The University of Massachusetts Amherst

2023 Black Heritage Month Celebration Lecture Examines History of Slavery and Black Resistance in Canada

Charmaine Nelson speaks at the University of Massachusetts
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Photos by Rob Skinner

Renowned art historian and Provost Professor of Art History Charmaine A. Nelson delivered the keynote address for the  annual Black Heritage Month Celebration this year at the Honors College. Nelson’s lecture unearthed the history of enslaved Black people in Canada and dived deep into how they continuously resisted their enslavers.

Nelson began her lecture with a quote and a fugitive slave advertisement from Quebec to provide commonplace examples of enslaver control, and how enslavers had power over both the inner and outer worlds of enslaved people.

We must acknowledge that transatlantic slavery was sustained by a web of surveillance and physical brutality and psychological oppression intended to immobilize the enslaved.

She explained in detail two methods of surveillance used by enslavers: passes & fugitive slave ads. Passes were signed by the enslaver and describe the limits of legitimate movements of any enslaved person, whereas fugitive slave ads were widely circulated through the printing press to “endorse and refine the colonial language of race, which underpin the systemic exploitation of Black Africans as 'enslavable'.”

Nelson said: “Due to their ubiquity, any white person, regardless of slave ownership, could interfere with the daily movements of any Black person who they suspected of being enslaved, thus helping to conflate Blackness with the legal status of chattel.”

There were numerous strategies used by enslavers to rid enslaved Black people of their African identity, including psychological and physical abuse, controlling access to food and material objects, and implementing prohibitions on what they perceived as dangerous African cultural practices.

Illiteracy was also used by enslavers to keep enslaved Black people immobile, as without the ability to read, it was nearly impossible for them to access information, ideas, and intellectual transformation that would “allow a group legally defined as and socially stigmatized as chattel, to assert their humanity”.

Enslaved mobility was indelibly linked to intellectual transformation — since for enslaved Blacks literacy was an essential component of resistance through flight.

Examining Canadian Slavery

Following this, Nelson then situated slavery in Canada, and how the average Canadian doesn’t know it even existed there. She spoke of the complexity of specific historical moments, like the Revolutionary War, when both enslaved and free Black people from America were arriving in Canada. She also detailed how free Blacks lived under constant threat of enslavement, providing an example of an indentured Black child from Nova Scotia who was kidnapped and taken to the Caribbean island of Antigua without his parents' consent.

There was enforced contact between the enslaver and the enslaved, but this was amplified in Canada, where the enslaved commonly lived in the same home or in a lesser building on the same property as their enslavers. Nelson explained, “While this proximity facilitated surveillance and a violent white drive towards enslaved anti-knowledge, it also created the movement towards what I would like to call a creolized counter knowledge, a product of individual and collective resistance that was an essential component of Black survival”.

Nelson noted that creolized counter knowledge was always experienced under duress and there were many limitations to it, however, documents like fugitive slave ads became sites that show how enslaved Black communities demonstrated their intelligence and deep understanding of white behavior, customs, and society, and how they used these to resist.

Image of a fugitive slave ad from a historic newspaper in Canada

The Cases of Andrew and Cloe

After detailing this movement, Nelson used two case studies as examples of creolized counter knowledge: Andrew and Cloe.

Andrew was an enslaved Black person in Quebec City who escaped his enslaver. In a fugitive slave ad, it was shown that Andrew, who could speak multiple languages (English and French, a little Dutch, and Erse, an Irish Gaelic language) was accused by his enslaver of stealing or forging both a pass and certificates of freedom. Possibly equipped with both literacy and these documents, Andrew meticulously planned his escape, perhaps fleeing with documents that would allow him to move freely within and outside of the regional borders.

Cloe was an enslaved Black woman who managed to escape her enslaver through a detailed plan. Also in a fugitive ad, it was explained that Cloe supposedly escaped through a garret window at night by using a ladder. Further details claimed that a male companion awaited her on a nearby river in a canoe. Cloe was bilingual in English & French as well, and the race of the man wasn’t explicitly mentioned. It was clear that the enslaver didn’t have many details about Cloe’s escape since his language suggested that his knowledge was based on secondhand information. But as was customary of such ads, he used degrading language to describe Cloe to affirm his position.

As Nelson made clear, in both of the fugitive slave ads the enslavers unwittingly highlighted the intelligence of the enslaved people and how they countered the multiple strategies used to immobilize them.

“In Andrew's case, the central role is literacy — that the documents are possibly forged alerts us to a network within the region that was willing to aid the enslaved in their escapes…either with false declarations of their enslavers' authority, or documents that represented them as free people”.

“In Chloe's case, it was her knowledge of the ladder, as well as Joseph's home and schedule, which allowed her to escape from the upper floor of his residence…Her unidentified male ally also reveals an escape plan of extended duration — since it implies that she alerted him to her plan ahead of time, to allow him to secure a canoe, and to know when and where to collect her,” Nelson added.

The desire of the enslavers to control the movements of the [enslaved] demonstrates a pervasive fear of enslaved resistance…and [that] enslavers had reason to be afraid.

Nelson concluded by saying, “In spite of the devastating abuse of enslaved and free Black people by white enslavers, there's also indisputable evidence of free Black and enslaved people who were building networks, calling upon allies, and using intelligence, skills, talent, ingenuity, and perseverance to outmaneuver their oppressors."