African slavery existed in the colonies of New France and British North America for over 200 years, yet there remains a profound silence in classrooms and teaching resources about Canada’s involvement in the trade and ownership of humans. According to available historical documents, at least 4,000 Africans were held in bondage in the two centuries of colonial settlements in New France, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, and Upper Canada. Thayendenaga (Joseph Brant) owned slaves. Other Loyalists brought their slaves with them into exile. In the absence of plantations, most slaves were held in small numbers and likely worked principally in household roles. Their living conditions varied dramatically and, whatever humanity was shown them on a day-to-day basis, they were chattel slaves and could be sold. Family members could be sold separately. The absence of plantation conditions does not mean that the lot of slaves was much better in New France or British North America than it was in the American South.
Similarly, Aboriginal slaves could be found throughout New France, many of them acquired as captives from the Fox Nation and, before that, from northern Louisiana. In the southern reaches of New France in particular the currency for slaves was rifles and horses, and some Aboriginal groups, like the Caddoans, were fearsomely well armed as a result. Although Aboriginal slaves were forbidden in Louisiana, they were not in Canada and Acadia. Giving slaves as gifts was commonly practised by many of the Canadiens’ Aboriginal allies in the Pays d’en Haut and, especially after the Great Peace of 1701, this was a means of reaffirming the relationship. Aboriginal slavers handed on (usually with some ceremony) the captives they scooped up in raids on Plains nations to allies from the Illinois territory eastward, even as far as the Wabanaki Confederacy. In some cases, western Aboriginal slaves were exchanged for English captives who were then returned to Boston.
Slaves certainly appeared in greater numbers in the St. Lawrence Valley in the early 18th century. Typically the Aboriginal slaves found in the Laurentian settlements (and very heavily concentrated in Montreal) were male, obtained when they were around 14 years old, and originated in the Illinois country. When furs and slaves from the West were taken to South Carolina for trade with the English, the French regime sought to stop the practice quickly. Furs and slaves were part of the diplomatic relationship on the frontier; if Western nations were happy trading or giving slaves to the English, the alliances might crumble. For that reason, ostensibly, slave owning in Montreal was actively encouraged to offset the Carolinian demand.
One study points to an irony in the slave-trading business in the Pays d’en Haut. Originally, in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, it was grease for the wheels of diplomacy, a means of ensuring a continuance of the Great Peace between the French and their allies and, as well, among their allies. But growing demand for Aboriginal slaves in the towns and farms of Canada meant that Aboriginal allies were motivated to engage in war against their neighbours to obtain prisoners. Further, Aboriginal torture practices associated with captives began to change and even fade away because the injuries that were traditionally inflicted on prisoners (even those who might become adoptees) reduced their value to French buyers and allies. More war but less torture is a trade-off of sorts, but not a great one if the motivation is to enslave greater numbers.
The context of slavery in eastern woodland Aboriginal societies has already been explored: it was closer to adoption than to chattel slavery. For the French, however, ownership was complete and included the children of slaves in perpetuity. Nevertheless, freedom could be obtained and there is evidence to suggest adoption-like conditions in some Canadien households. On the West Coast, Aboriginal societies maintained slaves as chattel, some of whom were executed during potlatches as a symbolic disposal of property.
The arrival of liberated African slaves from the American colonies in the 1770s and 1780s complicated the issue of slavery. As freedmen (and women) they became critics of the abuse of African slaves in particular. In the early 1790s this became a greater public issue and Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe (1752-1806), the first lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada, from 1791 to 1796, championed legislation intended to bring a gradual end to slavery in Upper Canada. This was a remarkable initiative in that it was the first limitation on slavery in the British Empire. It was, however, also a slippery piece of law that did not prohibit slave owners from selling their people to buyers in the United States, keeping the children of slaves in bondage, and holding the slaves already in their possession until their death. What it did do was prohibit the import of new slaves. The “peculiar institution,” as 19th century Southerners who were averse to the word “slavery” called it, continued in Canada until the British Parliament voted for abolition in 1834.
Among the most famous of Canadian slaves is Marie-Joseph Angélique. She achieved notoriety in her lifetime by tragedy and arson, and in our time by the work of historians of New France curious about the extensive labour force working in bondage on farms and in the fur trade. Angélique was born into slavery in Portugal and arrived in Montreal via New England in 1725. She was a young adult, about 20 years of age, and, although she was unmarried, she had three children while the property of a prosperous Montreal fur trader, François Poulin de Francheville. Her owner died in 1733 and Angélique evidently took a lover from among the White indentured servants (who themselves occupied a position near to slavery). Learning that Thérèse de Couagne, Francheville’s widow and heir was planning to sell her, Angélique and her lover made a run for it. Angélique was captured and returned to de Couagne, which was a mistake. The young woman wreaked vengeance on de Couagne by setting fire to the house. The flames spread rapidly, destroying 46 buildings and the convent and hospital, the Hôtel-Dieu. Suspicion fell immediately on Angélique. Denying her guilt to the end, she was convicted and sentenced to execution but not before a post-trial round of torture and public shaming. The executioner strangled Angélique and then hanged her from the burnt-out rafters of de Couagne’s ruined house. Her executioner was another slave, Mathieu Léveillé, brought to Montreal from Martinique when the position came open a few years earlier.
- Slavery in British North America was commonplace and involved holding Aboriginal and African people as property. Their labour was frequently used in domestic environments but also on farms.
- Much of the slave trade in New France involved captive Aboriginals sent east from allied nations in the Pays d’en Haut and considered to be diplomatic gifts.
- Steps were first taken toward abolition under the leadership of Lieutenant-Governor John Simcoe, whose 1793 legislation was the first of its kind in the British Empire.
- Colin G. Calloway, One Vast Winter Count: The Native American West before Lewis and Clark (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006), 317. ↵
- Brett Rushforth, "'A Little Flesh We Offer You': The Origins of Indian Slavery in New France," William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd series, 60, no.4 (October 2003): 777-808. ↵
- Afua Cooper, The Hanging of Angelique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montreal (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2007). ↵