Monthly Archives: November 2012

Nov. 28, 2012 – Historical Writing vs. Contemporaneous Societal Movements

As I mentioned in my last posting, I wanted to consider how I might include on my exhibit the results of my research linking (or seeing if there was a link between) the styles of black historical writing at different times with their contemporaneous societal movements.  Taking Professor Graham’s suggestion, I ran the text from three historical writings through a tool called Voyant that counts the use of each different word and presents the results as a graphical image with the most common words in the largest font.  These are sometimes called word maps or word clouds.  The three documents were:

  1. Justice Riddell’s “The Slave in Upper Canada” (1919)
  2. Janet Carnochan’s “A Slave Rescue in Niagara Sixty Years Ago” (1897), and
  3. Alexander Milton Ross’s Recollections and Experiences of an Abolitionist from 1855 to 1865 (c. 1875)

In my blog from last week, I proposed that Carnochan’s article might show signs of influence from the 19th c. Romanticism movement, while Riddell’s article might be more closely linked to the 20th c. Realism movement.  Also that Ross’s book showed the influence of the Social Gospel and Great Awakenings movements.

When I ran the text of Riddell’s article through Voyant I found that, in keeping with the 20th c. Realist focus on how state and individual behaviour is motivated, his top 20 words included Upper Canada, law, province, court, justice, act and case, as well as negro, slave, slaves, slavery, and man.  And while the other two writings also used these words, Carnochan used them much less often, and Ross used them in many cases to refer to religious themes, such as God’s law or the law of wickedness and righteousness.

Riddell article word cloud

Carnochan’s article showed evidence of a connection to Romanticism, by frequently using the word Hero.  In an article almost three times as long, Riddell never used the word hero once.  Ross used it, but in 224 pages, he only used it twice, while Carnochan mentioned heroes eleven times in nine pages, often saying “my hero.”  She also used expressions like “do or die” and “noble deed.”

Ross’s book demonstrated his interest in religious themes by having the word god rank as his 35th most common word, using it 39 times.  He also frequently used the words glory, Christian, almighty, hallelujah and bible.  By comparison, Riddell never used any of these words at all, and Carnochan only used one – Christian – and she only used it once.

While these statistics indicate a connection of these particular articles to certain movements, they do not necessarily indicate a trend.  I would like to look for some more historical writings from these time periods to see if the connection continues, thereby showing a trend.  If I’m able to do this, I will post the resulting Voyant word clouds on my exhibit.  I have been looking for more historical writing from the 19th and 18th centuries and will continue to do so.  Most of what I have found is primary source material which takes a present-tense point of view such as newspapers, pamphlets, journals, and letters.  I would prefer to look at material that is retrospective, such as biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs.


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Nov. 21, 2012 – Consistent Messages but Differing Styles, and the Relationship to Movements

I spent time this week looking at 19th c. Canadian sources of Black Canadian history.  As planned, I read Alexander Milton Ross’s Recollections and Experiences of an Abolitionist from 1855 to 1865 (c. 1875), and looked at a couple of issues of the Voice of the Fugitive and the Provincial Freeman.  The two newspapers contained the sorts of things you’d expect of a newspaper: current news (including some interesting articles about technological advances), advertisements, and notices.  However, since they were not writing about history, there value to my project seemed limited.  But I did find it interesting that the Voice was edited by an escaped slave, Henry Bibb, who learned to read and write as an adult, and the Provincial Freeman was founded and edited by a Black woman, making her the first woman – Black or White – to found or edit a newspaper in Canada.  So I found photos of them and posted them, along with images of their newspaper’s banners and information about them on my exhibit.

One ad in the Voice was for a Detroit book store that listed three books about slavery.  Two were American, but the third was Henry Bibb’s 1849 Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave, Written by Himself.  He too was American, but at least he lived part of his life in Canada so I have counted him as offering a Canadian perspective.  (Note, while I am putting this “Canadian” constraint on myself right now, I may later broaden my search to other author nationalities writing about Canada’s Black history.)  I have also found Justice Riddell’s 1919 article to be a good source of 19th c. writing, including an 1897 article by Janet Carnochan entitled “A Slave Rescue in Niagara Sixty Years Ago” and published by the Niagara Historical Society.

