Last I wrote, I said that all material for the month of February would be given over to discussing the Island’s black heritage in honour of Black History Month. That plan hasn’t changed. For this week, I thought it best to kick things off with a general primer on the origins of Black (or African) Islanders, and the state of said heritage today, before diving into other matters in greater detail.
It often comes as a surprise to many, the fact that the Island has black heritage. I’ll admit that I myself really didn’t learn about it until I enrolled in an Island history class in high school. Despite the fact I was first exposed to Island history in Grade 6, in two of the textbooks long used in the education system here (at the lower levels), The Story of Prince Edward Island (1963) and Abegweit: Land of the Red Soil (1985), the subject of African-Islanders was completely ignored, with the exception of a brief side note in the latter (I’m told, however, that the curriculum has since been updated, and although I’ve not seen the new material, I’m hoping that omission has been amended).
Academically, the subject has merited some study. There has been one book written on it, Jim Hornby’s fantastic Black Islanders (1991), a couple of articles in The Island Magazine, and a piece by historian Harry Holman in a 1982 edition of Acadiensis, in addition to passing references in various publications. But that’s about the whole of it. While there have been efforts by such organizations as the Black Islanders Cooperative and the Black Cultural Society of PEI to raise the profile of the Island’s black heritage, said efforts have been (largely) ignored.
So, where does the story begin?
It was after the Acadians had been deported, after Holland had performed his feats of cartographic brilliance, and after the whole of the Island had been carved up, subjected to a lottery, and granted away to well placed individuals in elite social circles in Britain that the first African-Islanders (that we know of) came to the Island. It was the latter part of the 18th century. The province was by then a British colony, and they arrived much as you would expect given the time period: enslaved. Yes. Believe it or not, not even Prince Edward Island was exempt from the institution of slavery.
With war raging in the US, those loyal to the British cause (Loyalists), either pre-emptively or because their allegiance caused them to be displaced, began making their way to safer havens in British North America. A good number of them opted to put down roots in the Maritimes, including Prince Edward (then St. John’s) Island. They came from all walks of life, and, although refugees, some had previously led gilded lives. While many were forced to leave behind their material possessions, they took with them what they could. More often than not, that included any slaves.
Although there remains the possibility that some African-Islanders might have come to the Island alongside the first government officials and men of rank in the 1770s, they most assuredly did throughout the 1780s. Of course, it wasn’t just anyone who could afford to “own” a slave, and so you can imagine the sorts of people who did. Take, for example, the Island’s second Lieutenant-Governor, Edmund Fanning: He is believed to have had four. Unlike in the United States, there was no plantation system here, and most of the enslaved African-Islanders are known to have worked in households as domestics.
Slavery, however, never became entrenched on the Island as it did in other places. It certainly wasn’t pretty, but it also never reached the extremes it did elsewhere; in fact, it began to diminish not long after it began. Religious and social pressures have been cited as the reason why many of those who owned slaves began granting them their freedom in the waning years of the 18th century, and the first years of the 19th. By about 1810, those African-Islanders who had been liberated began to group together, forming the nucleus of the Island’s black population. The majority established a community in Charlottetown, in a marshy, undesirable portion of the city known as “the Bog”. Not long after, in 1825, slavery was formally abolished on the Island. Both the Bog and the institution of slavery are topics that will be looked at in far greater detail throughout the month.
As Jim Hornby points out, small numbers combined with assimilation by the white population led to African-Islanders quickly disappearing as a visible minority. Unlike in Nova Scotia, where a number of different waves of black immigrants were able to form distinct communities and retain some semblance of their culture, it was a lost cause here. There was, historically, only one migratory group of blacks that came to the Island (and against their will at that), and with a population that numbered probably no more than two hundred at its peak, it simply wasn’t sustainable. It also didn’t help that, even when slavery was removed from the books, African-Islanders were still very much subjugated members of society, and continued to be long after the fact.
Today, there are many on the Island who can lay claim to being of black heritage; some are aware of it, but there is without doubt an even greater number who have absolutely no idea. My hope is that this post, and those to come, will inspire you to learn more about the Island’s black history, and to help give it the recognition it deserves. History is meant to be studied, to be discussed and debated, and above all to be shared.
It is not meant to be ignored.
PEI History Guy
P.S. – I should point out that I am in no way an expert on the history of African-Islanders. I’m merely someone with a keen interest. If you have anything you’d like to add to what I’ve written, please feel free to comment. Dialogue is important!
P.P.S. – So it’s two days later (February 7), and I just found this extensive article, “Slave Life and Slave Law in Colonial Prince Edward Island, 1769-1825” (Acadiensis, Summer 2009). I’m not sure how that one escaped my notice, but go check it out!