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Slavery in Canada

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There is a myth that Canada was always a haven for slaves who escaped the US, but in fact slavery was as commonplace in the region as it was in other colonies. This page is intended to introduce the context for slavery, which may have been relevant to your ancestors.

Scroll down for some research resources and suggestions for how you might use WikiTree's features to highlight your ancestor's involvement.

Note: As Canada was formed as a country in 1867, the majority of this information refers to the colonies that existed before that time.

Contents

History

Before European settlement

Indigenous peoples practiced forms of slavery when taking captives in war. These captives were not seen as property with commercial value, but were seen as a substitute for another person who was lost. They served as replacement labourers and wives for their captors, or they could be gifted to others to serve the same purpose. As these slaves spoke different languages and understood the cultures of tribes in different regions, they often served as translators and social intermediaries.

Slavery also existed in Europe and in the Americas before European settlements were established in what is now Canada. In 1441, a Portugese explorer named Antão Gonçalves was one of the first of those recorded to buy an enslaved African, and the Portugese used African slaves as labour to develop colonies and sugar plantations in their colonies, such as São Tomé and the Gold Coast in that century. In 1501, the first Africans slaves were recorded in the Spanish colony of Hispaniola in North America.

New France

New France was established circa 1608. The early settlers recognized the role that slaves played in the economic success of other European colonies, and records show they had adopted the practice by 1632. The majority of their slaves were indigenous, but Black slaves also played an important role.

Indigenous slaves

The settlers of New France saw the act of enslaving people as unethical, but accepted the practice of buying or receiving slaves, and this worked well with the indigenous practices.
At first, the French settlers simply accepted the gift of indigenous slaves offered in diplomatic negotiations, however their keen interest in these captives altered the indigenous habits. Trading captives with the French became profitable, so indigenous warfare became more focused on captive-taking and networks of allies were established to facilitate the transfer to the French.

African slaves

In 1632, Olivier LeJeune was recorded as the first African slave in New France, but the effort to import African slaves didn't start until 1685, over fifty years later.
The effort was not considered a success. New France didn't have the economic powerhouse of large plantations to the south, the climate was more difficult, and wars complicated the development of the necessary infrastructure. Scholars estimate that New France imported only about 1,400 slaves directly from Africa, and another 3,000 or so were purchased from colonies to the south.
The fortress of Louisbourg was established on Ile Royale in 1713. Aside from the hundreds of slaves who travelled through the port aboard merchant vessels, records show 216 Black slaves living there, a mix of slaves who were brought from Africa and others who were brought from the Dutch West Indies. These records show them working as servants, gardeners, bakers, tavern keepers, stonemasons, soldiers, sailors, fisherman and hospital workers. It seems that their role became more important than intended, they were seen as citizens of the community and helped to shape a growing African-French colonial culture.

English colonial slavery

In 1749, Colonel Edward Cornwallis founded Halifax with 2,500 settlers from England, including 418 Black slaves. A second wave of settlers arrived as the English evacuated Louisbourg, and other settlers soon arrived from New England, including 17 free Black persons, and an unknown number of slaves. Examples include:

  • Captain Thomas Bloss, who brought sixteen enslaved Blacks to Halifax in 1750
  • Joshua Mauger, a businessman who openly traded in slaves

Ten years later, starting in 1759, a wave of about 2000 families migrated from New England to establish new settlements in colonial Nova Scotia (the region known to the French as Acadia). These New England Planters brought their household slaves with them. The precise number of slaves isn't clear, as the term servants was used in their records quite loosely, and included dependent family members (e.g. the maiden aunt) and indentured servants as well as slaves. But the records are clear on specific examples, which illustrate how commonplace it was. Examples include:

  • Malachy Salter wrote to his wife in Boston, asking her to purchase a Black slave
  • Simeon Perkins wrote several passages in his diary about purchasing and owning Black slaves
  • William Creed brought at least one Black slave with his household to St. John's Island (now PEI)

Loyalist migration

Following the American Revolution, over 40,000 Loyalists migrated to the Atlantic region as well as Upper and Lower Canada, now Ontario and Quebec. Almost almost 3,000 Black Loyalists were recorded in the Book of Negros, but scholars estimate that the Loyalists brought over 10,000 slaves with them, and the examples are too numerous to be provided here (see WikiTree categories at the bottom of the page)

Abolition

The journey to abolition was slow. In the records after the Loyalist migration, scholars note that there was little difference in the status of a free Black or a slave, they were both referred to as "servant", and often given no name in the records. in some communities, Loyalist slave owners and their descendants felt pressure to free their slaves, and many did, but the opposition was strong.

  • In 1793, the US passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which was intended to make it easier to return runaway slaves to their owners. This also triggered a response among abolitionists, and resulted in the growth of anti-slavery societies in the US and in the northern colonies. In the same year, 1793, Upper Canada passed abolition legislation which provided that any slave arriving in the province was automatically declared free. Over 30,000 slaves came to the region via the Underground Railroad until 1865.
  • In 1807, the slave trade was abolished throughout the British Empire – including the region that is now known as Canada - although ownership was still legal
  • During the war of 1812, over 2000 Black refugees came to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick
  • In 1825, Prince Edward island abolished slavery
  • In 1834, the British Parliament abolished slavery in Great Britain and all the colonies. Initially, it only freed children under the age of six, and everyone else was forced to work as apprentices without pay for several years.

Modern legacy

The abolition of slavery was one important step on the road to equality in Canada, however this history is part of the pattern of systemic racial discrimination that has been examined in various ways by our ancestors, and continues to be an issue in Canada today.

Was your ancestor involved?

You can use the categories Canada, Slave Owners, Canada, Slaves and History Canada to recognize their involvement. Remember to use other relevant categories for locations, occupation and accomplishments to clearly situate your ancestor in their context.

Some resources

  • Library & Archives Canada Black History in Canada (includes resources for researchers)
  • Library & Archives Canada Carleton Papers – Book of Negroes, 1783, with searchable database
  • Genealogy Quebec le blog de l'Institut Drouin; 2 NOVEMBER 2020 BY CATHIE-ANNE DUPUIS; Slavery as witnessed through New France’s parish registers
  • Bibliotheque et archives nationale de Quebec En quelle année l’esclavage a-t-il été aboli au Québec?
  • Nova Scotia Archives African Nova Scotians in the Age of Slavery and Abolition Virtual Exhibit (includes resources for researchers)
  • Nova Scotia Archives African Nova Scotians in the Age of Slavery and Abolition; "A list of settlers victual'd at this place [Halifax] between the eighteenth day of May & fourth day of June 1750..." Reference: Isaac Deschamps Nova Scotia Archives MG 1 volume 258 number 12 (microfilm 14912)
  • Ontario Archives Enslaved Africans in Upper Canada

Notes for further reading





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