Slavery in the Maritime Provinces

The text explores the historical presence of slavery in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and surrounding areas. It suggests that slaves were likely brought from English colonies, with records indicating their sale and legal recognition in the region. Despite some legal acknowledgment of slavery, attempts to legalize it further were met with resistance. Chief Justice Strange, though recognizing slavery’s legality, sought to negotiate agreements that would grant slaves eventual freedom. The practice mirrored English common law proceedings regarding alleged villenage.

Efforts to legalize or maintain slavery faced challenges, with the legal system often favoring freedom for those claiming it. The text recounts various instances of slave sales, attempts to regulate slavery, and eventual moves towards abolition. It also mentions international disputes over slave restitution or compensation. Overall, the narrative highlights the complex history of slavery in the Maritime Provinces, characterized by legal ambiguity, resistance, and eventual abolition.

“[Black] slaves were among the population of Halifax from the beginning or very shortly after. Where they came from is uncertain and it has been suggested that they came with the original settlers across the ocean. In the absence of any other explanation more plausible, this might be accepted. Lord Mansfield’s decision in the Somerset case was a quarter of a century in the future. But it seems more probable that they were brought from the English Colonies, and some almost certainly were. The official records of the country exhibit much evidence to this effect. In September, 1751, the Boston Evening Post advertised “Just arrived from Halifax and to be sold, ten strong heart, [black] men mostly tradesman, such as caulkers, carpenters, sailmakers and ropemakers. Any person wishing to purchase may enquire of Benjamin Halliwell of Boston.” Such an advertisement indicates that shipbuilding was slack at Halifax and more brisk at Boston. A conjecture may be hazarded that these slaves had been taken by their master to Halifax to build ships and then returned to the colony when required no longer in Acadia.

Some legal sanction, moreover, was given slavery. A General Assembly the first Elective Legislature in what is now Canada, met at Halifax in 1757. In 1762 the second session of the third General Assembly passed an act (1762) 2 George 111, c.1 (N.S.), Statutes at Large, Nova Scotia, Halifax, 1805, p.77) which seems not to have received very much attention from legists (It is referred to in a letter from Ward Chipman to Chief Justice Blowers) and writers. It contains a recognition of slavery. The act provides by section 2 that “in case any soldier, sailor, servant, apprentice, bound servant or [black] slave or any other person whatsoever shall leave any pawn or pledge with a vendor of liquor for the payment of any sum exceeding five shillings for liquor such soldier, sailor, servant, apprentice bound servant or [black] slave . . . or the master or mistress of such servant, apprentice, bound servant or [black] slave” might by proceedings before a Justice of the Peace obtain an order for the restoration of the pawn or pledge-and the vendor might be fined 20 shillings “for the use of the poor.” ( This Act was continued in 1784 by (1784) 24 George III, c. 14 (N.S.). Statutes at Large, Nova Scotia. p. 238)”

“John Wentworth, last Royalist Governor of New Hampshire and afterwards Sir John Wentworth, Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia, doubtless believed himself to be a good man and a good Christian”

“The same impulse for liberty which about this time was noted in the upper country manifested itself from time to time by the sea. Slaves ran away from their masters; the masters pursued and imprisoned them. Some blacks claimed freedom without fleeing. When a writ of habeas corpus came up in the Supreme Court, Chief Justice Strange did his best to avoid giving a decision. He knew that slavery was lawful but he knew it was detestable and he pursued a course which did not require him to stultify himself but which would nevertheless confer substantial benefits upon the black claiming liberty. He endeavored in every case to bring the parties to an agreement to sign articles whereby the master would have the services of the [black person] for a stated time, after the expiration of which the [black person] received his freedom. When the master refused this, as sometimes there was a refusal, the Chief Justice required the matter to be tried by a jury, which usually found for the [black person].”

“A collateral ancestor of my own, the Reverend Archibald Riddell, had the advantage of a similar proceeding a century before. Being apprehended for taking part in the uprising of the Covenanters in Scotland he was given (or sold) with others to a Scottish Laird who chartered a vessel and proceeded to take his human chattels to America for sale. The plague broke out on the ship, the Laird and his wife died of it as did some of the crew. When the ship reached New Jersey, there being no master, the “slaves” escaped up country. The Laird’s son-in-law and personal representative came to America and claimed Riddell and others. The governor called a jury to determine whether they were slaves and the jury promptly found in their favor. Riddell preached in New Jersey until the Revolution of 1688 made it safe for him to return to Scotland. Juries in such cases are liable to what Blackstone calls “pious perjury.” All this practice was based upon the common law proceedings when a claim was made of villenage. When a person claimed to be the lord of a villein who had run away and remained outside the manor unto which he was regardant, he sued out a writ of neif, that is, de nativo habendo. The sheriff took the writ and if the nativus admitted that he was villein to the lord who claimed him, he was delivered by the sheriff to the lord of the manor; but if he claimed to be free, the sheriff should not seize him but the Lord was compelled to take out a Pone to have the matter tried before the Court of Common Pleas or the Justices in Eyre, that is, the assizes. Or the alleged villein might himself sue out a writ of libertate probanda: and until trial of the case the lord could not seize the alleged villein. The curious will find the whole subject dealt with in Fitzherbert ‘s Natura Breviwm, pp.[176-182].”

