Mandate Areas

Understanding Transatlantic Slavery

Transatlantic Slavery occurred over the course of 400 years from the 1400’s to the 1800’s, when various European nations seized Indigenous lands across the Americas and expropriated an estimated 12 million Africans as slave labour. Under colonial laws, enslaved people were considered property with no right to their own bodies and lives or that of their family. Race was used as a marker of human difference and it was Black Africans who were universally deemed to be “enslavable”.

Slavery is commonly associated with tropical regions because more Africans were sold into regions where plantations with mono-crop agriculture (e.g., sugar cane, coffee, and cotton) could be sustained year-round. This has led to the academic neglect of slavery in temperate regions like Canada, the northern USA and the southern reaches of South America.

The Institute’s goal is to extend the important work that has been done on regions like the Caribbean and the American South and by focusing on the enslavement of Black and Indigenous people throughout the regions that became Canada.

Priority Areas for Research and Artistic Production

The Institute will prioritize the following four core areas of research:

1.       Canadian Slavery

Canadian participation in Transatlantic Slavery is little known. Canadians celebrate their role in the Underground Railroad, and while it is true that thousands of enslaved people fled north across the USA border, it is also true that from at least the 1600’s until 1834, the British and French enslaved thousands of Black and Indigenous people in Canada. To understand Canada’s complete history, and to achieve reconciliation, the truth of Canadian Slavery must be accessible, studied and learned.

The number of scholars devoted to the study of slavery in the American South, the Caribbean, and the northern parts of South America, have led to diverse, specialized studies, including that of slave culture, diet, dress, family structures, and much more. The Institute aims to apply a similar lens to better understand the uniqueness of Canadian Slavery.

For example, the analysis of fugitive slave advertisements has been a sub-field in American, Caribbean, and South American slavery since the 1970’s. Now, Dr. Nelson is the first to undertake a similar study of Canadian notices, and in doing so will prioritize the lives or experiences of the enslaved.

2.       The comparative study of slavery in Canada and other northern or temperate regions

Nations like Canada, Argentina, Denmark, Norway, and Scotland are often overlooked and understudied within the field of Transatlantic Slavery Studies. Canada and these other nations share similarities in the smaller size of enslaved populations and the nature of their climates, as well as the development of customs and patterns of slave culture, dress, and food which were distinct from tropical regions.

For example, the colder climates of these regions meant that the enslaved were more likely to suffer from the effects of the harsh, cold winters like frostbite (documented as missing digits in Quebec fugitive slave advertisements). Slave dress in colder climates also resulted in slave owners providing cold weather dress for the enslaved to protect their human “property.” The Institute will encourage and support the examination and comparison of these regions to better understand their distinctiveness from and similarities to tropical plantation slavery.

3.       The study of the inter-connectedness of Canadian and Caribbean Slavery

In the late seventeenth century, colonial administrators in New France (later Quebec) petitioned King Louis XIV of France for the right to import enslaved Africans. With evidence of thriving enslaved communities in New England and the trade routes of slave-produced plantation goods between the French Caribbean and New France already established, the venture moved forward. Thus, began the official importation of enslaved African-born and Creole people (born in the Americas) from the French Caribbean into port settlements like Montreal and Quebec City.

Similarly, the British importation of slave-produced goods and enslaved people flourished in other regions of Canada. These trade networks enriched many white settlers who became West Indian merchants. Little research has been done on these West Indian merchants, their voyages between Canada and the Caribbean, the experiences of enslaved captives onboard, the rationale of the selection of enslaved people who were sold northward, and their acclimatization once in Canada.

4.       Black-Indigenous relations in Canadian Slavery

Africans were meant to replace and supplement the “failed” labour of Indigenous populations which were initially enslaved, but frequently succumbed to European disease. Little scholarship has been completed on the co-habitation of enslaved populations of African and Indigenous descent in Canada. Obviously, this community resulted in mixed race enslaved and free populations that had shared food, dress, linguistic, spiritual, and music cultures.

Azariah Pretchard, “RUN away from Subscriber,” Quebec Gazette, 22 May 1794, supplement, vol. 1506, p. 5

An example of the archival evidence of this mixing is the enslaved Black man named Charles who was described as a speaker of Mi’kmaq in a 1794 Quebec fugitive slave advertisement, as is the creolization of slave dress which included both African (i.e. head wrapping) and Indigenous (i.e. moccasins, blanket coats) influences. There is much to be learned – and the Institute is dedicated to supporting fellows who are focused on  getting a better understanding of these relations.