Canadian Fugitive Slave Advertisements: An Untapped Archive of Resistance

Charmaine A. Nelson

“A NEGRO WENCH, named Cloe, about thirty years old, pretty stout made, but not tall; speaks English and French, the latter not fluently. As she has taken all her own cloaths and some which did not belong to her, it is uncertain what dress she may wear. She is supposed to have gone off in a canoe with a man of low stature and dark complexion, who speaks English, Dutch, and French. She got out of a garret window by the help of a ladder. – Whoever will apprehend and return the said wench to the Subscriber at Berthier, or give notice to him, or to the Printer hereof, where she may be found, shall be liberally rewarded, and all reasonable expences paid. Berthier, 21st July 1791. J. Joseph.”

– J. Joseph, “RUN AWAY From the Subscriber in the Night of the 13th Instant,” Quebec Gazette, 28 July 1791


“BROKE out of His Majesty’s Gaol in Quebec, on Saturday morning the 18th of February last, a NEGRO MAN SLAVE named Joe, born in Africa, twenty-six years of age, about five feet seven inches high, a little pitted with the small-pox, has several scars on his legs, speaks English and French fluently, and is by trade a Pressman; he had on with him when he broke out a blue great coat, a red out-side jacket, a white under jacket, and a round hat. He was seen some time ago in the parish of l’Ange Gardien below the falls of Montmorency. All persons are hereby forewarned from harbouring or aiding him to escape, as they may depend on being prosecuted to the utmost rigor of the Law; and whoever will give information where he is harboured, so that he may be had again, shall receive THREE GUINEAS Reward from the Printer of the Gazette.”

– Anonymous (William Brown), “BROKE out of His Majesty’s Gaol in Quebec,” Quebec Gazette, 4 May 1786

Nova-Scotia Gazette and Weekly Chronicle, Tuesday, 1 September 1772, Nova Scotia Archives

Nova-Scotia Gazette and Weekly Chronicle, Tuesday, 1 September 1772,
Nova Scotia Archives

Fugitive slave advertisements, claim historians Shane White and Graham White, are “the most detailed descriptions of the bodies of enslaved Africans Americans available.”[1] I would argue that their contention also applies to most regions of the Americas in general, including the territories that were to become Canada, particularly places where abolition predated the development of photography.[2] Such newspaper notices provide evidence of the ubiquity of resistance by the enslaved as well as the types of heightened and invasive scrutiny and surveillance under which they lived.

As David Waldstreicher has noted, such advertisements were generally premised on four categories—“clothing, trades or skills, linguistic ability or usage, and ethnic or racial identity”—the manipulation of which could alter the perception of one’s class and race.[3] These advertisements are a form of print technology that is both potentially problematic and full of potential promise. The gravest problem of using such an archive stems from its source: the white slave owners who produced them while conspiring with a host of other mainly white actors, like the publishers who printed the advertisements and the populace that conspired to spot and recapture the runaway, often for a reward. Thus, the slave owning class sought to criminalize demonstrations of agency by the “self-motivated”[4] people who were enslaved, to code running away—in the terms of Marcus Wood—as “an act of theft, albeit a paradoxical self-theft.”[5]

Pushing back against this practice, the enslaved attempted to re-fashion themselves, through what Waldstreicher calls “acts of cultural hybridization,” to transform how others, mainly whites, perceived them. But what was an enslaved person’s access to such self-fashioning? And how was it achieved? The two notices cited above provide hints. In the first case, Cloe escaped with a considerable amount of clothing, enough to make it difficult for her owner to deduce what she would be wearing.

Quebec Gazette, January 29 1778

Quebec Gazette, January 29 1778

In the latter, the African-born Joe (who had escaped on four previous occasions from the Quebec printer William Brown), may have used his bilingualism and literacy to convince someone to allow him to trade on his obvious skills and knowledge in exchange for harbouring him. Crucially too, what Brown’s advertisements disclose is Joe’s creolization and the very skills and labour which he was stealing from Joe. In the first notice of November 1777, Joe is listed as a “Negro Lad” who spoke English and French only tolerably, and by the last notice, Joe is fluently bilingual and operating the press in Brown’s printing office.

Ironically, the advertisements also worked against the interests of the slave holding classes who, in their determination to recuperate their “property,” disclosed evidence of the corporal punishment to which the enslaved have been subjected (such as branding or laceration marks). Therefore, in the context of Joe’s repeated resistance (he had escaped on at least four previous occasions from the Quebec printer William Brown), a close reading of Brown’s advertisement results in multiple potential origins for Joe’s scarred legs, one of which is corporal punishment inflicted or authorized by Brown. Indeed, the commonality of evidence of horrific corporal punishment in such notices allowed abolitionists to exploit this archive to agitate for an end to slavery.

Since slave owners strategically imposed all manner of social, legal, and cultural prohibitions upon the enslaved, due to their legal status and dehumanization as chattel, and the absence of leisure time and literacy, the enslaved were unable to leave significant traces of their lives. Thus as scholars we are left with the troubling archives created by colonialists who allowed the enslaved to be recorded only as partial entries (i.e. without family names or certificates of birth). However, we must reconsider the fugitive slave archive not merely as a record of oppression, but as a means of recuperating the pervasive resistance of the enslaved, reading between the lines to recuperate their voices, lives, cultures, and aspirations for freedom here in Canada and across the Americas.


Charmaine A. Nelson is an Associate Professor of Art History at McGill University. She has published five books including Ebony Roots, Northern Soil: Perspectives on Blackness in Canada (2010). Her sixth book entitled Slavery, Geography, and Empire in Nineteenth-Century Marine Landscapes of Montreal and Jamaica (Ashgate) will be published in Spring 2016. You can find her research website at


[1] Graham White and Shane White, “Slave Hair and African American Culture in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries,” The Journal of Southern History, vol. 61, no. 1 (February 1995), p. 49.

[2] Two places where the fugitive slave archive may pale in comparison to photographic archives of the enslaved are Cuba and Brazil where slavery was not abolished until 1886 and 1888 respectively. Laird W. Bergad, The Comparative Histories of Slavery in Brazil, Cuba, and the United States (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. xiii. For more on photography of the enslaved in Brazil see: Margrit Prussat, “Icons of Slavery: Black Brazil in Nineteenth-Century Photography and Image Art,” Living History: Encountering the Memory of the Heirs of Slavery, ed. Ana Lucia Araujo (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009)

[3] David Waldstreicher, “Reading the Runaways: Self-Fashioning, Print Culture, and Confidence in Slavery in the 18th c. Mid-Atlantic,” The William and Mary Quarterly (April 1999), p. 249.

[4] Waldstreicher, “Reading the Runaways,” p. 248.

[5] Marcus Wood, “Rhetoric and the Runaway: The Iconography of Slave Escape in England and America,” Blind Memory: Visual Representations of Slavery in England and America, 1780-1865 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), p. 79.

Featured Image: Weekly Chronicle (Halifax) 15 March 1794 (detail).

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