Having read a number of articles and books about Black Canadian history by Canadians, my early conclusion is – perhaps surprisingly – that their message is relatively consistent from the 1830s to the 1960s.  In summary, Canada was a good place for Black emigrants to settle and it offered them full protection under the law.  What seemed to differ among the writings was more the style.  Ross’s 1875 writing made many religious comparisons, speaking of martyrs and patriots, and comparing them to Christ and the crucifixion (p. 181) as well as the souls of men and the rights of men promised by the “Almighty Father.” (p. 187) Carnochan’s 1897 article presents a highly romanticized account, with the Black protagonists presented as “my heroes,” however, she does follow this initial characterization by a more balanced recounting of the fight back and forth among the local newspapers.  Riddell’s 1919 account is thorough and legal, lending an air of accuracy.  And finally Landon’s articles from 1918 to 1967 are congratulatory about Canada’s seemingly laudable role in Black defence.

These style-related differences made me wonder about the impacts on these writers of various cultural and intellectual movements of these times.  In particular, I did some reading about the 18th c. Age of Enlightenment, with its focus on science, logic and reason.  Perhaps it was this movement that stirred people to begin to criticize slavery in the late 1700s.  Evidence of this change can be seen in the Upper Canada legislation limiting slavery in 1793, and also can be seen in the 1798 petition by James Frazer mentioned in my last post.  The 19th c. shift to Romanticism, with its nationalism, its interest in the exotic and in heroes and villains can be seen in Carnochan’s writing as well as the idealism of Landon’s writing on into the 20th c. although to a less obvious extent than Carnochan’s.  Riddell’s writing might be more closely linked to the 20th c. move to Realism, with its examination of how state and individual behaviour is motivated.  I also looked at The Great Awakenings.  The Third Great Awakening coincided with the Social Gospel Movement of the second half of the 19th c. and may explain some of Ross’s and others social activism, interest in the abolitionist movement, and religious references and language.

I need to get some better sources of historical theory.  Right now I’m using Wikipedia.  This week I want to spend some more time looking at Carnochan’s other writing and plan to post an “early and rare” watercolour image of an 18th c. woodcutter on my Exhibit.  I also want to consider if I should, and how I might, include on my exhibit this discussion about historical movements and their impact on Black history writing.

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Nov. 14, 2012 – Changes in Attitudes about Blacks

I searched all the places I could think of for an image of the 1806 Detroit Black militia of escaped Canadian slaves but couldn’t find anything.  However, I found an interesting 1798 petition at Library and Archives Canada from a Montreal man named James Frazer to the Governor of Upper and Lower Canada, as well as other authorities.  He wrote to raise his concern about a move afoot to free slaves from their owners in Lower Canada.  Recall that, by 1798, Upper Canada had already had a law in place for five years that placed limits on any new slavery.  Frazer had come to British North America as a loyalist from New Jersey, and had brought his family and slaves.  Initially he’d lived in Nova Scotia but had moved himself, his family, and his “property” to Montreal at a substantial cost because he had read an Act of Parliament that indicated that he could bring – and keep – his slaves.  The whole tone of the letter demonstrates that, by the end of the 18th century, attitudes were shifting about the morality of keeping slaves.  And even though Frazer refers to his slaves as “property” he also tosses in a remark towards the end of his letter assuring the readers that he always treated his slaves with the greatest of “tenderness.”  His entire argument and his language all indicate a shift in societal attitude.  However, it took another 35 years for Britain to abolish slavery in its colonies.  I have posted an image of this petition on my exhibit and written about this interesting change in Canadian Black history.

After reading more by Justice Riddell and Fred Landon, both of whom wrote about Black history in Canada in the early 20th century, I began thinking about why they started to write on this subject at this time.  Landon wrote his first articles in 1918, and Riddell wrote his landmark article in 1919.  Two theories came to mind:  first that it had something to do with “The Great War,” and second that it related to the emergence of the Annales School of historical thought, and Social history.  From what I have been able to determine, neither Riddell nor Landon fought in the war.  Riddell was too old, being 62 when the war started, and Landon doesn’t appear to have fought either, although he was only 34 in 1914.  However, Landon worked as a journalist at the London Free Press until 1916 and may have been exposed to changing world views through the early years in the war.  Indeed, anyone reading a newspaper, listening to a radio news broadcast or watching a newsreel during the war years would necessarily find the wider global experience entering their lives on regular basis.

