Monday, January 29, 2007

Hail the unknown heroes

In 1792, a group of brave black Loyalists inspired abolitionists everywhere when they left Nova Scotia for an uncertain future in Africa. Their little-known tale deserves to be celebrated today, writes Lawrence Hill

Two hundred years ago, on March 25, 1807, King George III signed a Parliamentary law abolishing the British slave trade. Though slavery itself would not be abolished for another 27 years, it was a key moment in the struggle for freedom, and its anniversary is being loudly celebrated in England and Jamaica this year.

In Canada, however, the reaction so far has been muted. That is a pity, because blacks here played a pivotal role in the move toward abolition when, in 1792, 1,200 of them boarded a ship in Halifax to resettle in Sierra Leone – showing the world what lengths people will go to in order to be free.

After the anti-slave-trade law took effect, the British navy began to patrol African shores to intercept vessels that traded in humans, choking off the supply of men, women and children to Canada, the United States and the Caribbean nations. But in Canada and the rest of the British Empire, slavery itself was not abolished until August 1, 1834. South of our border, slavery officially ended some three decades later, in 1865, with the Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution.

When Canadians think of the abolition of slavery, white heroes are often the first who come to mind.

In Canada, we think of John Graves Simcoe, the first lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada, who attempted in 1793 to introduce a law to end slavery outright. Slave-owning legislators opposed him, however, and Simcoe could obtain no better than compromise legislation that set slaves free at the age of 25 and forbade the further importation of slaves. Quakers too struggled valiantly and peacefully to abolish the slave trade in Britain and slavery in North America. Quakers were among the many who helped black fugitives from the United States flee slavery and come north to what would become Canada. Other whites who fought against slavery included: John Brown, the fiery zealot who rustled up a ragtag group of men to attack a U.S. weapons arsenal in Harpers Ferry, Virginia in 1859, with a view to freeing black men and women and bringing the institution of slavery to its knees; and the British Parliamentarian William Wilberforce, who laboured for decades to persuade his elected peers to oppose the trade in human beings.

But lost in many public discussions of this history are stories of the incredible efforts that blacks played in the push toward abolition.

One of the ways that blacks fought made abolition more palatable was to make slavery more dangerous for the white slave owners. As Toronto writer Afua Cooper has documented thoroughly in her book The Hanging of Angélique, in 1734, a Portuguese-born black slave named Marie Joseph Angélique burned down her owner's home in Montreal, taking out a quarter of the city in the ensuing blaze, only to face barbaric torture and execution. Five years later, 20 black slaves collaborating in the famous Stono Rebellion in South Carolina rose up against their owners, killing some 20 whites before they were finally put down. And in 1791, in the most successful uprising of its kind in the 18th century, the slaves in the French colony of Saint Domingue, now known as Haiti, overthrew their rulers after looting and burning more than a thousand plantations, attacking and murdering whites as they went. Later, these same black rebels resisted military attacks by the British, taking the lives of thousands of British soldiers. But it would be a mistake to think that black resistance to slavery, and black participation in the abolition of the slave trade, was limited to violence.

Like the whites who advanced the cause of abolition in political circles, blacks also used words – and penned their stories – to argue against the sin of slavery. Olaudah Equiano, an African-born man who was enslaved in the Americas for years before obtaining his freedom, became the most famous abolitionist of colour in England when he published his life story, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, in 1789.

One of the most fascinating stories of blacks who resisted slavery and mistreatment involves the black Loyalists of Nova Scotia.

On January 15, 1792, 1,200 Nova Scotian blacks sailed in a flotilla of 15 ships from Halifax to Sierra Leone in West Africa. By moving permanently to the continent from which some of them had been abducted and enslaved decades earlier, these individuals nudged the world one step closer to abolition of the British slave trade in 1807.

The Nova Scotians – described at the time as "adventurers" – sailed in the opposite direction of slaving vessels that were still bringing stolen Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas.

The Nova Scotians' exodus predated the "back to Africa" preachings of Jamaican Marcus Garvey by more than a century. It took place decades before ex-American slaves founded the west African colony of Liberia. And the Nova Scotians are still remembered in Sierra Leone as being among the modern founders of the country. To this day, there are people in Sierra Leone who trace their lineage to the Nova Scotian settlers.

The blacks had come to Nova Scotia some 10 years earlier as United Empire Loyalists. Many of them had escaped slavery in the Carolinas and Virginia, among other states.

During the American Revolutionary War, the British attempted to swell their ranks against the rebels by encouraging blacks to flee their slave owners and side with the British. If they did, the British promised, they would be protected when the war was over and allowed their freedom.

Thousands of blacks responded, but that promise would soon be broken. Although they had served England as soldiers, labourers, cooks and in other capacities, when the time came to negotiate peace, the British cast the blacks aside. In the treaty they signed with the Americans, the British promised not to make off with "any Negroes or other Property of the American Inhabitants." In Manhattan, the last British stronghold in the American Revolutionary War, the terms of the peace treaty caused widespread despair among blacks who had faithfully served the Loyalist cause. But finally, and miraculously, the British sided with the blacks, and began to remove them in a steady supply of ships from Manhattan in 1783. Some blacks were sent to England, Germany and Quebec, but most ended up going to Nova Scotia.

