by Ashley Sutherland, Archivist/Curator, Colchester Historeum
Written with the assistance and guidance of Dr. Lynn Jones; Lynn, thank you for challenging my perceptions of the past and encouraging me to think carefully about the importance of words and terminology.
People of African heritage have been present in what is known today as Nova Scotia for over 400 years. They come from vibrant cultural groundings from various countries, communities, and ethnic groups on the continent of Africa. The stories informing their arrivals in Nova Scotia are varied and complex and their immigration to this region occurred over the course of several influxes. These historic journeys are a result of capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism and are directly and indirectly connected to the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade. Their journeys and experiences that have led to present-day realities show they have struggled, and continue to struggle, against multiple systems of oppression. Despite the hardships experienced, the African Nova Scotian community has a long vibrant history and a strong and welcome presence in Nova Scotia today.
The long-standing presence of people of African descent can be traced back as far as 1605, when the first known person of African descent to arrive in this region was Mathieu Da Costa. Da Costa, a Free-African person from Portugal, was credited with speaking several languages including Mi’kmaw. He worked as an interpreter for the French and Dutch. Thus, his linguistic abilities were resourceful and instrumental in establishing important trade relationships. It is believed that Da Costa accompanied Samuel de Champlain on his expedition to the New World where he reportedly arrived of his own free will, whereas the majority of Africans were forcibly brought to North America.
Despite information to the contrary, slavery is the foundation upon which North America was built. The misconception that slavery did not exist in Canada is a false narrative. The Trans Atlantic Slave Trade occurred over the course of four centuries (from the 1500s to the early 1800s). During this time, people of African Heritage were captured, enslaved, and transferred from the continent of Africa to the Americas. It is estimated that 12.5 million Africans were kidnapped and brought to the Americas. 95% of the captives were sent to the West Indies and about 5% came to North America. The voyage across the Atlantic Ocean was perilous. An additional 12.5 million captives are estimated to have never made it to land due to mutiny, disease, inflicted violence, and sinking ships. What is important to note is that, despite where enslaved people initially arrived in the Americas, slavery was present in all British colonies, including Canada. The Slave Trade was likewise active in other European colonies, including the French colonies. Approximately 90% of those who were enslaved in French colonies were African or of African heritage. The Fortress of Louisbourg, which was the capital of a French colony known as Ile Royale (present-day Cape Breton Island) is just one example of a colony in the Maritimes that enslaved people would have been highly visible in daily life. Records suggest that more than 260 people were enslaved at Louisbourg during the time of French occupation. It is likley that more were present but were not documented in records. Enslaved people would have likewise been part of the British forces that attacked the fortress during the Siege of Louisbourg (1745 and 1758).
The colonial struggle between the British and the French over Nova Scotia resulted in an event known today as the Acadian Expulsion (1755). Although the French remained in control of Ile Royale and Louisbourg, the British occupied mainland Nova Scotia. Despite this, many French-speaking settlers, known as Acadians, lived in the region and refused to sign an oath of allegiance to the British Crown. Regardless of the Acadians’ claim of neutrality, the British considered them a threat and forcibly removed the Acadians from the region. Following the Acadian Expulsion in Nova Scotia, many White Settlers, known as Planters came by way of New England and Ireland and established English-speaking communities in Nova Scotia. They were the first English-speaking Settlers in the region. Records indicate that Planters brought enslaved African people with them to Nova Scotia. Additionally, enslaved people were brought on ships to Halifax circa 1749 with the arrival of Cornwallis and the establishment of a British presence in the region. They were brought to assist with the construction of fortifications and houses in Halifax, including Citadel Hill.
Although early British and English-speaking settlement brought the first influx of people of African Heritage, the largest influx to the region occurred following the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783). During this war, the Americans were successful in gaining independence from Great Britain. As American territory expanded, British supporters, known as Loyalists, migrated to territories that remained occupied by the British. This included Nova Scotia. Newcomers of African heritage that fought alongside the British in the Revolution are known as Black Loyalists.
The American Revolution saw a shift in sentiment, allowing people of African heritage to have a voice and have their opinions taken into consideration by some parties. The Dunmore Proclamation of 1775 enabled Africans to join the Revolutionary war alongside the British as their participation was critical to securing a win by the British. In exchange for their loyalty, they were offered a promise of freedom by the British. Additionally, they were guaranteed large parcels of land in Nova Scotia following their service. Most promises resulted in broken contracts. Slave owners from the south would journey north to re-capture enslaved people and the British did not protect the Black Loyalists unless they were on British soil. Many of the Black Loyalists evacuated from New York for British territories, including Nova Scotia. Several of the landing points in the British Colony included Shelburne, Port Mouton, Annapolis Royal, Halifax, Fort Cumberland, and St. John. An estimated 3500 Black Loyalists relocated to Nova Scotia during this wave of immigration.
Black military units who fought in the American Revolution were not paid for their service. Certificates of Freedom that were offered to them did not necessarily give them their “freedom” but, rather, gave them permission to leave for Nova Scotia. As a result, Black Loyalists arrived in Nova Scotia under false pretenses as many remained enslaved and indentured. Promised land resulted in small plots without the necessary amenities and conditions to survive. Therefore, the institution of slavery and indentured servants in Nova Scotia continued to be perpetuated. Birchtown, which was located 5km from present-day Shelburne, became the largest Black Loyalist settlement in North America. Furthermore, it was considered the largest community of free Africans in the world outside of the continent of Africa. By 1787, 200 families lived in Birchtown while an additional 70 families resided in Shelburne. After having been taken from Africa and enslaved in the Southern States (Virginia, Georgia, South Carolina), the Black Loyalists faced many challenges with their new lives in Nova Scotia—the first and foremost being survival in a colder climate that they were unaccustomed to. The Mi’kmaw people played an essential role in assisting Black Loyalists—they taught them how to survive in the harsh conditions found in this country. How to fish. How to plant. What to plant. How to forage. And how to build structures in preparation for the winter months. The relationship established between the Black Loyalists and the Mi’kmaw was integral to survival and compatibility.
