If you’ll recall, last week I touched upon the issue of slavery as it relates to the history of Prince Edward Island and African-Islanders. Today, I thought I would get into its origins as an institution. It’s a touchy subject in general, which is perhaps why, here on the Island, it continues to be ignored and remains little understood by many. But as I last wrote, history is not meant to be ignored. There’s no rule that says you have to like it, but you do have to acknowledge it, as it hard as that may be by times.
Let’s kick things off with a surprising – and obscure – factoid of Island history: Did you know that this province (when it was a colony of British North America) is the only such place in Canada to ever enact its own law enforcing the institution of slavery? Sadly, it’s true.
The year was 1781. The Island, then known as St. John’s Island, had had its own government since 1769, and was still helmed by the man first appointed its governor, a man with a chequered career in political office and largely deemed a rogue by historians: Walter Patterson.
Patterson has long been a polarizing figure in Island history, but the thing you have to understand about him is that, time and again, he proved to be the sort of person who would do whatever he could to succeed and get ahead in life. There really wasn’t much that was beneath him.
In March 1781, he sent a letter to London notifying his superiors there of the laws and acts to which he had given his assent, and which required their approval. This was just before the wheels began coming off his political cart, and one item in particular perhaps foreshadows his ignominious actions to come:
An Act, declaring that Baptism of Slaves shall not exempt them from Bondage (or, An Act Respecting the Baptism of Slaves)
The act stipulated the following:
Whereas some Doubts have arisen whether Slaves by becoming Christians, or being admitted to Baptism, should, by virtue thereof, be made free:
1. Be it therefore enacted by the Governor, Council and Assembly, That all Slaves, whether Negroes or Mulattoes, residing at present on this Island, or that may hereafter be imported or brought therein, shall be deemed Slaves, notwithstanding his, her or their Conversion to Christianity; nor shall the Act of Baptism performed on any such Negro or Mulatto alter his, her or their Condition.
2. And be it further enacted, That all Negro and Mulatto Servants who are now on this Island, or may hereafter be imported or brought therein (being Slaves), shall continue such, unless freed by his, her or their respective Owners.
3. And be it further enacted by the Authority aforesaid, That all Children born of Women Slaves shall belong to and be the property of the Masters or Mistresses of such Slaves.
In simpler terms, what the act laid out was that, if you were a slave who came to the Island as such, then you remained in that capacity, as did your children, unless your “Masters or Mistresses” saw fit to grant you your freedom. Having been baptised a Christian would not get you off the hook. Through 21st century lenses, it was a major human rights violation, but switch them out for an 18th century pair and it really wasn’t abnormal legislation at all. Another sad fact.
Of course, even without Patterson to grease the wheels, it’s entirely likely that slavery would have come to the Island anyway, as it did in other places; in fact, more recent research indicates that a trickle (of slaves) had already begun before 1775. So why did he give the nod to such an act at all? What was the motive?
It’s a question that remains unresolved, although it has been speculated by people far more knowledgeable than I (such as Black Islanders author Jim Hornby) that Patterson’s Act Respecting the Baptism of Slaves was an attempt to attract the prospective eye of those loyalist slave owners looking to relocate to British North America by giving them a framework within which they could simply pick up as they had left off – basically, it secured slaves as property.
1781 was an interesting year for Patterson (in hindsight, it would prove his undoing). A major issue had, in his opinion, reached a crisis point: Absentee proprietors. It had been an ongoing theme since 1767, that of landlords who held large chunks of the Island and who were making absolutely no efforts to settle their townships as they were obligated to under the terms and conditions of their owning them. These conditions set forth that you, a proprietor, were required to populate your landholdings, collect rent (known as quit rent) from your tenants, which was funnelled upwards and intended to keep the colony functioning. Long story short, that just wasn’t happening.
On the heels of signing off on the Act Respecting the Baptism of Slaves, Patterson took drastic action. Turning to the legal process known as “escheat”, by which he was entitled to strip deadbeat landlords of their holdings and either give or sell said land to tenants, Patterson scooped up about 600,000 acres in one fell swoop; however, instead of turning around and making it available to one and all, he decided to use it as an opportunity to pay himself and his fellow politicos what he felt they were owed in back wages. Hosting a secret auction, those 600,000 acres were distributed to a close knit circle of friends. After taking his share, Patterson’s own holdings grew to about 170,000 acres alone. All in a day’s work (literally) for the Governor of St. John’s Island.
But what to do with all that land? In 1784, said beneficiaries opted to pool their sizeable resources and offer up about 150,000 of that acreage to entice a group of people to settle here that they hoped would stir up an immigration boom, and perhaps score them a few supporters in their political corner: Loyalists.
Unfortunately for Patterson and his crew, the anticipated boom largely came to naught. While loyalists did make their way to the Island, their numbers never reached hoped-for targets. The situation became even messier for those who opted into Patterson’s scheme when the results of his escheat and secret auction were overturned by the Crown, which landed him in a whole whack of trouble and had the effect of disenfranchising those loyalists who thought they’d received land free and clear, turning them into squatters.
So where does this leave us with slavery?
Some (but not all) of the loyalists who came to the Island during this time brought with them the slaves they’d acquired in the United States and elsewhere. The exact numbers of enslaved individuals have never been satisfactorily determined, and while it certainly wasn’t a torrent, it wasn’t an insignificant amount either, especially with the above-mentioned legislation in place. I won’t get into the lifestyle led by enslaved African-Islanders today; suffice it to say, however, that life wasn’t easy and came with much hardship to endure. But thankfully, although slavery was enforced on the books and did exist here, in practice it never took serious hold and in fact began to diminish not long after.
In my last post, I alluded to the fact that, over the course of about two decades, between 1790-1810, the large majority of slaves on the Island were liberated. Some just even upped and ran off and were never pursued. This despite the fact that General Edmund Fanning, himself a slave owner who replaced the ousted Walter Patterson in 1786/7, put out public notices in late 1791 announcing Britain’s An Act for encouraging new Settlers in his Majesty’s Colonies and Plantations in America (1790). This act allowed for those immigrating to British colonies from the United States to take with them, among other things, any slaves not exceeding a certain monetary value, in addition to permitting the sale of slaves (and yes, slave sales did happen here). So what caused the shift in public sentiment toward slavery?
This is another question yet to be given a concrete answer, and so I defer to the experts. As far as they’re concerned, the 1790s brought about a host of religious and social pressures which heralded the demise of slavery on the Island. A key figure in it all was the Reverend James MacGregor (1759-1830), founder of the abolition movement in British North America (Canada), known to have made a number of visits to the Island during the final years of the 18th century to trumpet his cause. His arguments (thankfully) proved convincing to many.
By 1825, the institution of slavery on the Island was well and truly finished (although its ramifications would continue well into the 19th century). In January of that year, the benevolent and ever-popular Col. John Ready, the colony’s fifth governor, led the way in pushing through An Act to repeal “An Act declaring that Baptism of Slaves shall not exempt them from Bondage. It was a thorough abolishment of slavery, and came nearly a full decade before Britain’s Imperial Act of 1833, which accomplished the same throughout the Empire.
In the span of 44 years, the Island went from having the legal framework for a full-on slave state to striking it from the books in its entirety. Next week, we’ll take a look at what life was like for African-Islanders here during that period.
PEI History Guy
P.S. – That was a long post. Apologies.