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North to Bondage: Loyalist Slavery in the Maritimes–A Review

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Christopher C. Jones

Harvey Amani Whitfield, North to Bondage: Loyalist Slavery in the Maritimes (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2016).

 The lone Canadian student enrolled in my course on “Slavery and the Slave Trade in Africa and the Atlantic World” this semester expressed some surprise last week when I mentioned that the class would cover the history of slavery in not only the United States, but also throughout Africa, South America, the Caribbean, Mexico, and Canada. As she later explained, she could not recall a single mention of slavery in Canadian schools during her childhood. According to Harvey Amani Whitefield in the introduction to North to Bondage: Loyalist Slavery in the Maritimes, this is because “slavery has not become part of the Canadian national narrative,” a fact attributable in part to “the historiography of Canadian slavery still lack[ing] … basic overviews” of the subject (4). The tide seems to be changing, however, and the last decade has seen a flurry of historical scholarship on (Indigenous and African), British Montreal, Upper Canada, and the Maritimes. To this growing body of research, we can now add Whitfield’s own book.[1]

North to Bondage offers an in-depth look at the rise and fall of slavery in Loyalist Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island in the four decades following the American Revolution. It is, without question, the most detailed and comprehensive study of slavery in the Maritimes to date (indeed, it is the first book-length treatment of the subject). Insisting that Loyalist slavery in the Maritimes represented a system distinct from other regions of the British Empire, Whitfield nevertheless is careful to note that Maritime slavery owed much to “its connections to slavery throughout the African diaspora and the Atlantic world” (7). Successive chapters explore the origins of slavery in the Maritimes, including both earlier modes of slaves in the Maritimes and the places from which slaves were brought to the region during the 1780s and 1790s; the labour and lives of slaves in a society undergoing important changes; the relationship between slave-owners and the women and men they held in bondage; and the ambiguous legal status of slavery in the region.

Whitfield’s book builds on both the small surge in scholarship analyzing slavery in various regions of modern-day Canada, as well as the even larger body of work in recent years on the so-called Loyalist diaspora. Indeed, it seems plausible that North to Bondage would not be possible without the extensive secondary research on which it builds. That research is skillfully used to provide context and fill holes where the scattered primary sources detailing slavery in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick are silent or less-than-clear. As noted in the introduction, “the documentation concerning slaves is riddled with … ambiguities” (11). In addition to “slaves” and “servants” often being indistinguishable from one another in the records, slavery was never legally codified as statutory law in either Nova Scotia or New Brunswick (though it was indirectly acknowledged in a 1781 Act in Prince Edward Island). That legal ambiguity was central to debates between pro- and anti-slavery advocates in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, variously prolonging and weakening the institution until its ultimate demise in the 1820s and 1830s.

One of the book’s greatest strengths is its constant attention to broader political, geographical, and economic contexts. Whitfield repeatedly references the neighboring Northeastern United States, where the practice (if not the legality) of slavery was similar to the Maritimes. He likewise notes the importance of the abolitionist struggle across the Atlantic in England, suggesting that antislavery achievements there directly and indirectly affected the rulings of magistrates in the Maritimes. Curiously, Whitfield is less attentive to the Caribbean context on this front. He fails to note, for example, that the several petitions and bills introduced to the Nova Scotia and New Brunswick legislatures during the 1790s and 1800s to legally recognize slavery in the colonies (each unsuccessful) occurred at the exact moment that proslavery forces throughout the Caribbean (successfully) introduced measures to ameliorate the conditions of slaves there in an effort to prolong the institution in the islands. The larger context for both, of course, was the close of the transatlantic slave trade in the British Empire, and Whitfield misses a rich opportunity to connect the Maritime experience to broader British Atlantic events.

Other shortcomings are less significant. Whitfield claims, for instance, that enslaved Africans and their white masters attended church together (61). This is, at best, an overstatement – some of the colonies’ largest congregations were segregated almost immediately upon the arrival of black and white Loyalist refugees in the 1780s.[2] This does not detract, though, from the author’s larger point about the close proximity in which slave-owners and the enslaved lived in the Maritimes or from the overall import of the book.

In setting out to research and write North to Bondage, Whitfield hoped not only to assist in ongoing efforts to introduce slavery as a significant episode in Canada’s national narrative. He also intended to provide a general overview of the subject that would spark future research into more “complicated topics” (5). But he does not merely express the desire to see scholars take new and innovative approaches. The book’s conclusion includes specific suggestions for several potentially fruitful avenues of research, ranging from various comparative analyses to more in-depth studies of earlier systems of slavery in the Maritimes. North to Bondage is a significant contribution to several subfields of historical research, including African diasporic studies, the history of slavery, early American history, and early Canadian history. At just 118 pages of text and written in accessible prose, it is also very readable and ideally suited for the classroom.

Christopher Cannon Jones is a visiting assistant professor of history at Brigham Young University. A historian of early America and the Atlantic World, his research focuses on evangelical Protestantism, slavery, and race in the Revolutionary era. He is currently at work on a book tentatively entitled, “Methodism, Slavery, and Freedom in the Revolutionary Atlantic World.”

 


[1] Each of these books owes a great deal to the pioneering efforts of Robin Winks and Marcel Trudel. See Robin Winks, The Blacks in Canada: A History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971); and Marcel Trudel, L’esclavage au Canada français: Histoire et conditions de l’esclavage (Quebec: Presses Universitaires Laval, 1960).

[2] Shortly after arriving in Shelburne, Nova Scotia in the summer of 1785, Methodist preacher Freeborn Garrettson instructed black Methodists there to build “themselves a little house at the north end of town,” so that he could preach “to them separately, in order to have more room for the whites.” Over the course of the 1780s, most Methodist congregations in the Maritimes were segregated. See Freeborn Garrettson, American Methodist Pioneer: The Life and Journals of the Rev. Freeborn Garrettson, 1752-1827, ed. Robert Drew Simpson (Rutland, Vermont: Academy Books, 1984), 127. I briefly explore the segregated worship experiences of black and white Methodists in the Maritimes in Christopher Cannon Jones, “Methodism, Slavery, and Freedom in the Revolutionary Atlantic, 1770-1820” (PhD Diss, College of William & Mary, 2016).

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