How little we know of our history

(Canscene) – February is Black History Month and gives us all the opportunity to reflect on the role African Canadians have played in our history. Unfortunately even the most sympathetic of us tend to overlook the whole picture.

Many think of Black history in terms of the Underground Railroad but while it represents a significant and exciting chapter in that history, there were Blacks in Canada more than 200 years before.

The first known Black person in Canada was Manuel da Costa about whom little is still known but who had a mastery of the Mi’ Maq language of Eastern Canada. He came apparently as a freeman and crew member on several early voyages of discovery.

A nameless black slave from Madagascar who came here in 1628, was baptized Oliver Le Jeune and set free at the age of sixteen. Unhappily not many slave owners followed suit.

A long and bitter story

The history of Blacks in the Maritimes is a long and bitter one. Champion of Black history in Eastern Canada is Dr. Henry Bishop of Dartmouth, N.S who directs the Black Cultural Centre and Museum. He maintains that any teaching of Canadian history is incomplete. without taking into account the role Aboriginal and Black people have played

After the American revolution, many Blacks came to Canada both as slaves to United Empire Loyalists who remained faithful to the Crown and as freemen, having served with British forces. As many as 3,500 came to the Maritimes

In 1792, almost 2,000 Black people who had been transplanted to Nova Scotia set sail in a government-organized fleet to Sierra Leone; 65 died en route.

Before he returned to England, John Graves Simcoe, Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada managed in 1793 to pass an act that banned new ownership of slaves in Upper Canada but didn’t go far enough to free existing slaves. Nevertheless Canada remains the first jurisdiction in the British Empire to effect an anti-slavery legislation.

British Parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833. This act gave all slaves in the British Empire their freedom. The government paid compensation to the slave owners. The amount that the plantation owners received depended on the number of slaves that they had. For example, the Bishop of Exeter’s freed 665 slaves resulted in his receiving £12,700.

British monarch’s African ancestry

Queen CharlotteOddly enough, when slavery was abolished in England Queen Charlotte, widow of George III, herself was of a visibly Afro-European heritage. She was the direct descendant of Margarita de Castro e Sousa, of the Afro-European branch of the Portuguese Royal House.

The Ontario Black History Society, successfully initiated the formal celebration of February as Black History Month in the City of Toronto in 1979. Rosemary Sadleir, author and historian who became president of the society in 1993 was successful in having the month celebrated nationally in Canada with the help of former Liberal MP and cabinet minister Jean Augustine.

The many celebrations of the Ontario Black History Month are noted on the society’s web sire at www.blackhistorysociety.ca

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