Not long after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau handed winter coats to Syrian refugees arriving in Toronto this past December, reports about the immigrants’ problems began appearing in the press. Rent gouging by dishonest landlords. Frustration at delays in receiving permanent housing and full access to medical care. And, of course, that obligatory storyline: the shocking first experiences with a winter cold enough to cause some families to consider returning to the Middle East.
This incident reminded me of a much earlier episode in Canadian history when a political leader welcomed people unwanted in other countries. In that case, the severity of northern winters became the focus of transatlantic controversy over whether or not black emigrants from the Caribbean could survive in the North.
In 1796, Nova Scotia’s Lieutenant Governor John Wentworth offered permanent residence to over 550 men, women, and children expelled from Jamaica. They came to Nova Scotia from the tropical highlands of Trelawny Town, where they formed the largest of Jamaica’s five independent enclaves of escaped slaves, or Maroons—privileged but vulnerable “islands of freedom in a sea of slavery” in historian Richard Sheridan’s vivid words. The previous year, Jamaica’s governor suspected the Trelawny Maroons of plotting an insurrection and decided to deport the entire community.
The problem was where to send them. During the era of Atlantic Revolutions and real or rumoured uprisings throughout the Caribbean, plantation colonies with large slave populations were unwilling to accept a large group of free blacks with a history of militancy. One possible destination was Upper Canada. Remote and landlocked, it would crush their “every idea of ever seeing Jamaica again.” While negotiations between colonial and metropolitan officials proceeded, the Trelawny Maroons were brought to Halifax. Intended as a temporary stopover, Wentworth greeted them enthusiastically and launched a campaign to keep them in the province.
He faced immediate opposition. Like many non-literate, marginalized communities, we know only indirectly about the Maroons’ experience. According to petitions written on their behalf, they wanted to return to Jamaica. But even if that were impossible, they wanted to leave “cold barron” Nova Scotia, “fit only for Bears and Moose.” Abolitionists in London declared that transferring them from the “hottest climate under the torrid zone to the coldest region in North America” was a violation of the natural order. Banished from the Caribbean, they should at least be transported to “a more temperate climate”. In the meantime, assemblymen in Halifax declared that free “Black Persons” would be a burden to the province and resisted the prospect of subsidizing their settlement.
Wentworth understood the situation differently. No abolitionist crusader, he was attempting to advance a much more prosaic goal, one that eluded British governors in Nova Scotia since the early eighteenth century: increasing the colony’s settler population and labour pool. Since the departure of many Loyalists who swelled the population after the American Revolution, the province had struggled to attract or retain permanent settlers. The Loyalist departures included over 1,000 Black Loyalists who left to colonize British Sierra Leone in 1792.
Now Wentworth was prepared to welcome nearly any sort of immigrant to bolster the settler population. He strongly objected to the idea of the northern climate’s allegedly harmful effects. He continually dismissed the Maroons’ complaints about local conditions as petty grievances, symptomatic of their general recalcitrance and tendency to “create little troubles to themselves.” He faulted the Maroons for their profligacy. They ate heavy food and didn’t exercise. They ran out of cordwood before winter’s end because they kept their houses “hotter than fever heat.” At the same time, they refused to wear shoes or stockings. Nevertheless, the governor believed they would eventually acclimate.
That the northern climate was temperate enough to be healthy for all people, he argued, was proven by the fact that the majority of Black Loyalists had remained in the province. Observers outside of Nova Scotia corroborated the point by noting that those “families of negroes” who stayed after 1792 were “enjoying, as farmers, comforts equal to those of their white neighbours.” This was a misleadingly rosy view of most people’s circumstances or autonomy. Besides slaves and indentured servants in the province, black freeholders continued to be among the poorest residents. Most relied on annual subsidies from the provincial government in exchange for men’s militia service as infantry labourers. But despite these hardships, Wentworth maintained that he had “never in any instance heard them complain about the Climate.”
Ultimately, Wentworth capitulated. Settling the Maroons in Nova Scotia had seemed like an opportunity to prove that, if they could live there comfortably, surely any other sort of migrant could too. But his rhetoric about the local climate proved ineffective in practice. In part this was because his scheme for permanently settling the Maroons in British North America deviated from increasingly strong beliefs about the fixed geographical relationships between climate and race, specifically the assumption that black people could not endure cold weather. It was a particularly shaky proposition in the 1790s, a moment of rising humanitarian activism by powerful Members of Parliament, among whom were the abolitionist founders of the Sierra Leone Company, with their competing interests in settling British West Africa.
In 1800, nearly the entire community of Trelawny Maroons departed for Sierra Leone, which Wentworth finally arranged “in conformity to their own repeated requests & solicitations, to avoid the cold winters of this Climate.” We can’t be certain whether or not they left the province mainly to escape the cold. But focusing their complaints on the climate turned out to be an effective means to express broader grievances against the colonial and British governments. Then (as now) invoking the weather could be a convenient way of sidestepping sharper debates about the politics of migration and resettlement.
Anya Zilberstein teaches in the Department of History at Concordia University in Montreal. You can read more about the colonial history of climate politics in her book A Temperate Empire: Making Climate Change in Early America, which will be published by Oxford University Press in September.
This essay is part of a series on pre-Confederation environmental history, jointly hosted by Borealia and The Otter ~ La Loutre, the blog of The Network in Canadian History and Environment (NiCHE). You can find the rest of the series here.
 <http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/windsor/first-canadian-winter-syrian-refugees-1.3402879>; <https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/01/26/some-syrian-refugees-in-canada-already-want-to-return-to-the-middle-east/>.
 Richard Sheridan, “The Maroons of Jamaica, 1730-1830: Livelihood, Demography, and Health,” in Gad Heuman, ed., Out of the House of Bondage: Runaways, Resistance, and Marronage in Africa and the New World (London: Frank Cass, 1986), 152-172 (quote on 154).
Featured image: “Trelawney Town” (detail), from An historical survey of the island of Saint Domingo, together with an account of the Maroon negroes in the island of Jamaica; and a history of the war in the West Indies, in 1793 and 1794, by William Young (London: J. Stockdale, 1801), 374.