AfriGeneas Canada Research Forum
Telling the Truth About the Anti-Slavery Struggle in Canada
Telling the Truth About the Anti-Slavery Struggle in Canada
By Colin Rickards
TORONTO, Ontario: In the iconic 1960s TV series “Dragnet” Sergeant Joe Friday is -- in the public memory — noted for saying that he wanted: “Just the facts.” Actually, what he said in an early episode was: “All we want are the facts.”
Fast forward to the present, and I was pleased to see that Dr. Ayman
Al-Yassini, Executive Director of The Canadian Race Relations Foundation (CRRF), has urged care in ensuring that “our history correctly reflects the truth.”
I certainly applauded him for his statement in support of the United Nations International Day for the Commemoration of the 200th Anniversary of the Abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
Just two days after the Ontario Legislature had unanimously adopted an all-party Motion on the Bicentennial commemoration — which included an exceptional presentation by Provincial Conservative M.P.P. Frank Klees — and two days before the many events to mark the actual bicentenary, Dr.
Al-Yassini issued two statements.
He specifically recognized that the descendants of enslaved Africans “continue to experience the legacy of racism today.” No argument there.
“In understanding and working against racism and racial discrimination, the Foundation believes that it is critical that we, as Canadians, acknowledge the racism of our past,” Dr. Al-Yassini added. No argument there, either.
Then he said: “Our job must include ensuring that our history correctly reflects the truth” — and there he blew it.
For, in an accompanying statement -- which can be found on the CRRF’s website — www.crr.ca — Dr. Al-Yassini reminded Canadians that slavery existed in this country.
“Indeed, the Governor of Upper Canada who is credited with ending the process of enslavement owned enslaved Africans,” Dr. Al-Yassini wrote.
To which I say: “Rubbish.”
Apart from the fact that he got the man’s title wrong — he was the Lieutenant-Governor — John Graves Simcoe, who masterminded the anti-slavery legislation of 1793, was certainly not a slave-owner.
Indeed, he had been a Member of Parliament for a West of England constituency and had made anti-slavery speeches in the House of Commons before being named as Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada.
In a private letter, written before taking up his post, Simcoe pledged that he would give no assent to any law that “discriminates by dishonest policy between the natives of Africa, America or Europe.”
The first session of the new Parliament of Upper Canada, in March, 1793, was told by a Free Black man named Peter Martin that he had seen a settler named William Vrooman at Queenston taking a young enslaved woman named Chloe Cooley across the river to sell her to an American buyer. She had been bound, and was loudly protesting her fate.
Simcoe instructed Attorney-General John White to prosecute Vrooman, but Chief Justice William Osgoode and legislator Peter Russell advised that this could not be done, as Vrooman was merely selling his own property.
White, who had practiced law in Jamaica, nevertheless assured Simcoe that he could introduce a Bill into the House of Assembly, which would have some impact on slavery.
Of 16 members of the Assembly, at least six owned slaves, as did three members of the Legislative Council, including Peter Russell himself. Nevertheless, White managed to pilot the legislation through the House, and it passed with “much opposition but little argument.”
Politics, it is said, is the art of the possible, and while the legislation failed to abolish slavery, it prevented new immigrants from bringing enslaved people up from the United States, and contained a number of other forward-looking clauses.
When making a case for justice, it is important to be scrupulously accurate, hence my disappointment at Dr. Al-Yassini’s careless slagging of Simcoe. It is perhaps the more regrettable, as the CCRF grew out of Canada’s recognition of the wrongs done to Japanese Canadians during the Second World War, and was set up to “foster racial harmony and cross-cultural understanding and help eliminate racism.”
The Canadian Race Relations Foundation Act became law on October 28, 1996, and, funded by $24 million endowment — taxpayers’ money — the Foundation officially opened its doors 13 months later.
The Bicentennial of the Abolition of the British Slave Trade has produced, and will continue to produce, much valuable new material on history’s most horrendous crime — and it is also producing a good deal of sloppy, agenda driven and sometimes self-serving rubbish, not to mention inaccurate “feel good” history.
For example, whatever is said by activists and pseudo-historians, it cannot really be shown that slave revolts in the pre-1807 English-speaking Caribbean — put down with frightening ferocity — did much more than scare the daylights out of the White plantocracy.
David Comissiong of the Global Afrikan Congress (GAC) spoke at the Jamaica Canadian Association in late March and listed many slave revolts in the English-speaking Caribbean between 1760 and 1787, holding them responsible for the GAC’s mantra that “The British was (sic) forced by Afrikan resistance to vote to outlaw the trans-Atlantic trade in Afrikans.”
His list included: Jamaica (1760), Bermuda (1761) Berbice (1763), Grenada (1765), Jamaica (1766), St. Vincent (1769), Belize (1773), Jamaica (1776), St. Kitts (1778), Dominica (1785) and The Bahamas (1787). Comissiong sawed off his litany as 1787, as that was the year that a small group of Englishman founded the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, and Comissiong said: “Let’s give them their credit” for having begun a serious war of anti-Slave Trade propaganda.
Yet the Committee, as Comissiong rightly said, was largely tunnel-visioned, seeking to end the Trade and naïvely believing that this would lead to the end of Slavery itself — in due time.
Certainly of equal — and sometimes more — importance in the struggle were the Africa-born Abolitionists in England: Ottobah Cugoano, a Fantee who had been captured on the coast of what is now Ghana and taken to Grenada as a child, and Olaudah Equiano, an Igbo from what is now eastern Nigeria.
They both wrote best sellers about slavery, respectively “Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evils of Slavery” in 1787, and “Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, written by himself” in 1789. Equiano lectured constantly, all over England, and both men were leaders in an activist group calling themselves The Sons of Africa.
There were further slave revolts in the English-speaking Caribbean between the establishment of the Abolition Committee and the ending of the Slave Trade: Jamaica (1791), Dominica (1791), Berbice (1795), Dominica (1795), St. Vincent (1795-96), Grenada (1795-97), and St. Lucia (1796).
Yet, even so, it was not the enslaved people of the English-speaking Caribbean, with their repeated uprisings, who truly created an atmosphere conducive to finally getting the Abolition legislation through the Parliamentary process.
Events in Haiti certainly did.
The series of slave uprisings, which began in 1791, continued almost unabated for some 13 years, as the Haitians fought soldiers of three European armies — and each other — until they were able to declare Independence in 1804.
Britain’s Abolition of the Slave Trade Act passed into law on March 25, 1807 — it is this bicentenary which is currently being commemorated — and came into effect the following May 1.
The next struggle was to end the institution of slavery itself, but this would take another 27 years, and arguments about slave rebellions being influential in British Parliamentary thinking are much better applied to the Abolition of Slavery itself in 1834/38 than to the Abolition of the Slave Trade almost three decades earlier.
Some small uprisings played a part, but the Bussa Rebellion in Barbados in 1816, the uprising led by Jack Gladstone, in what is now Guyana, in 1823, and the rising led by Sam Sharpe in Jamaica in 1831, were especially influential.
So were several other slave narratives, and also the very economics of slavery, and its dwindling returns, as has been convincingly shown by Trinidad and Tobago’s late Prime Minister, Eric Williams, in his classic book “Capitalism and Slavery.”
So, let’s stick to the truth when making a case. The facts about slavery need no gilding. Let’s think of Sergeant Joe Friday who said: “All we want are the facts.”
Colin Rickards is a Toronto historian and journalist who writes for several black Canadian and Caribbean newspapers and formerly wrote for several British and African papers. He's also a published author withwide-ranging interests and strengths, including the
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