A Vermont-based researcher recreates Maritimes slaves’ lives from archival materials he uncovers.
Harvey Amani Whitfield gave the lecture “Slave Lives Matter: Putting Biography at the Centre of Atlantic Canadian Slavery Studies” on March 14 at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton.
A professor at the University of Vermont, Whitfield was introduced by Sasha Mullally, associate dean of the faculty of Arts at UNB. According to Mullally, the prolific researcher has been key to bringing critical race analysis to the study of Maritime history and the Black Atlantic world in the past two decades. Notably, Whitfield wrote two books, in 2016 and 2018, on slavery in the Canadian east. His presentation was based on another, ongoing, book project.
Whitfield began his talk by reviewing the study of slavery in the Maritimes, a topic not studied in depth by Canadian historians because, he said, slavery was seen as “an American issue.”
The first Africans who came to the Atlantic Coast were “Atlantic Creoles,” multilinguals like Matthew Da Costa, a translator Whitfield identified. The status of the first Africans in Canada was not clear; they might have been indentured but not slaves.
In Isle Royale (Cape Breton, as it was known as an early French colony), the first slave owners arrived with the first settlers. However, the demands of the slaves’ work was not on the same level as in the US South. Whitfield said they were “multi-occupational,” something he has termed “family slavery,” “intimate slavery” or “everyday slavery.” Although the slaves’ mortality rates were higher in the US South, this type of slavery here offered no chance for community and/or family. Consequently, Whitfield clarified, it is not “better” than southern slavery, as some researchers have suggested.
Whitfield’s 2016 book, North to Bondage: Loyalist Slavery in the Maritimes is precisely about the Loyalist group which expanded slavery in the Maritimes. The New England Loyalist slaveowners who left the US after the American Revolution (1775-83) brought their slaves north with them. According to Whitfield, of the between 23,000 and 25,000 African-descendants who left New England, only 8,000 to 10,000 were “free.” The rest were slaves.
Slavery found fertile grounds in the Maritimes and, according to Whitfield, “if [owners] could have found outputs for large groups of black slaves, they would have.” These groups of Loyalist settlers were from New York and New Jersey, the last states to adopt gradual emancipation, not exactly a group enthusiastic to free its slaves. Caleb Jones, one of the most infamous slaveowners in Fredericton, had only a handful of slaves.
Although many researchers have written about Black “freedom” of slaves in the Maritimes, Whitfield considers it “unfreedom.” In the late 18th century Maritimes, some Blacks could come as “free” and be re-enslaved and sent to the colonies. The categories were quite fluid and complicated. Nova Scotia and New Brunswick did not have slave codes, unlike PEI; this created a context which both made slavery possible and allowed Blacks to request their freedom. The shipping records of Loyalists coming to the New World show that slaves and free Blacks came on the same ships. The presence of the free Blacks created a certain push toward more freedom, according to Whitfield.
Whitfield found information in the Island of Montserrat Slave Registry on slaves living in PEI, owned by Catherine Ormsby, three years after PEI banned slavery in 1825. Ironically, Whitfield also studied the cases of two slaves christened “Liberty.”
Whitfield is writing a dictionary of biographies of enslaved Black people in the Maritimes, in conjunction with the University of New Brunswick. Whitfield’s leading question for this project were “how can we do justice to these people? How can we explain their lives?” In fact, he aims to “illuminate each slave’s life, as much as the documentation allows” and to “bear witness to the individual lives.”
Whitfield has more than 13,000 brief histories of enslaved Black people who came from various origins, throughout the African diaspora. Whitfield has found that they were “incredibly diverse.” The amount of information available to him in the archives ranges from limited (name, birth, sale, owner) to more fulsome (runaway slave narratives).
Whitfield provided some examples of his archival analysis. He gave the example of a slave named “Belfast” by his owner who showed his agency by asking to be called “Bill.” Bill’s description comes from the ads published to look for the slave when he ran away. In the ad for Bill, the owner “basically admitted the intelligence and the humanity” of his slave by suggesting that he might have hidden clothing to disguise himself as a free man. This story is in contrast to the hundreds of slaves in Whitfield’s research that are unnamed. That is why, for Whitfield, “the biographies in this dictionary raise more questions than they answer.”
Whitfield shared another example: New Brunswick slaveowner Thomas Lester’s slave Beller (16 years old) and her younger brother, Sam, ran away. Lester wrote, in the runaway ad he published, that both had been “raised in the family,” something that spoke of their upbringing and/or the attachment of his family to the slaves. The state of slavery, especially in these settings, was really dependent on the owner. Whitfield shared stories of strange attachments evidenced by his archival materials. However, the fact that the slaves ran away spoke volumes.
The annual W. Stewart MacNutt Memorial Lecture on Atlantic Canadian History is sponsored by the UNB Faculty of Arts.
Sophie M. Lavoie, an editorial board member of the NB Media Co-op, publishes on arts and culture.