Narratives of Fugitive Slaves – Part 4

Part 4 of a 4-Part Series

 

Now comes the last post in my series on the Narratives of the Fugitive Slaves in Canada where I try to fit in all the other things I had wanted to talk about. If I had more time and more space, I could perhaps examine more of the historical and social themes as they relate to Drew’s publication, but then again, I will encourage readers to pick up the work for themselves and read through it with these topics, themes, and issues in mind.

I will share some final thoughts, and some more narratives from the publication to close out the series but just because I’m wrapping up the series doesn’t mean we must stop talking about Drew’s publication, the experience of fugitive slaves in St. Catharines, and Black History. I’ve made it clear over the lifetime of this series that February as Black History Month is just a designated time to focus and promote the year-long discussions of Black History in our community.

Now, it’s up to all of us, as a community to continue the conversation and share all the stories – and these narratives – with those around. Readers don’t need to be a trained historian to participate in history, nor the sharing of community stories.

Importance of Biblical Metaphor in the Abolitionist Cause

If I had better planned out this series I might have spent a little more time in the first post discussing some of the motivations for the Abolitionist movement. Without getting too deep into the history of the international movement, it was quite religious and Biblical in nature. British Victorian abolitionists like William Wilberforce were really at the centre of the movement to abolish slavery across the British Empire in 1833 and they used a Biblical and social-justice arguments to make their case. For the abolitionists, it really came down to the fact that a religious argument is likely the strongest, and so they argued that enslavement of anyone is against the natural laws of God; that slavery was an unnatural condition.

American abolitionists also greatly adopted these religious arguments and it shows in the language that appears in their publications, including Drew’s. Religious metaphor, and use of Biblical stories of slavery abound in abolitionist speak, in a way that many of us might recognize in the publications of the temperance movement at the turn of the 20th century.

Drew is no exception. He first declares that the constitution of God is greater than the constitution of man that enslaves fellow men. He also employs the famous Good Samaritan parable of the man travelling from Jericho to Jerusalem to demonstrate the Christian nature of the Underground Railroad and the implicit ‘love thy neighbour’ message of the abolitionist movement. Drew is explicit:

“This [the Good Samaritan parable] is in illustration of the LAW, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” – a LAW rather ‘HIGHER’ than the Blue Ridge, or the Black Code: and considering the source from which it emanated, possibly somewhat higher than any form of Constitution in any human government whatever; nay, than that embodiment of American civilization, that flower of human wisdom, that rarest union of exact justice and gentle mercy, the unconstitutional Fugitive Slave Law.” – Benjamin Drew (pp 37).

To Drew, slavery is an affront to the law of God and is un-American.

Religiosity in the Narratives of the Fugitive Slaves

“My idea of slavery is that it is one of the blackest, the wickedest things that ever were in the world. When you tell them the truth, they whip you to make you lie. I have taken more lashes for this than for any other thing, because I would not lie…Slaveholders ought to be prayed for. I find it harder to get work here than I did in Massachusetts. It is a sin on the slaveholders that I had to leave and come here. It has brought me lower to the ground. I think the slaveholders don’t read the Scriptures the right way – they don’t know their danger.” – Mrs. Nancy Howard (pp 69).

These religious metaphors and Biblical references also make their way into the text of the narratives of the fugitive slaves. That slaves actively practiced Christianity or had access to a Bible (or could even read) while enslaved was not guaranteed. The religious nature of the language of the fugitive slaves likely comes from their interactions with abolitionists. Understanding the nature of their own anti-slavery education is, I think, important to understanding their narratives in Drew’s publication.

“I think slavery is the worst and meanest thing to be thought of. It appears to me that God cannot receive into the kingdom of heaven, those who deal in slaves. God made all men – He is no respecter of persons – and it is impossible that he should, on account of my colour, intend that I should be the slave of a man because he is of brighter skin than I am.” – Henry Atkinson, (pp 94).

Additional Snapshots of St. Catharines in the Narratives of the Fugitive Slaves

“I have found good friends in Canada, but have been able to do no work on account of my frozen feet – I lost two toes from my right foot. My determination is to go to work soon as I am able. I have been about among the coloured people in St. Catharines considerably, and have found them industrious and frugal. No person has offered my any liquor since I have been here: I have seen no coloured person use it. I have been trying to learn to read since I came here, and I know a great many fugitives who are trying to learn.” – William Johnson, (pp 51).

At the top of the series, I had set out to look for our images of our city amongst the anti-slavery rhetoric and through the series, I did warn readers that I love the rosy-picture of St. Catharines “The Refuge” as Drew refers to it on page 41. I think it’s important to present a full picture of our history and so I don’t want to ignore racism that did exist in St. Catharines, and the few events in which it manifested itself into the historical record.

“I am now in Canada and doing well at my trade, and I expect to do yet better. My only trouble is about my wife and family. I never should have come away but for being forced away.” – David West, (pp 99).

“Here’s something I want to say to the coloured people in the United States: You think you are free there, but you are very much mistaken: if you wish to be free men, I hope you will all come to Canada as soon as possible. There is plenty of land here, and schools to educate your children. I have no education myself, but I don’t intend to let my children come up as I did. I have but two, and instead of making servants out of them, I’ll give them a good education, which I could not do in the southern portion of the United States. True, they were not slaves there, but I could not have given them any education.” – William Grose, (pp 98).

Historians have taken the fugitive slaves at their word but Canada was not racism-free. There are plenty of examples of violence towards fugitive slaves and other African Canadians throughout 19th century Upper Canada/Canada West/Ontario. One example that provides great contrast is a race riot that took place in Coloured Town (Welland Ave at Geneva Street) when, in 1852, a white militia unit on parade, attacked Blacks and burned down property. Though the men were convicted after trial, racism persisted. In 1854, waiters at the Welland House Hotel (corner of Ontario St. and King St.) threatened job action when the hotel banned Black passengers from using their stage coach service. The hotel reversed its decision.

These are only two examples contradicting the rosy historical accounts we’re presented with and evidence that not everything in St. Catharines, nay, our history is perfect. As I noted when we opened the series, so often we get wrapped up in the good and the happy history found around us. History is messy and if history is to be a valuable source of identity for us as a community and as a country, then we must acknowledge all sides of our story, in our past, and here in our present.

Thank You!

Thank you very much for reading along with the series. If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out via the comments below or on our social media platforms.

In closing, I really do encourage you to continue the discussion and to share and participate in history with your friends, family, and community.

“Refuge and Rest! These are the first ideas which arise in my mind in connection with the town of St. Catharines.

I might mention here its pleasant situation, its commercial advantages, the Welland Canal, its telegraphic wires, its railroads, its famous mineral springs, and other matters interesting to the tourist; but we will step aside from these, and look at St. Catharines as the peaceful home of hundreds of the coloured race.

Of the population of about six thousand, it is estimated that eight hundred are of African descent. Nearly all the adult coloured people have at some time been slaves.” – Benjamin Drew, (pp 41).

For more information about Black History in St. Catharines, please visit our Follow the North Star exhibit at the St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre.

Benjamin Drew (1812-1903) was an American abolitionist from Boston whose work was made possible thanks to the support of the Canadian Anti-Slavery Society and John P. Jewett, a renowned anti-slavery sympathizer from Boston who had unexpectedly reaped a fortune from publishing Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852.

Adrian Petry is a public historian and the Visitor Services Coodinator at the St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre.

Benjamin Drew. The Refugee : Narratives of Fugitive Slavesin Canada. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2008. 

 

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