- Blacks on the Border: The Black Refugees in British North America, 1815–1860
The African diasporas represent one of the most significant historical phenomena involving the mass movement of humans across time and space. Framed by the Atlantic slave trade and chattel slavery in the Americas, historians have documented the presence of African people in North America with considerable insight and erudition. By attending to the geography, range of labor regimes, social institutions, and politics of slavery, they have detailed the experience of black people as racialized subjects in the context of white supremacy. At the same time, the orientation of this literature in relation to the nation-state [End Page 117] has overshadowed the experience of bonded people who contested the boundaries of slavery through emigration. This is the case of black refugees in British North America between 1815 and 1860. Although the black presence in the British Empire predated the Revolutionary War, their numbers grew as British officials on the ground used the promise of freedom to encourage bonded blacks to defect in 1776 and again during the war of 1812. Britain and its territory became a symbolic and practical destination for freedom when Parliament abolished the trade in slaves in 1807 and slavery in 1833. The United States Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 only reinforced the perception of Canada as this new law mandated federal authorities to participate in the return of fugitive slaves to owners. Indeed, during the antebellum period black settlement patterns shifted from the east to west in British Canada as their numbers grew.
One of the most important contributions of this study by Harvey Amani Whitfield is that it dismantles the myth that British North America was a multicultural oasis. In Nova Scotia, slavery was for all practical purposes outlawed, but not antiblack racism. During and after the War of 1812, black refugees faced daunting hurdles, including a poorly planned and executed refugee policy. These conditions reflected not only the limited competency of the colonial government but also persistent racialized hostility to their presence. Officials encouraged emigration to Trinidad while legislators attempted to prohibit any further immigration. For those who remained, the resettlement farms and grudging freehold grants provided at best a modest foundation for a permanent life and settlement. Just as emigrating was a political act, so too was the act of building a community. Individual and collective petitions for freeholds generated a legal consciousness as did voting in local elections and public displays of loyalty to the Crown affirm membership in the larger polity. The church and societies were central in creating a space in civil society and a distinctive public identity for refugees and their descendants. The African Baptist Church in Halifax, the African Baptist Association, and the African Abolition Society, of course, were not without fault lines of social tension and sites of political conflict. They, nonetheless, afforded social spaces for fellowship, leadership, and community for transforming their future.
If Whitfield’s discussion tells us anything, it is that the agency of the black refugee community was not bounded by British North America. They moved back and forth across the boundaries of the black Atlantic. Their movement operated in overlapping and competing registers of the personal, cultural, and political that connected them to family, friends, and the fraternity of struggle. Still, even as abolitionist activity [End Page 118] linked refugees with bonded blacks in the United States, they drew distinctions. Rather than designating their civil and social organizations “black” or “colored” as in the United States, refugee organizations usually adopted “African.” This terminology in cultural terms underscored a powerful affinity with Africa for recent arrivals and descendants alike. In political terms, it distinguished black refugees as subjects of the Crown from the status of bonded blacks and thereby laid a foundation for equal rights in the empire. The struggle in Nova Scotia and elsewhere in the Atlantic world would remain a major preoccupation of black refugees and their descendants.