I recently stumbled upon an account of an event in Niagara in 1837 that I cannot resist posting here, as it brought to mind the more recent (and ongoing) Black Lives Matter protests within the U.S. Like others who stumble upon the reference, I was a bit baffled that I’d never heard about it before.
Here’s some context: Anna Brownell Jameson was a (white) Anglo-Irish feminist writer and art historian. This account is from her description of a trip through the Ontario countryside during a visit to Canada around this time. Her stop in Niagara came early into that trip, a few years after the events. She thereafter recounted the story that she heard there in her book Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada, which contains the account.
(Since I didn’t wish to type it all out, I was glad to find the account from the Project Gutenberg version of the book, which is under another (less palatable) title. I’ve just finished reading the book, and will post about it sometime soon, but I felt like sharing this account first.)
Somehow, it feels resonant now, by the light of the Black Lives Matter protests that rocked the world so recently. The account reminds us that Black-led struggles for racial justice are not at all something new, but part of a long historical tradition of resistance and uprisings against ridiculous and horrific injustice, and also reminds us that many Black women—not just the ones held up as heroes, but many others forgotten to history—have played a crucial and courageous role in this fight for freedom.
Without further preamble, here is Anna Brownell Jameson’s recollection of the account she was given, and of a conversation with a local Black woman after hearing it:
A black man, a slave somewhere in Kentucky, having been sent on a message, mounted on a very valuable horse, seized the opportunity of escaping. He reached Buffalo after many days of hard riding, sold the horse, and escaped beyond the lines into Canada. Here, as in all the British dominions, God be praised! the slave is slave no more, but free, and protected in his freedom. This man acknowledged that he had not been ill treated; he had received some education, and had been a favourite with his master. He gave as a reason for his flight, that he had long wished to marry, but was resolved that his children should not be born slaves. In Canada, a runaway slave is assured of legal protection; but, by an international compact between the United States and our provinces, all felons are mutually surrendered. Against this young man the jury in Kentucky had found a true bill for horse-stealing; as a felon, therefore, he was pursued, and, on the proper legal requisition, arrested; and then lodged in the jail of Niagara, to be given up to his master, who, with an American constable, was in readiness to take him into custody, as soon as the government order should arrive. His case excited a strong interest among the whites, while the coloured population, consisting of many hundreds in the districts of Gore and Niagara, chiefly refugees from the States, were half frantic with excitement. They loudly and openly declared that they would peril their lives to prevent his being carried again across the frontiers, and surrendered to the vengeance of his angry master. Meantime there was some delay about legal forms, and the mayor and several of the inhabitants of the town united in a petition to the governor in his favour. In this petition it was expressly mentioned, that the master of the slave had been heard to avow that his intention was not to give the culprit up to justice, but to make what he called an example of him. Now there had been lately some frightful instances of what the slave proprietors of the south called “making an example;” and the petitioners entreated the governor to interpose, and save the man from a torturing death “under the lash or at the stake.” Probably the governor’s own humane feelings pleaded even more strongly in behalf of the poor fellow. But it was a case in which he could not act from feeling, or, “to do a great right, do a little wrong.” The law was too expressly and distinctly laid down, and his duty as governor was clear and imperative—to give up the felon, although, to have protected the slave, he would, if necessary, have armed the province.
In the mean time the coloured people assembled from the adjacent villages, and among them a great number of their women. The conduct of this black mob, animated and even directed by the females, was really admirable for its good sense, forbearance, and resolution. They were quite unarmed, and declared their intention not to commit any violence against the English law. The culprit, they said, might lie in the jail, till they could raise among them the price of the horse; but if any attempt were made to take him from the prison, and send him across to Lewiston, they would resist it at the hazard of their lives.
The fatal order did at length come; the sheriff with a party of constables prepared to enforce it. The blacks, still unarmed, assembled round the jail, and waited till their comrade, or their brother as they called him, was brought out and placed handcuffed in a cart. They then threw themselves simultaneously on the sheriff’s party, and a dreadful scuffle ensued; the artillery men from the little fort, our only military, were called in aid of the civil authorities, and ordered to fire on the assailants. Two blacks were killed, and two or three wounded. In the melée the poor slave escaped, and has not since been retaken, neither was he, I believe, pursued.
But it was the conduct of the women which, on this occasion, excited the strongest surprise and interest. By all those passionate and persuasive arguments that a woman knows so well how to use, whatever be her colour, country, or class, they had prevailed on their husbands, brothers, and lovers to use no arms, to do no illegal violence, but to lose their lives rather than see their comrade taken by force across the lines. They had been most active in the fray, throwing themselves fearlessly between the black men and the whites, who, of course, shrank from injuring them. One woman had seized the sheriff, and held him pinioned in her arms; another, on one of the artillery-men presenting his piece, and swearing that he would shoot her if she did not get out of his way, gave him only one glance of unutterable contempt, and with one hand knocking up his piece, and collaring him with the other, held him in such a manner as to prevent his firing. I was curious to see a mulatto woman who had been foremost in the fray, and whose intelligence and influence had mainly contributed to the success of her people; M——, under pretence of inquiring after a sick child, drove me round to the hovel in which she lived, outside the town. She came out to speak to us. She was a fine creature, apparently about five-and-twenty, with a kindly animated countenance; but the feelings of exasperation and indignation had evidently not yet subsided. She told us, in answer to my close questioning, that she had formerly been a slave in Virginia; that, so far from being ill treated, she had been regarded with especial kindness by the family on whose estate she was born. When she was about sixteen her master died, and it was said that all the slaves on the estate would be sold, and therefore she ran away. “Were you not attached to your mistress?” I asked. “Yes,” said she, “I liked my mistress, but I did not like to be sold.” I asked her if she was happy here in Canada? She hesitated a moment, and then replied, on my repeating the question, “Yes—that is, I was happy here—but now—I don’t know—I thought we were safe here—I thought nothing could touch us here, on your British ground, but it seems I was mistaken, and if so, I won’t stay here—I won’t—I won’t! I’ll go and find some country where they cannot reach us! I’ll go to the end of the world, I will!” And as she spoke, her black eyes flashing, she extended her arms, and folded them across her bosom, with an attitude and expression of resolute dignity, which a painter might have studied; and truly the fairest white face I ever looked on never beamed with more of soul and high resolve than hers at that moment.
The name of that last woman in Jameson’s anecdote may be lost to history, though one website alleges that she was Sally Carter, who is remembered as one of the Black women of Niagara who organized the protests that eventually facilitated Moseby’s escape. The escaped slave’s name is also in fact remembered: he apparently was called Solomon Moseby. There are even tantalizing tidbits about how a number of Black refugees of slavery in Canada were supposedly among the first to volunteer to guard Canada’s borders against American incursion around that time, and some speculations as to how this influenced the way Canadian history later unfolded. I don’t know how much water the latter theory holds, but I do think that the omission of this event from my own historical education speaks volumes.
Also worth checking out is this piece on the about the history of slavery in Upper Canada, specifically in Toronto, as well as the events described above. (The historical practice of slavery in Canada is, likewise, was a topic not widely discussed when I lived there, although perhaps people are more aware of the history now; I should hope so, but I have my doubts.) It’s from this webpage that I got the header image of this post, which is a photograph of the courthouse where the protest occurred. (The author—who researches the history of Toronto—offers more information and background than I can.)