We students from Bath Spa University undertook Professor Olivette Otele’s module last semester on Ships, Sugar and Slaves where she approached our class with the project of the Phantoms of the Past in Canada. After some research behind this extraordinary project we were eager to find out more about Canada’s involvement in slavery and to understand how the memory of slavery has been preserved and confronted in Ontario by learning from its people and culture.
Our first day in London Ontario took us to ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ in Dresden, the home and historic site of black abolitionist Josiah Henson. Steven Cook, one of the leading curators at this historic site and a descendant of runaway slaves, showed us around the site and told us about the life of Josiah Henson and how his life inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Henson, I learned, could not read nor write and it was revealed to me that he would sell apples from his master’s land to buy a journal to learn these very skills, but when his master uncovered the journal he beat him to near death. His master beat him not because Henson tried to learn how to read and write but for referring to the land he was getting the apples from as ‘our land’. This story resonated with me because Henson saw himself and his work as equal to his masters’, but his fear of being beaten again was more powerful than those beliefs so he vowed never to attempt to learn how to read or write again. This demonstrated to me the constant oppression that was ever present in slavery and on slave plantations. Though Henson’s freedom and opportunity of an education were stripped from him, he was determined to offer this opportunity to runaway slaves who, like him, escaped to Canada to find a new and free way of life. He set up the British American Institute in 1842 which was a school and place of refuge for runaway slaves. To my understanding, the school was not only a school to give former slaves an education which they had been deprived of before, but also a place to re-discover ones’ self and their skills to forge black communities in Canada. Essentially, Henson created a sense of belonging for free and runaway slaves in that was absent in the South
Whilst in the pioneer Church on the site of Uncle Tom’s Cabin where Josiah preached for the abolition of slavery, I was very moved and most privileged to sing the chorus of Swing Low Sweet Chariot with my peers and friends in this place of memory. Unknown to me, the very lyrics of the song are rooted in the sufferings of slavery as sung by slaves working in the fields every day, wanting and longing for a better life or a road to death which would ease their pain. I was also fascinated to learn that the lyrics are said to contain codes leading many slaves to the underground railroad which showed me that slaves were united together against their oppression through the use of song and faith which in many ways founded aspects of the black communities which grew in America and Canada as seen through the establishment of gospel churches which we can identify with the traces of slavery which black communities embrace.
The Phantoms of the Past, I have seen, is just one of many projects in Canada which aims to preserve the memory of slavery and giving indigenous communities in Canada a voice as I saw for myself when I attended the Night of Indigenous Arts on my visit. One of the speakers, Jenna-Rose Sands, captured my attention when she spoke of her Indian heritage as being an obstacle which she has struggled to confront all her life and has only recently accepted it. Since a young age others made her feel ashamed of where she came from, but now she is proud of her heritage and wants to shed light on her ancestors who lost their identities and lives through colonization. She started creating Zines for young children to educate them on re-discovering and embracing their identities as well as teaching them to treat others as equals no matter their race. Being from Gibraltar myself, a British colony on the edge of Spain, I related quite strongly to Jenna-Rose as I too have had to face other nations wanting to claim my land and identity; it was inspiring to see how others dealt with similar issues of identity and belonging.