Antiquarian Anabaptist

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: slavery

Will Harriet Tubman appear on the Canadian $100 bill?

Earlier this year, the Bank of Canada asked the public for suggestions for a woman to appear on the $100 bill. The woman selected must nor be fictional, must have died at least 25 years ago and must have played a significant role in Canadian history. Harriet Tubman was one of the names proposed.

You see, Harriet Tubman’s main claim to fame was as a conductor on the Underground Railway, leading black people from slavery in the U.S south to freedom in Canada. She once said  “I wouldn’t trust Uncle Sam with my people no longer, but I brought ’em all clear off to Canada.” St. Catherines, Ontario was her home from 1851 to 1861, the height of her activity as a conductor on the Underground Railway. This covers most of the time between the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, which made life risky for black people anywhere in the USA, and the Emancipation Proclamation.

Bethel Chapel BME church

This church, the Bethel Chapel British Methodist Episcopal Church, was Harriet Tubman’s home church in St. Catherines. It is considered to be the oldest black church in Canada and is still home to an active congregation. It has been designated a National Historic Site, due to its connection to Harriet Tubman.

York University in Toronto is home to the Harriet Tubman Institute for Research on Africa and its Diaspora.

It’s unlikely that Harriet Tubman will be selected for the $100 dollar bill. For one thing, I don’t believe she ever became a Canadian citizen. Yet she is well known in Canada and played a prominent role in our history. I suspect it is more likely that she will turn up on a Canadian postage stamp. I’m a little surprised that it hasn’t happened already.

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Josiah Henson learns to read

It so haJosiah_Henson_bwppened that one of my Maryland friends arrived in this neighbourhood, and hearing of my being here, inquired if I ever preached now. I had said nothing myself, and had not intended to say any thing, of my having ever officiated in that way. I went to meeting with others, when I had an opportunity, and enjoyed the quiet of the Sabbath when there was no assembly. I would not refuse to labour in this field, however, when desired to do so; and I was frequently called upon, not by blacks alone, but by all classes in my vicinity, the comparatively educated, as well as the lamentably ignorant, to speak to them on their duty, responsibility, and immortality, on their obligations to their Maker, their Saviour, and themselves.

It must seem strange to many that a man so ignorant as myself, unable to read, should be able to preach acceptably to persons who had enjoyed greater advantages than myself. I can explain it only by reference to our Saviour’s comparison of the kingdom of heaven to a plant which may spring from a seed no bigger than a mustard-seed, and may yet reach such a size, that the birds of the air may take shelter therein. Religion is not so much knowledge, as wisdom; — and observation upon what passes without, and reflection upon what passes within a man’s heart, will give him a larger growth in grace than is imagined by the devoted adherents of creeds, or the confident followers of Christ, who call him Lord, Lord, but do not the things which he says.

Mr. Hibbard was good enough to give my eldest boy, Tom, two quarters’ schooling, to which the schoolmaster added more of his own kindness, so that my boy learned to read fluently and well. It was a great advantage, not only to him, but to me; for I used to get him to read to me in the Bible, especially on Sunday mornings when I was going to preach; and I could easily commit to memory a few verses, or a chapter, from hearing him read it over.

One beautiful summer Sabbath I rose early, and called him to come and read to me. “Where shall I read, father?” “Anywhere, my son,” I answered, for I knew not how to direct him. He opened upon Psalm 103. “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless his holy name;” and as he read this beautiful outpouring of gratitude which I now first heard, my heart melted within me. I recalled the whole current of my life; and as I remembered the dangers and afflictions from which the Lord had delivered me, and compared my present condition with what it had been, not only my heart but my eyes overflowed, and I could neither check nor conceal the emotion which overpowered me. The words “Bless the Lord, O my soul,” with which the Psalm begins and ends, were all I needed, or could use, to express the fullness of my thankful heart.