With regard to the schools of historical thought, the Annales School was officially launched in 1929, and Social history only really became popular in the 1960s and 1970s.  But they were born of a broader change in thinking that began with the 1789 French Revolution and included the mid-19th century Rankean ideas of history by the ordinary man, as well as Karl Marx’s and Friedrich Engels’ ideas about the working class and historical materialism, of the same time period.  Also occurring in the 19th century was the expansion of industrialization and the emergence of unions.  So perhaps it is not surprising that, with all this rumbling in and about the “under classes” that people would begin to think and write about Black people’s place in society and their history.

On an earlier subject of Landon portraying the Canadian Black experience with rose-tinted glasses, I found another footnote where he actually quotes someone else’s negative portrayal.  But at the end of the quote, Landon disputes the accuracy of the negative portrayal. (Landon, p. 331, footnote 14.)

This week I want to spend time looking at Canadian writing about the Black experience from the 19th c.  I have been going through Fred Landon’s sources, looking to see what he used and am finding that most of his 19th c. sources came from American publishing houses.  However, there is at least one Canadian source by Alexander Milton Ross entitled Recollections and Experiences of an Abolitionist from 1855 to 1865 (c. 1875), although there seems to be some question as to the authenticity of some of Ross’s claims.  As well there are two 19th c. Canadian newspapers, the Voice of the Fugitive and the Provincial Freeman, that may have interesting material, as well as images that I could post on my exhibit.

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Nov. 7, 2012 – Crossing the Detroit River…but which way?

This week I found a pretty interesting aspect of Black history in Canada which I will describe below.  But before I get to that, I will mention that I organized my virtual exhibit a bit this past week, as planned.  It still needs work but I have made progress.  Omeka suggests using standardized metadata values and I believe this is a good idea.  My background in Data Warehousing and Business Intelligence makes me wary of the problems of poor data quality.  Already, as I enter information for one exhibit item I have a hard time remembering what sorts of data values I used on other items, and I only have about 3 items!  So I created an Excel Spreadsheet with drop down lists of the data values that I intend to use for the different metadata fields in the exhibit. I can cut and paste valid values from the spreadsheet into the exhibit to keep the data consistent.  It’s not an ideal solution, but it helps.

I went on reading more of Fred Landon’s book, Ontario’s African-Canadian Heritage: Collected Writings by Fred Landon, 1918-1967, and was despairing a bit that he retained such a pro-Canada view of slavery throughout his life as a writer of history.  Even as late as 1967, he neglected to mention some of the negative aspects of Canada’s history of slavery (although the 1967 article was only partly about Canada.)

But then I read the 1919 article by Justice William Renwick Riddell, entitled “The Slave in Upper Canada.”  Perhaps his legal background led him to seek both sides of each story.  He begins the article by clearly asserting that Canada not only had slavery when it was New France, but that it continued to have slavery after the British took over, and sustained slavery until 1833.

We Canadians have a fond image of our country as a place where fugitive slaves took refuge after escaping from the U.S.  In particular, we think of slaves, as well as other Black refugees, coming across the Detroit River into Amherstburg, Ontario where they could find the hope of a better future.  But Justice Riddell points to an earlier period and makes quite a startling observation.  In the early 19th century, Blacks indeed escaped across the Detroit River, but they were escaping from Canada into the U.S.!  In 1787, the July 13 Ordinance of Congress in the U.S. disallowed slavery in any new state northwest of the Ohio River.  And in 1805, when Michigan was incorporated as a state, this ordinance came into full effect, and Detroit became a truly free destination for many escaping Canadian slaves.  This flight of slaves was so significant that in 1806 a Black militia was established in Detroit made up entirely of escaped Canadian slaves. (Riddell, p. 386)

From a historiographical standpoint, this tells me that at least some Canadian historians, as early as 1919, such as Riddell, were considering the Canadian Black experience from a different standpoint.  My observation up to this point had been that Canadian historians tended to view this history through rose-tinted glasses, and that the only balanced discussion came from observations made by people outside of Canada.  For example, Benjamin Drew’s 1856 book of slave narratives was more balanced, but Drew was American.  However, my sample size of readings is small so far, and I haven’t been able to settle yet on a clear idea.

So this coming week I will continue to review the literature.  I want to look at some other Canadian historians writing in the 20th century, as well as find some from the 19th century.  And I will also have a look for a picture of the 1806 Detroit Black militia of escaped Canadian slaves for my virtual exhibit.

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