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.