Colonial Canada: Canadian history in the early modern era

Module 3: Slavery and Unfreedom in Early Canada

Introduction to Slavery and Unfreedom in Early Canada

All nations have myths. Some are innocuous; some harmful. One of Canada’s, and unfortunately one that falls into the harmful category, is that the US had slavery, and we didn’t. As we see this week, that’s clearly not true. It’s true that slavery was different here: not so wide-scale, more domestic than industrial. But the simple fact remains that human beings were reduced to the status of property, bought and sold, advertised in newspapers in the same columns as livestock, and passed on in wills like the family china.

Our readings show us both African and Indigenous slaveries. It’s important that we see that broader canvas. It’s easy today to be horrified by slavery, to condemn its cruel and barbaric practices. But it’s important as historians that we see why it existed and why it existed in particular forms in particular places. Slavery was a common social condition in most societies in the ancient, medieval, and early modern worlds. To be clear, this is not to suggest that we should not take position of moral condemnation; it is to suggest that such condemnation is easy, and our job then to try to understand why humans would not only engage in but also justify and legitimize legally classifying some human beings as free and others not.


As we’ll see slavery assumed different forms. Many of you probably imagine slavery as a system of field production where masses of unfree workers labour in sugar, cotton, tobacco, and other plantation-style productions. That was certainly the case where slavery was most common, in places like the Caribbean, Brazil and the southern United States.  But in other places, like Canada and the northern United States, slaves existed in much more decentralized locations of production like the household and smaller artisanal workplaces. There were fewer of them, and much less visible because of that, but still there. You'll get a good glimpse of that kind of situation in Ken Donovan's essay on slaves at Louisbourg. He points out that in the domestic world, relations may have been less harsh. Of course, we might also point out that they were still slaves - they still had no control over their lives and could be sold to another person, shipped to anoother colony, in a moment.
 
This week, our readings examine slavery during the French period (up to 1763). We’ll see that significant differences existed between Indigenous slavery and the slave trade in Africans. Most notably, we’ll see differences in the purposes of slaves, the system of slavery more generally, and the meaning slavery held in different societies. Both systems were barbaric, but as we'll see in Brent Rushforth's reading Indigenous slavery could be less cruel. Unlike in British and French systems, slaves in Indigenous societies were not economic assets; they were usually captives taken in warfare and often intended to replace war losses. And though many slaves/captives were tortured or killed, enslavement often offered the person a path to adoption into the society and the kinship networks that governed the captors' worlds.



While our readings are limited to French Canada, the use of slaves continued into the British period as well. In Nova Scotia, established as a British colony 80 years before Upper and Lower Canada, slavery was common, and newspapers regularly feature notices of sales and runaways. By the early 19th-century, in Nova Scotia and the Canadas, a combination of legal challenges and legislation had ended both the slave trade (that is the importation of slaves) and the legality of holding slaves. It's worth noting however that this gradual abolition took time and was resisted fiercely by slave holders, who were often rich and therefore influential. 

Indeed, it’s here in this small period in the early-mid 19th century that we see the origins of the myth we referred to above. Most English-Canadians and Nova Scotians in this time period identified as Britons, and regarded America as a renegade experiment gone wrong. Britain in the 18th century was one of the two or three largest players in the slave trade, and much of its overseas empire relied on slave labour. But as Britain moved to ban the slave trade (1807) and slavery in general (1833), many Britons (and therefore Canadians!) saw slavery as a key indicator of why slave-holding America was a decadent society (which, by the way, ignored the fact that most northern states had outlawed slavery even before Britain). This was amplified in the 1850s and 60s when the Underground Railway brought thousands of fugitive slaves to Canada. For many Canadians then, and well into the 20th century, these stories became part of separating "us" from "them" - that we (Canadians) were moral and they (Americans) were decadent. As we'll see in a few weeks, Loyalists also provided a foundation for many Canadians in believing that we were different and a distinct people; slavery fit in here too, and in examples such as these we can see the early outlines of Canadian nationalism. Was it a myth that Canada was different from US? No. But it is myth that we were a non-slave society. We should be proud that we abolished slavery sooner than the US. But we should not forget that we had been a slave society too.
 

Readings:

Read the secondary sources in chapter 2 of Visions: "Unfreedom in Early Canada"

The three pieces we read this week take us to different places, and focus on different contexts. Let’s explore general understandings of slavery in colonial Canada, but do so mindful of the different forms it took AND the different perspectives historians bring to the subject.

A useful supplement can be found in this podcast with Brett Rushforth.






Questions for your readings:

1. Each of you should try to forge a common question for our readings. What simple question allows us to explore a common historiographical issue in these excerpts?
2. Begin your discussion of each author, "Donovan [or whomever it is!] argues that ... ". 
3. What are some the key differences between slavery as practiced by Indigenous peoples and by the French?  
4. What does the presence of slavery in this period tell us about the nature of colonial-era Canada? 
5. These authors have different specific subjects. But do they also view their subjects differently? That is, do you see any of these historian’s perspectives in the way they present their histories?
6. Slavery is often equated with cruelty and violence. We see lots of violence in Rushforth, and very little in Donovan. And yet I wonder if that distracts us. I think there's something paradoxical in the different approaches of Rushforth and Donovan. Any thoughts?

 

 
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