When he had finished, Tom turned to me and asked, “Father, who was David?” He had observed my excitement, and added, “He writes pretty, don’t he?” and then repeated his question. It was a question I was utterly unable to answer. I had never heard of David, but could not bear to acknowledge my ignorance to my own child. So I answered evasively, “He was a man of God, my son.” “I suppose so,” said he; “but I want to know something more about him. Where did he live? What did he do?” As he went on questioning me, I saw it was in vain to attempt to escape, and so I told him frankly I did not know. “Why, father,” said he, “can’t you read?”

This was a worse question than the other, and if I had any pride in me at the moment, it took it all out of me pretty quick. It was a direct question, and must have a direct answer; so I told him at once I could not. “Why not,” said he. “Because I never had an opportunity to learn, nor anybody to teach me.” “Well, you can learn now, father.” “No, my son, I am too old, and have not time enough. I must work all day, or you would not have enough to eat.” “Then you might do it at night.” “But still there is nobody to teach me. I can’t afford to pay anybody for it, and of course no one can do it for nothing.” “Why, father, I’ll teach you. I can do it, I know. And then you’ll know so much more, that you can talk better, and preach better.”

The little fellow was so earnest, there was no resisting him; but it is hard to describe the conflicting feelings within me at such a proposition from such a quarter. I was delighted with the conviction that my children would have advantages I had never enjoyed; but it was no slight mortification to think of being instructed by a child of twelve years old. Yet ambition, and a true desire to learn, for the good it would do my own mind, conquered the shame, and I agreed to try.

But I did not reach this state of mind instantly. I was greatly moved by the conversation I had had with Tom — so much so that I could not undertake to preach that day. I passed the Sunday in solitary reflection in the woods. I was too much engrossed with the multitude of my thoughts within me to return home to dinner, and spent the whole day in secret meditation and prayer, trying to compose myself, and ascertain my true position. It was not difficult to see that my predicament was one of profound ignorance, and that I ought to use every opportunity of enlightening it.

I began to take lessons of Tom, therefore, immediately, and followed it up, every evening, by the light of a pine knot, or some hickory bark, which was the only light I could afford. Weeks passed, and my progress was so slow, that poor Tom was almost discouraged, and used to drop asleep sometimes, and whine a little over my dullness, and talk to me very much as a schoolmaster talks to a stupid boy, till I began to be afraid that my age, my want of practice in looking at such little scratches, the daily fatigue, and the dim light, would be effectual preventives of my ever acquiring the art of reading.

But Tom’s perseverance and mine conquered at last, and in the course of the winter I did really learn to read a little. It was, and has been ever since, a great comfort to me to have made this acquisition; though it has made me comprehend better the terrible abyss of ignorance in which I had been plunged all my previous life. It made me also feel more deeply and bitterly the oppression under which I had toiled and groaned; but the crushing and cruel nature of which I had not appreciated, till I found out, in some slight degree, from what I had been debarred. At the same time it made me more anxious than before to do something for the rescue and the elevation of those who were suffering the same evils I had endured, and who did not know how degraded and ignorant they really were.

The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself, first published in 1849

I’m on my way to the freedom land

As a slave, Josiah Henson received no formal education and did not learn to read and write. As is typical of people from oral cultures, he had a prodigious memory and could remember every Bible verse he ever heard. He was ordained to the ministry in the Methodist Church while still a slave, serving mostly his fellow slaves.

Twice he was able to raise the money to purchase his freedom, but due to Josiah’s illiteracy, his master found a way each time to cheat him of his freedom. After the incident mentioned in a previous post where he had been tempted to murder his young master, his master fell deathly ill and Josiah nursed him back to health. This bought him a little time, but before long he learned that his master had plans to sell him, his wife and their children separately. Up to this time, Josiah had considered himself honour bound to remain with his master, but now he finally became willing to take his family and attempt to escape to Canada.

It was on a Saturday night in September of 1830 that Josiah, his wife and their four children set out to walk to Canada. Josiah knew that it would be several days before they were missed and determined to get as far away as they could in that time. They travelled at night and hid by day, eventually making it to Ohio where they encountered people who helped them make the rest of the journey.

