From the mid-1600s to the 1700s, slavery was very common in New France; a large number of slaves were brought to New France by many loyalists from the American Revolution. Slavery was abolished in 1833 in all of British Empire, but courts in Upper and Lower Canada abolished such a crime long time ago. Interestingly, slavery came to a halt in Upper and Lower Canada sooner than anywhere else in North America. In 1793, Chloe Cooley, an enslaved Black woman, was forced to travel from Upper Canada to the United States to be sold. This incident was used by Governor John Simcoe to back up his arguments against slavery in Upper Canada. The Act to prevent slavery in Upper Canada was passed that July of that year.
Most of the Black Canadians living in Upper and Lower Canada were free; this was one of the major reasons as to why slavery was abolished in Canada. In fact, there were many refugees originated from the slave states in America. A population of free Black Americans came to the British colonies as Loyalists and were promised land in return during the Loyalist wave of immigration. During the Rebellions of 1837, the Black Militia fought against William Lyon Mackenzie and his rebels; the majority of the Black colonists thought if they lost, America would dominate Canada, which would ultimately result in the return of slavery.
Black Americans escaped slavery by immigrating to Upper Canada. They used various routes and safe houses called the “Underground Railway.” These people traveled hundreds of kilometres on foot. The Quaker and Methodist churches supported Black Americans escaping slavery. Their philosophy was that slavery was a sin against God and humankind. A Black activist named Harriet Tubman assisted hundreds of Black Americans escape through the Railway and safely enter Upper Canada. However, the utilization of the Underground Railway was highly dangerous. If one was caught, he/she would be severely punished, if not, killed.
Upper Canada was a refugee area for Black Americans, where slaves could have a new and free life. However, these people didn’t quite escape the racism and discrimination they faced in the States. Many Black immigrants weren’t respected as well as other races, and their descendants were not part of the government for a hundred years. Because of this racism, the black slaves lived in communities within communities, sometimes even just a few families in a miniature town. There were, however, some independent settlements, such as the one developed by Josiah Henson.
Regardless of the racism they faced, black slaves were located in every colony of British North America. The slaves who came during the Loyalist migration period generally settled in the Maritimes, where many of their descendants still live to this day. Governor James Douglas invited Black colonists to settle in British Columbia. They occupied land on Salt Spring Island and essentially everywhere else.
Some of the Black slaves living in Upper Canada became home sick, and reminisced their life before slavery in their homeland. A Loyalist named Richard Pierpoint, who settled near present-day St. Catharines, Ontario, wrote the following letter. Sadly, his request was rejected, but he was granted land. The community he founded would eventually become part of the Underground Railway.
Most humbly showeth,
That you Excellency’s Petitioner is a native Bondu in Africa: that at the age of Sixteen Years he wsa made a Prisoner and sold as a Slave: that he was conveyed to American about the year1760, and sold to a British office; that he served his Majesty during the American Revolution War in the Corps called Butler’s Rangers… That your Excellency’s Petitioner is now old and without property; that he finds it difficult to obtain a livelihood by his labour; that he is above all things desirous to return to his native Country: that his Majesty’s Government be graciously pleased to grant him any relifef; he wishes it might be affording him the means to proceed to England and from thence to a Settlement near the Gmabia or Senegal Rivers, from whence he could return to Bondu…
-York, Upper Canada, July 21, 1821