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Looking at Nova Scotia's slave owning history

Charmaine Nelson is involved in researching Nova Scotia’s slave-owning history.
CHARLIE MICHAEL
Charmaine Nelson is involved in researching Nova Scotia’s slave-owning history. CHARLIE MICHAEL

Charmaine Nelson has been teaching art history at Canadian universities since 2001.

In all that time, never once has she met a student from this country who knew about our long and somber slave-owning history.

When I tell her — via telephone from Harvard, where she is spending the 2017-18 academic year as a visiting professor — that I’m also woefully vague on the details of Nova Scotia’s slaveowning ways, Nelson pauses for asecond.

Then she starts to tell me about a girl named

Thursday who was “about four-and-a-half feet high, broad-set with a lump over her right eye” according to a 1772 newspaper ad announcing that she had run away from her master, John Rock, who seemed to be a person of note in 18th-century Nova Scotia.

Nelson, who spent a lot of time poring over the old newspapers in the Public Archives of Nova Scotia, says she came across two or three ads asking for Thursday’s return.

From the sounds of it, Rock understood the carrot-and-stick principle.

“Whoever may harbour said Negro girl, or encourage her to stay away from her said master, may depend upon being prosecuted as the law directs,” the advertisements said. “And whoever may be so kind as to take her up and send her home to her said master shall be paid all costs and charges with two dollars reward for their trouble.”

Nelson wasn’t sure if Rock ever

got Thursday back.

Until, that is, she came across the “inventory of the late John Rock” in a probate court four years later which lists, among his property, “a Negro wench, named Thursday,” whose value was appraised at 25 pounds.

A scholar who deals in facts, Nelson declines to provide a guesstimate on how many black folks lived as miserably here as Thursday, before slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire in the early 1800s.

The one figure I can find is contained in a 2009 paper read before the Royal Nova Scotia 

Historical Society by historian Harvey Amani Whitfield, who quotes a long-ago assessment that 1,232 slaves were brought to Nova Scotia by slave-owning Loyalists following the American Revolution.

That’s a heart-wrenching number. But at the time, Whitfield, who now teaches at the University of Vermont, thought the figure conservative.

I tend to agree.

For one thing, the number didn’t include any residents of Shelburne, where most of the Loyalist slaveholders settled with their slaves. Or the black Loyalists who had supposedly been granted their freedom but lived in de facto slavery in the surrounding areas.

Nelson’s research is less about statistics and more about the woeful lives behind each of those numbers. In the Nova Scotia Archives in Halifax, she’s learned, for example, that butchers, tailors and merchants, not just men of wealth, owned slaves in Nova Scotia.

But some of our most prominent citizens were also slave-owners. At least that is what she surmised after reading a diary entry from Malachy Salter, the merchant, privateer ship owner and office-holder who, when his wife was away in Boston, casually asked her to bring a “negro boy or girl” back to Nova Scotia.

Most of her insights, though, have come from combing the advertisements in Canadian newspapers about slaves who escaped from their owners.

“Sadly, for scholars, this is one of the biggest repositories of information about slavepopulations,” she told me. “But it comes fromthe hands and the mouths

of those who enslaved them.”

There are limitations to the information found in these unbearably grim documents. More men escaped than women, who would not leave their children.

Most of them possessed only a first name, often the same name that the slave-owner gave a cow, horse or other livestock. Denoting possession, the surname, if they had one, was the same as their owner’s.

Since slaves had no birth certificates, the owner could only estimate their age, unless they had been born to parents in his possession.

But the ads go into minutiae about what the escapee happened to be wearing — the kind of clothing, its colour and fabric, as well as whether it was worn or relatively new — which was top of mind since slaves only owned a single set of clothes.

When it came to appearances, the slave-owners spared no detail either: height, weight and body type, but also whether they walked with a limp or possessed some other defining way of moving which would be helpful in hunting them down.

If they were marked by pox or some other disease, or had some sign of the maltreatment they had suffered at the hand of their owner — missing fingers or toes, for example, or scarring on the face, arms or neck — that was in there, too.

So was a listing of the languages they spoke — French, English, an African dialect and, in one advertisement that Nelson saw, Mi’kmaq — since that information could give some clue about who they might contact, or even where they might go as they tried to make their escape.

Even for someone who has just seen a few of

these ads, it makes for such hard reading: the litany of wounds and physical abuse, the dehumanizing way that the owners referred to their slaves, even the way they declared them to be of low character (“slippery,” “a thief ” and “having the ability to be tricky”).

What is more, each of these advertisements in the newspapers of Nova Scotia left a burning question: Did these men and women somehow find their way to freedom?

Or were they turned in or recaptured which, after that brief brush with freedom, must have made the days that followed pure agony.

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