There never was a plantation system in Canada such as the one in the U.S. south, but slavery was not officially abolished in Canada until 1833. Still, Canada was the land of hope to those bound in the oppressive slavery of the south. Some of the songs they sang had a double meaning, such as “I’m on my way to the freedom land.” Canada was a safer place for black people, not because Canadians were better people, but because the laws were better. An escaped slave was not safe anywhere in the USA. If found, he could be captured and returned to his master. There were even cases of free blacks being captured and sold into slavery. Few white judges and juries would take the word of a black man against the word of a white. Slave hunters did venture into Canada, but were arrested, hustled back across the border and warned not to return.

The underground railway was just beginning in 1830 and the Henson family avoided human contact as much as possible until they neared the lake that stood between them and Canada. Here they encountered some sympathetic Indians who fed them, gave shelter for the night and directed them on their way the next morning. Then Josiah met a ship’s captain at Sandusky, Ohio who sent a boat for the family after dark, took them to Buffalo and paid the ferry to take them across the river into Canada.

” When I got on the Canada side, on the morning of the 28th of October, 1830, my first impulse was to throw myself on the ground, and giving way to the riotous exultation of my feelings, to execute sundry antics which excited the astonishment of those who were looking on. A gentleman of the neighbourhood, Colonel Warren, who happened to be present, thought I was in a fit, and as he inquired what was the matter with the poor fellow, I jumped up and told him I was free. “O,” said he, with a hearty laugh, “is that it? I never knew freedom make a man roll in the sand before.” It is not much to be wondered at, that my certainty of being free was not quite a sober one at the first moment; and I hugged and kissed my wife and children all round, with a vivacity which made them laugh as well as myself. There was not much time to be lost, though, in frolic, even at this extraordinary moment. I was a stranger, in a strange land, and had to look about me at once, for refuge and resource. I found a lodging for the night; and the next morning set about exploring the interior for the means of support.”

Human cargo for sale

As time went by, Josiah Henson married, began a family and was made overseer of the plantation. He was able in small ways to make life better for his fellow slaves and produced much better crops than the former white overseer. The owner, however, wasted all the profits of the plantation and decided to send Josiah to New Orleans and sell him there.

My wife and children accompanied me to the landing, where I bade them an adieu, which might be for life, and then stepped into the boat, which I found manned by three white men, who had been hired for the trip. Mr. Amos and myself were the only other persons on board. The load consisted of beef-cattle, pigs, poultry, corn, whisky, and other articles from the farm, and from some of the neighbouring estates, which were to be sold as we dropped down the river, wherever they could be disposed of to the greatest advantage. It was a common trading voyage to New Orleans, the interest of which consisted not in the incidents that occurred, not in storms, or shipwreck, or external disaster of any sort; but in the storm of passions contending within me, and the imminent risk of the shipwreck of my soul.

As I paced backwards and forwards on the deck, during my watch, it may well be believed I revolved many a painful and passionate thought. After all that I had done for Isaac and Amos R., after all the regard they professed for me, and the value they could not but put upon me and the intense selfishness with which they were ready to sacrifice me, at any moment, to their supposed interest, turned my blood to gall and wormwood, and changed me into a savage, morose, dangerous slave. I was going not at all as a lamb to the slaughter, but I felt myself becoming more ferocious every day; and as we approached the place where this iniquity was to be consummated, I became more and more agitated with an almost uncontrollable fury.

I had met, on the passage, with some of my Maryland acquaintance who had been sold off to this region; and their haggard and wasted appearance told a piteous story of excessive labour and insufficient food. I said to myself, “If this is to be my lot, I cannot survive it long. I am not so young as these men, and if it has brought them to such a condition, it will soon kill me. I am to be taken by my masters and owners, who ought to be my grateful friends, to a place and a condition where my life is to be shortened, as well as made more wretched. Why should I not prevent this wrong, if I can, by shortening their lives, or those of their agents in accomplishing such detestable injustice? They have no suspicion of me, and they are at this moment in my power.”

