The slave in Canada (1920)

This passage discusses the historical presence and eventual abolition of slavery in various regions, including Canada, the United States, and Britain. It highlights how slavery was introduced in Canada, particularly in Quebec, and the subsequent attitudes towards it. While slavery persisted in Canada, efforts were made to mitigate its severity, such as in Upper Canada where existing slaves remained slaves but all subsequent births were free, eventually leading to its downfall.

In Lower Canada, slavery was effectively abolished by court decisions, and in Nova Scotia, legal maneuvers made it nearly impossible for slave owners to maintain their status. Similar sentiments in New Brunswick led to the eventual abolition of slavery. In contrast, in the United States, slavery was abolished as a war measure, without compensation to slave owners. Overall, the passage reflects on the varied approaches to and eventual demise of slavery in different regions, influenced by legal, moral, and practical considerations.

“That slavery existed in Canada before its conquest by Britain in 1759-60, there can be no doubt, although curiously enough it has been denied by some historians and essayists. The first [black] slave of which any account is given was brought to Quebec by the English in 1628. He was a young man from Madagascar and was sold in Quebec for 50 half crowns. Sixty years thereafter in 1688, Denonville, the Governor and DeChampigny, the Intendant of New France, wrote to the French Secretary of State, complaining of the dearness and scarcity of labor, agricultural and domestic, and suggesting that the best remedy would be to have [black] slaves.”

“The curse of [black] slavery affected the whole English speaking world; and that part of the world where it was commercially profitable resisted its abolition. The British part of this world does not need to assert any higher sense of justice and right than had those who lived in the Northern States; and it may well be that had [black] slave service been as profitable in Canada as in the Cotton States, the heinousness of the sin might not have been more manifest here than there. Nevertheless we must not too much minimize the real merit of those who sought the destruction of slavery. Slaves did not pay so well in Canada as in Georgia, but they paid.

It is interesting to note the various ways in which slavery was met and finally destroyed. In Upper Canada, the existing slaves, 1793, remained slaves but all those born thereafter were free, subject to certain conditions of service. There was a statutory recognition of the existing status and provision for its destruction in the afterborn. This continued slavery though it much mitigated its severity and secured its downfall in time. But there were slaves in Upper Canada when the Imperial Act of 1833 came in force. The Act of 1793 was admittedly but a compromise measure; and beneficial as it was it was a paltering with sin.

In Lower Canada, there was no legislation, and slavery was never formally abolished until the Imperial Act of 1833; but the courts decided in effect if not in form that a master had no rights over his slave, and that is tantamount to saying that where there is no master there is no slave. The reasoning in these cases as in the Somerset case may not recommend itself to the lawyer but the effect is undoubtedly, “Slaves cannot live in Lower Canada.”

In Nova Scotia, there was no decision that slavery did not exist. Indeed the course of procedure presupposed that it did exist, but the courts were astute to find means of making it all but impossible for the alleged master to succeed; and slavery disappeared accordingly.”

The appellation of “negro slave” seen here in the Nova Scotia statutes of 1762, the source of the legal basis for slavery in Nova Scotia noted above, along with various other states of unfreedom – apprentice, servant and bound servant.

“In New Brunswick the decision by a divided court was in favor of the master; but juries were of the same calibre and sentiments in New Brunswick as in Nova Scotia and the same results were to be anticipated, if Nova Scotian means were used; and the slave owners gave way.

In the old land, judicial decision destroyed slavery on the British domain; but conscience and sense of justice and right impelled its destruction elsewhere by statute; and the same sense of justice and right impelled the Parliament of Great Britain to recompense the owners for their property thus destroyed…”

(Or perhaps less a sense of justice and more to avoid the kind of war that ensued in the United States, which did not seek to compensate those losing their “moveable property”…)

“In the United States, slavery was abolished as a war measure. Lincoln hating slavery as he did would never have abolished it, had he not considered it a useful war measure. No compensation was paid, of course. Everywhere slavery was doomed and in one way or another it has met a deserved fate.”

Riddell, William Renwick. “The slave in Canada” Washington, D.C. : The Association for the study of Negro life and history 1920,