February 06, 2007

Comments on Star's slavery in Canada article

A couple historical points left out of this article, on the lack of celebrations in Canada of the bicentennial of the end of the British slave trade:

1) It quotes celebration advocate Afua Cooper: "This is a country where the enslavement of black people was institutional and practised for the better part of three centuries"

The author, Royson James, writes: "By now, it should be common knowledge, passed on through our school's history books, that Canada benefited from the trafficking in black people for more than 200 years."

The first documented instance of a slave living in Canada occurred in 1628. The Osgoode decision of 1803 effectively ended slavery in most of Canada. That's 175 years, not more than 200. Even if you accept the end of the trade in 1807 as your end date on the "trafficking," it's 179.

2) Note the date above. The Osgoode decision effectively ended the keeping of slaves in Lower Canada, four years before the cross-Atlantic carriage in British ships was prohibited by law. A decade prior to that, Upper Canada governor John Graves Simcoe had made his the first British colony to prohibit the slave trade (although not slaveholding), with the Anti-slave Law of Upper Canada of 1793. It was one of the first legislative acts of Canada's largest English-speaking colony, which had been separated from Francophone Lower Canada in 1791.

Neither the Anti-slave Law nor the Osgoode decision are mentioned in James' article.

3) One estimate of the total number of slaves in Canada by Marcel Trudel came up with 1,400 blacks (native Canadians were also sometimes enslaved during the French period). Another estimate came up with 1,132 total black slaves during the French period, and about 2,000 arriving with the Loyalists. One might to wish to compare that to the estimated 30,000 Black Americans who escaped to Canada and freedom in the 19th century. The article, unfortunately, does not.

4) Historians have concluded that slavery in New France and later the English Canadian colonies was largely in the form of domestic servitude, rather than plantation work. As well, the price of human labour in the colonies was so high in the early years of Upper Canada, and life so tough for all concerned, that slave holding in those circumstances effectively became impractical (the reason for its rapid abolition). No, that does not make it any better. But it means the sentence, "Africans became field hands, domestics, the ones forced to do the hard work the colonialists [sic] refused" is rather... imprecise.

Posted by BruceR at 09:27 AM