Slavery in Canada: The Long Journey to Yarmouth

By Sharon Robart-Johnson (February 2008)


Canada was seen as the "hope and freedom" destination of thousands of runaway slaves who were considered fugitives. They were brutally hunted and severely punished for their "crime" of wanting to be free. Canadians, however, turned their heads towards the American border at the mere mention of the word slavery. Their sorrow over the 300 years of human bondage that was the legacy of their American neighbors was real enough, but was it enough.

TO BE SOLD

A BLACK WOMAN, named Peggy, aged about forty years; and a Black boy her son, named JUPITER aged about fifteen years, both of them the property of the subscriber.
The woman is a tolerable cook and washer woman and perfectly understands making soap and candles.
The boy is tall and strong of his age, and has been employed in County business, but brought up principally as a House Servant - They are each of them Servants for life. The price for the Woman is one hundred and fifty Dollars - for the Boy two hundred Dollars, payable in three years with interest from the day of Sale and to be properly secured by Bond &c. - But one fourth less will be taken in ready Money.

PETER RUSSELL
York, Feb. 10th, 1806

Who would have given credence to the fact that Canada had its own two hundred year legacy of slavery! As said by the writer of the article In Bondage, Tom Derreck, "Canada has its own two hundred year old slave skeleton rattling about in its national closet." And so it did.

Canada's first known Black slave was a young boy named (a name given to him) Oliver Le Jeune, forcibly removed from his home on the island of Madagascar in Africa in 1628. He was later sold to a minor French Canadian bureaucrat and as a result he became Canada's first enslaved resident.

One of the most famous stories regarding a slave in Canada comes out of Montreal April 17, 1734. Marie Josephe Angelique was the slave property of Francois Poulin, a merchant. After learning that she was about to be separated from her lover, Claude Thibault, a white indentured servant from France, she set fire to her owner's home to cover her attempted escape. Raging out of control the fire destroyed forty-six buildings. It took authorities two months to apprehend her after which time she was tried and cruelly put to death.

The Underground Railroad which operated between 1830 and 1861 brought a large number of escaped slaves into Upper Canada. This railroad was not a train, but a series of escape points set up by a group of abolitionists. They chose to aid and conceal runaway fugitive slaves in their homes along a carefully planned route that would take the escaping slaves across the border into the land they looked upon as their salvation.

In 1783 the names of 3000 Blacks were entered into a book known as the Book of Negroes. These people, Black Loyalists, embarked on a ten day trip from New York to Nova Scotia. Some of whom arrived in Shelburne County on various ships only to find that their lives were no better here than they were where they came from. The land that was promised was so poor or so small that it bordered on being totally useless and in some cases it was. A large number of these Loyalists came as freed slaves, while others were still enslaved.

Eventually a few of the United Empire Loyalists made their way to Yarmouth County. Some brought their slaves with them, but contrary to belief, not all slave owners were cruel. James Lent who settled in Tusket also brought his slaves with him. One slave, William Berry asked his Master for a wife, at which time James purchased one for him. Her name was Dinah. As far as can be determined, Mr. Lent was not unkind to his slaves. Two other prominent Yarmouth men who were slave owners were Dr. Joseph Norman Bond, surgeon and Nehemiah Porter, coroner. Neither was physically cruel to their charges.

Others, however, gave not a second thought to beating their slaves for something as minor as stealing a piece of bread; or whipping a young girl of about thirteen years of age for allegedly stealing a piece of ribbon. Even these punishments pale in comparison to the brutal beating of a slave girl, a beating that resulted in her death the following morning. Would it never end?

Finally, the day came when freedom was in sight. On August 24, 1833 the Slavery Abolition Act was passed by the British Parliament and it became law on August 1, 1834. Slavery was abolished throughout the British colonies and an estimated 800,000 Blacks who had been held in bondage for so many years, were finally emancipated.

Slavery had come to an end in Canada.