country should become free at the age of 25 years.
The catalyst for this first prohibition on slavery in Upper Canada was an enslaved Black woman named Chloe Cooley. On March 14, 1793, she was bound by her master, William Vrooman of Queenstown, thrown on 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 Ranger and William Grisley, a White neighbour who witnessed the event.
John Graves Simcoe immediately moved to abolish slavery in the province. He was met with intense opposition in the House of Assembly by those members who owned slaves. However, a compromise was reached and on July 9, 1793, an Act was passed that prevented the further introduction of slaves into Upper Canada (Ontario), and allowed for the gradual abolition. 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 Railroad. It is helpful to note that the Act John Graves Simcoe quickly introduced into the House of Assembly was a compromise, “to prevent the further introduction of slaves” into Upper Canada. No slaves were to be freed because of the Act.
After the 1793 law was passed in the Legislature of Upper Canada, the enslaved Africans in the United States wanting to be free and seeking refuge began the perilous trek toward the Canadian border. They truly believed that once on the other side of the 49th parallel, equality of opportunity would be theirs.
“Live north, or die here,” Harriet Ross Tubman told the fugitive slaves in 1850. She and other activists of the Underground Railroad began to settle runaway slaves in Upper Canada, what is now Ontario. Following the North Star to Canada with Tubman, the runaway slaves sustained the buoyancy of their indomitable spirit by collectively chanting the popular slave song, “Song of the Free”:
I’m on my way to Canada,
That cold and dreary land;
The dire effects of slavery
I can no longer stand…
Farewell, old master,
Don’t come after me,
I’m on my way to Canada
Where coloured men are free.
With the influx of African-American slaves across the border, some White Canadians began to raise their collective voices against an unchecked slave migration. This morbid fear of the runaway slaves was fueled by social Darwinism that was sweeping across Europe and America. These new ideas were fueled by one of Germany’s leading social thinkers, Georg Wilhelm Hegel, who in justifying slavery to the world declared: “The Negro exhibits the natural man in his completely wild and untamed state. We must lay aside all thought of reverence and morality – all that we call feeling – if we could rightly comprehend him: there is nothing harmonious with humanity to be found in this type of character… (Africa) is no historical part of the world; it has no movement or development to show.”
Jonathan Swift made a sharp but witty comment on the profound ignorance of his fellow Europeans’ lack of knowledge of Africa when he wrote:
With savage pictures fill the gaps,
And o’er uninhabitable downs
Paint elephants instead of towns.
This type of warped philosophy helped fuel racial tensions and hatred of Africa and African characteristics. Hegel’s hubris and faulty premise of the African continent and its people would be used as justification for brutalizing the enslaved Africans. To compound this problem, some White members of a religious persuasion in Canada descended into the Dantesque level of racism like their southern counterparts in the United States and turned to the Bible to justify their prejudice against the enslaved Africans. For them, skin colour was associated in Christian iconography with sin and the devil, and being Black means you were cursed and destined to be “hewers of wood and drawers of water”.
This is the reductio ad absurdum which American and Canadian White supremacists would use to justify a pervasive Eurocentric global doctrine that Black people – African people – are inherently inferior. It is against this backdrop that the escaped slaves from the United States arrived in Canada.