These were not thoughts which just flitted across my mind’s eye, and then disappeared. They fashioned themselves into shapes which grew larger, and seemed firmer, every time they presented themselves; and at length my mind was made up to convert the phantom shadow into a positive reality. I resolved to kill my four companions, take what money there was in the boat, then to scuttle the craft, and escape to the north. It was a poor plan, and would very likely have failed; but it was as well contrived, under the circumstances, as the plans of murderers usually are; and blinded by passion, and stung to madness as I was, I could not see any difficulty about it.

One dark, rainy night, within a few days of New Orleans, my hour seemed to have come. I was alone on the deck; Mr. Amos and the hands were all asleep below. I crept down noiselessly, got hold of an axe and entered the cabin. My hand slid along the axe-handle, I raised it to strike the fatal blow, — when suddenly the thought came to me, “What! commit murder! and you a Christian?”

I had not called it murder before. It was self-defence, — it was preventing others from murdering me, — it was justifiable, it was even praiseworthy. But now, all at once, the truth burst upon me that it was a crime. I was going to kill a young man, who had done nothing to injure me, but obey commands which he could not resist; I was about to lose the fruit of all my efforts at self-improvement, the character I had acquired, and the peace of mind which had never deserted me. All this came upon me instantly, and with a distinctness which made me almost think I heard it whispered in my ear; and I believe I even turned my head to listen. I shrunk back, laid down the axe, crept up on deck again, and thanked God, as I have done every day since, that I had not committed murder.

– from The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada,as Narrated by Himself

The conversion of Josiah Henson

I was born, June 15, 1789, in Charles County, Maryland, on a farm belonging to Mr. Francis N., about a mile from Port Tobacco. My mother was the property of Dr. Josiah McP., but was hired by Mr. N., to whom my father belonged. The only incident I can remember, which occurred while my mother continued on N.’s farm, was the appearance of my father one day, with his head bloody and his back lacerated.  Though it was all a mystery to me at the age of three or four years, it was explained at a later period that he had been suffering the cruel penalty of the Maryland law for beating a white man. His right ear had been cut off close to his head, and he had received a hundred lashes on his back. He had beaten the overseer for a brutal assault on my mother, and this was his punishment.

When I was 18 an incident occurred that deserves especial notice. There was at Georgetown, a few miles from R’s plantation, a baker who was an upright, benevolent, Christian man. He was noted for his detestation of slavery, and his avoidance of the employment of slave labour in his business.  His reputation was high, not only for this almost singular abstinence from what no one about him thought wrong, but for his general probity and excellence.

This man occasionally served as a minister of the Gospel. One Sunday when he was to officiate at a place three or four miles distant, my mother persuaded me to ask master’s leave to go and hear him; and although such permission was not given freely or often, yet his favour to me was shown for this once by allowing me to go, without much scolding, but not without a pretty distinct intimation of what would befall me, if I did not return immediately after the close of the service.

I hurried off, pleased with the opportunity, but without any definite expectations of benefit; for up to this period of my life I had never heard a sermon, nor any conversation whatever, upon religious topics, except what had been impressed upon me by my mother, of the responsibility of all to a Supreme Being. When I arrived at the place of meeting, the speaker was just beginning his discourse, from the text, Hebrews 2:9; “That he, by the grace of God, should taste of death for every man.” This was the first text of the Bible to which I had ever listened, knowing it to be such. I have never forgotten it, and scarce a day has passed since, in which I have not recalled it, and the sermon that was preached from it. The divine character of Jesus Christ, his life and teachings, his sacrifice of himself for others, his death and resurrection were all alluded to, and some of the points were dwelt upon with great power,–great, at least, to me, who heard of these things for the first time in my life.