It wasn't easy to leave. In theory, any black who wished to leave on a ship for the British colonies had to establish that he or she had served behind British lines for at least one year. Those who did leave had their names registered in The Book of Negroes, a British military ledger that ran to some 150 pages and included the names of 3,000 blacks – some free, some indentured and some enslaved, leaving New York as the property of British officers.

The Book of Negroes is a fascinating document, copies of which can be found in the National Archives of Canada, the Nova Scotia Public Archives and the National Archives in the U.K., among other places. It became the first major record of people of African descent in North America. In listing the name, age, physical description and life circumstances of almost every traveller, the carefully handwritten Book of Negroes stands out as a testament to how blacks – by risking everything to try life in a foreign land – struck another blow at the heart of slavery.Disembarking in Nova Scotian towns such as Halifax, Shelburne and Annapolis Royal, they believed that they had come to a promised land of safety and freedom.

Sadly, for many of the early black Loyalists, Nova Scotia turned out to be just as oppressive as the American colonies. The blacks had been promised land, provisions and tools in exchange for having served the British in the Revolutionary War, but most of them received nothing. They thought they could live in equality and freedom in Nova Scotia, but many blacks remained slaves and others were kept in conditions of such poverty that they indentured themselves – becoming virtual slaves again – to ward off starvation and hypothermia.

In Nova Scotia, they also found a land of bitter justice and overt discrimination. Blacks were hanged for trifling offenses such as stealing potatoes. Others were sentenced to whippings and received their lashes in stages at several consecutive street corners, in order to amplify their public humiliation. Public ordinances banned "Negro frolicks" – basically any party at which blacks danced and drank. Slave catchers prowled Nova Scotia and sometimes succeeded in kidnapping black Loyalists and returning them to slavery in the United States or the Caribbean islands.

In the town of Shelburne, which at the time held the largest black community in Nova Scotia, Canada's first race riot erupted in 1784. Black workers were consistently paid less than whites for the same work, but disbanded white soldiers, who themselves faced economic hardship, argued that the blacks were undercutting their wages and rose up against them. Blacks were beaten and powerless to stop the burning of their homes. The rioting lasted for days.

In the midst of this oppressive social climate, it must have seemed a miracle when, in October 1791, a British naval lieutenant arrived in Halifax and advertised free passage for blacks who wanted to create a new colony in Sierra Leone.

Lieutenant John Clarkson was white, 27 years old, and had come at the behest of entrepreneurs and abolitionists in England who were hoping to create a British colony in Sierra Leone that would profit not from the slave trade but from agriculture and trading natural resources.

The British abolitionists had already sent a much smaller group of blacks from London to Sierra Leone five years earlier, but the colony quickly disintegrated. At the very moment they were looking for others to send to Sierra Leone, Thomas Peters, a black man from Annapolis Royal, showed up in England to publicize the plight of black Loyalists in Nova Scotia. .

Peters' timing could not have been better. Shortly after he returned to Nova Scotia, Clarkson followed with the resettlement scheme and about one-third of the entire black population of the area leapt at the opportunity. Clarkson then began the monumental job of bringing the black Loyalists to Halifax, feeding and sheltering them over the winter, while outfitting 15 ships to take them to Sierra Leone.

The 15 ships left Halifax harbour together on that cold January day, but quickly lost track of each other during the two-month ocean crossing. Fever took the lives of 67 travellers enroute, although the food and the sanitary conditions on board the ships were eminently better than the floating hell of slave vessels. Finally, all the ships arrived safely in St. George's Bay, just off the coast of Freetown. The long, arduous and sometimes fatal task of building a colony began.

Many of the same frustrations that had plagued the Nova Scotians in Canada surfaced again in Africa: they did not get the land they were promised, they bickered with authorities about taxation matters, and they felt dominated by white officials administering the Sierra Leone Company, which ran the new colony in Freetown. Still, they were free, and over the decades they and their descendents acquired more independence and autonomy.

The journey east across the Atlantic Ocean stands out as all the more astonishing when one considers that some of the blacks travelling to Africa had actually been born on that continent – abducted in their own homelands by fellow Africans, sold to British or other European slaving operations established in festering "factories" along the coast of Africa, and then shipped across the ocean only to spill their blood, sweat and tears to develop the lands that are now known as Canada, the United States and the Caribbean nations.

This back-to-Africa migration – the first of its kind in history involving more than a thousand people – was entirely voluntary. Funded by the British government, its price tag exceeded Nova Scotia's annual budget.

The aim of the venture's British supporters was to prove that Africa could serve the British Empire in other ways than as a slave-exporting continent. They wanted to demonstrate that the British could use Africa as a base to export natural resources. In the end, this led to its own forms of exploitation, but in the shorter term, it did help to persuade Britons to think of Africa in new terms.

This little-known migration, launched from Canadian shores, was pivotal to the cause of abolition. And at its heart were 1,200 blacks determined to assert their freedom and to ensure that nobody could threaten to enslave them again. Their devotion to liberty should be recognized and celebrated.

Link to TheStar.com - News - Hail the unknown heroes