“The practice adopted was like the practice in cases of alleged villenage in England. It was recognized that slavery might exist in Nova Scotia, but it was made as difficult as possible for the master to succeed on the facts. Except the act already mentioned there was no statute recognizing slavery and an attempt in 1787 to incorporate such a recognition in the statute law failed of success by a large majority. The existing act, too, was given what seems a very forced and unatural interpretation so as to emasculate it of any authority in that regard. Salter Sampson Blowers, the Attorney General, fully agreed with the Chief Justice’s plan. On one occasion he threatened to prosecute a person for sending a [black person] out of the province against his Will. The [black person] managed to get back and the master acknowledged his right, so that no proceedings were necessary. After a number of verdicts for the alleged slaves, masters were generally very willing.”

“…the latest known bill of sale is dated March 21, 1807 and transfers a “[black] woman named Nelly of the age of twenty five or thereabout.”

“It is said that August 1797 was the date of the last public slave sale at Montreal, that of Emmanuel Allen for £36. The last advertisement for sale by auction of a slave in the Maritime Provinces seems to be that in The Royal Gazette and Nova Scotia Advertiser of September 7, 1790, where William Millet of Halifax offers for sale by auction September 9 “A stout likely [black] man and sundry other articles.”

“Dr. T. Watson Smith says in a paper “Slavery in Canada” republished in “Canadian History, ” No. 12, December, 1900, at p. 321. “About 1806, so Judge Marshall has stated, a master and his slave were taken before Chief Justice Blowers on a writ of habeas corpus. When the case and the question of slavery in general had been pretty well argued on each side, the Chief Justice decided that slavery had no legal place in Nova Scotia.’ I have not been able to trace such a decision and cannot think that it has been correctly reported. Dr. Smith is wholly justified in his statement “there is good ground for the opinion that this baneful system was never actually abolished in the present Canadian Provinces until the vote of the British Parliament and the signature of King William IV in 1833 rendered it illegal throughout the British Empire.”

“A final effort to legalize slavery in Nova Scotia was made in 1808. Mr. Warwick, member for Digby Township, presented a petition from John Taylor and other slave owners setting up that the doubts entertained by the courts rendered their property useless and that the slaves were deserting and defying their masters. They asked for an act securing them their property or indemnifying them for their loss. Thomas Ritchie member for Annapolis introduced a bill to regulate [black] servants within the province. The bill passed its second reading January 11, 1808, but failed to become law; and the attempt was never renewed.”

“Prince Edward Island was called Isle St. Jean until 1798. In this island slavery had the same history as in the other maritime provinces. Shortly after the peace [black] slaves were brought into the Island by their United Empire Loyalist masters. As late as 1802 we find recorded the sale of “a [mixed race] boy three years old called Simon” for £20, Halifax currency, then £18 sterling, and a gift of “one [mixed race] girl about five years of age named Catherine.” We also find Governor Fanning (1786-1804), freeing his two slaves and giving one of them, Shepherd, a farm.

In Cape Breton which was separate from 1784 to 1820, [black] slaves were found as early as the former date: “Cesar Augustus, a slave and Darius Snider, black folks, married 4th September 1788,” “Diana Bestian a [black] girl belonging to Abraham Cuyler Esq” was buried September 15, 1792 and a [black] slave was killed in 1791 by a blow from a spade when trying to force his way into a public ball in Sydney. In this province, too, slavery met the same fate”

“What is believed to be the last advertisement for the sale of a slave in any maritime province is in the New Brunswick Royal Gazette of October 16, 1809 when Daniel Brown offered for sale Nancy a [black] woman, guaranteeing a good title. The latest offer of a reward for the apprehension of a runaway slave is said to be in the same paper for July 10, 1816”

“At length in 1818 a convention was entered into that it should be left to the Emperor of Russia to decide whether the United States by the true intent of Article 1 was entitled to the restitution or full compensation for the slaves (Presumably because he had the greatest number of serfs in the world and was, therefore, the best judge of slaves)”

Riddell, William Renwick. “Slavery in the Maritime Provinces.” The Journal of [Black] History, vol. 5, no. 3, 1920, pp. 359–375. JSTOR, Accessed 6 Feb. 2021