I was wonderfully impressed, too, with the use which the preacher made of the last words of the text, “for every man.” He said the death of Christ was not designed for the benefit of a select few only, but for the salvation of the world, for the bond as well as the free; and he dwelt on the glad tidings of the Gospel to the poor, the persecuted, and the distressed, its deliverance to the captive, and the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free, till my heart burned within me, and I was in a state of the greatest excitement at the thought that such a being as Jesus Christ had been described should have died for me–for me among the rest, a poor, despised, abused slave, who was thought by his fellow creatures fit for nothing but unrequited toil and ignorance, for mental and bodily degradation.

I immediately determined to find out something more about “Christ and him crucified;” and revolving the things which I had heard in my mind as I went home, I became so excited that I turned aside from the road into the woods, and prayed to God for light and for aid with an earnestness, which, however unenlightened, was at least sincere and heartfelt; and which the subsequent course of my life has led me to imagine might not have been unacceptable to Him who heareth prayer. At all events, I date my conversion, and my awakening to a new life from this day, so memorable to me.

I used every means and opportunity of inquiry into religious matters; and so deep was my conviction of their superior importance to every thing else, so clear my perception of my own faults, and so undoubting my observation of the darkness and sin that surrounded me, that I could not help talking much on these subjects with those about me; and it was not long before I began to pray with them, and exhort them, and to impart to the poor slaves those little glimmerings of light from another world, which had reached my own eye. In a few years I became quite an esteemed preacher among them, and I will not believe it is vanity which leads me to think I was useful to some.

-an excerpt from The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, first published in 1849.

Thomas Jefferson’s Miscalculation

When the War of 1812 began, the US government assumed that the Canadian colonies to the north would quickly grasp the opportunity to throw off British colonial rule and become part of the USA.  Thomas Jefferson declared that Canada could be acquired simply by marching North.

It probably seemed a logical assumption.  The colonies of Upper Canada (upstream along the St.  Lawrence) and Lower Canada (downstream) were chafing at the British administration and the USA had 16 times as many people as the two colonies combined.

But there were factors that the USA did not reckon with.  The largest ethnic groups in the USA have always been people of English and German descent.  In Canada, the two main ethnic groups are the Scots and the French.  The Scots and the English are not kissing cousins.  The Scots have never graciously accepted English domination and this extended to the idea of domination by people of English descent from the USA.

In addition, a large chunk of the population of Upper Canada (now Ontario) consisted of United Empire Loyalists, people who had left (or been driven out of) the USA during the Revolutionary War because they did not agree with the idea of forcibly overthrowing the established government.  These people were not enthused with the idea of once again coming under US authority.

The population of Lower Canada (now Québec) was largely French-speaking.  They were not thrilled about being ruled by the British, but they did not see that being ruled by the Americans would be an improvement.  At the battle of Chateauguay in October of 1813, 4,000 US invaders were put to flight by a French-Canadian battalion of 460 men, led by Lt. Col. Charles de Salaberry.

The Indian people of Canada were aware of the violence suffered by Indians in US territory and joined the battle to repulse the American invaders.  They were joined by Tecumseh and a contingent of Shawnee warriors from the USA.  Three times in his boyhood, US forces had destroyed the villages where Tecumseh lived, then in 1811 his community of Prophet’s Town, Indiana was burned to the ground.

A “Company of Coloured Men” fought in the battle of Queenston Heights.  It is not hard to imagine that they had no desire to become part of the USA where they stood a good chance of being returned to slavery.

For these and many other reasons, the US invasion of Canada was a failure.  Many Canadians consider the War of 1812 to be the birth of Canada as a nation.  There were short-lived rebellions against colonial authority in both Upper and Lower Canada in 1837.  This led to the granting of responsible government and the union of the two Canada’s in 1841.  In 1867, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island were united with Canada, followed by rapid western expansion and finally the addition of Newfoundland in 1949.

As a nonresistant Christian of Anabaptist-Mennonite persuasion, I am not seeking to glorify war.  I find it worthy of note that wars often have consequences that are very different from the intentions of the party that instigated the war.

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