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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