Despite the fact that many of the Black Loyalists were considered “free,” most did not have possessions, money, or resources to assist with settlement. Additionally, it is important to mention that people of African descent likewise came as enslaved people to Nova Scotia with White Loyalist families. Natural resources became essential for survival and “pithouses” were constructed to live in until families had enough resources to build larger structures. Black Loyalists sought labour jobs. They were paid a fraction of what other settlers were paid for the same work. Many assisted with clearing land while others worked in the fishery. Others were taken advantage of because they signed contracts and they did not know how to read or write. In fact, one could argue that the primary intention of the British was not about the freedom of those enslaved, but rather, to bring Black Loyalists to Nova Scotia as a means of labour at a time when the colony was experiencing a labour shortage during its development.
Tension between Black Loyalists and White Settlers developed, particularly in Shelburne. The attitudes towards people of African heritage did not change simply because they were no longer considered enslaved. The tension came to a head during the summer of 1784 when White Settlers were displeased at the fact that White employers were paying Black Settlers to do work of equal value as them at a lower cost. They took out their anger and frustration on the Black workers whom they deemed as undercutting their labour wages when, in reality, Black people were underpaid by employers due to their skin colour—the stark reality of racism. These attitudes evolved into a 10-day conflict, known today as the “Great Riot”. It is considered the first known “race riot” in North America. Amongst the violence, Black Loyalists’ houses were destroyed, and those living in Shelburne were driven from the town. Birchtown’s population doubled following the event because Black Loyalists were forced out of town proper.
Living conditions were not ideal for the Black Loyalists in Nova Scotia and they had an intense desire to leave, evidenced in many petitions stating so. In 1792, 15 ships transporting over 1,100 Black Loyalists and led by their leader Thomas Peterson left Nova Scotia for Sierra Leone in West Africa where a settlement known as Freetown was established. This was the first and largest group of African people globally to return their homeland. Many Jamaican Maroons that later arrived in Halifax in 1796 also subsequently moved to Sierra Leone. These immigrants had been deported from Trelawny Town, Jamaica, by British forces. Approximately 600 men, women, and children arrived in the port of Halifax on three ships: Dover, Mary and Anne. According to records, their experience in Nova Scotia was not a positive one due to poor living conditions. Some were employed to work on fortifications at Citadel Hill. Most left, however, in 1800, for Sierra Leone. Maroons were known for their resistance and they actively and successfully petitioned the Crown to relocate to Sierra Leone.
Another wave of migration of approximately 2000 people of African heritage from the US to Nova Scotia occurred between 1813-1815 (during the War of 1812). These people were known as Black Refugees and their primary reason for moving to Nova Scotia was to escape slavery. They formed Black communities in areas known as Hammonds Plains, Africville and Beechville. These Black settlers were segregated against their will and assigned land on the rural outskirts of Halifax. The physical geographic separation of communities due to racial discrimination is known as geographic marginalization. Likewise, the land assigned to the refugees was not considered valuable or cultivatable. Despite the unequal opportunities, Black Settlers were innovative and determined. They managed to farm the land and establish close-knit communities. Following the arrival of Black Refugees, many of the Black Loyalists and Black Refugees merged together in communities which would later become a new Black identity in Nova Scotia—African Nova Scotians.
Unlike the earlier waves of migration where Black settlers were welcomed as laborers during a time of economic expansion, the Black refugees were seen as a burden to society. This was because the region was experiencing economic decline, which resulted in high unemployment and competition for jobs. Due to the economic crash, Black labour began to be refused and a mentality developed amongst White settlers that there were too many people of African descent in Nova Scotia. It is likely that this mentality was in part due to Settlers feeling threatened by the increased presence of Black people.
In 1811, the Legislative Assembly created financial barriers to Black communities, who had been petitioning in an attempt to organize public education for their communities. The Education Act offered subsidies to communities who could build a school and hire a teacher. This, however, became a barrier as Black communities could not afford to do so. This was only the beginning in a series of policies and legislation that created the groundwork for prejudice and inequity that would impact subsequent generations
In 1815, an anti-Black resolution was passed by the Nova Scotia Legislative Assembly stating that the Nova Scotia would no longer be willing to encourage the migration of people of African descent to the colony. This included withdrawing financial incentives to attract Black newcomers. One petition, currently in the holdings of the Nova Scotia Archives, reveals the level of discrimination that was pervasive: “We observe with concern and alarm the frequent arrival in this Province of bodies of negroes and mulattoes; of whom, many have already become bothersome to the public.” And that “the proportion of Africans already in this Country is productive of many inconveniences, and that, the introduction of more, [must] tend to the discouragement of white labourers and servants, as well as to the establishment of a separate and marked class of people.”
In fact, Lord Dalhousie, Governor of Nova Scotia from 1759 to 1830, and subsequently the Governor General of British North America, lobbied for many of his racist views to become policy. He also advocated to return recently freed Africans to their former owners in the United States and later attempted to encourage people of African heritage to leave Nova Scotia for Trinidad. In Dalhousie’s mind, people of African heritage did not belong in Nova Scotia despite their continued presence. In 1821, approximately 95 Black settlers were sent from Nova Scotia (Hammonds Plains and Beechville) to Trinidad.
Despite the racial discrimination and slave mentality in Nova Scotia, there were some individuals who spoke out about the injustice of slavery. Rev. James MacGregor (1759-1830) of Pictou is one of the earliest examples of someone to publish anti-slavery literature in Nova Scotia. MacGregor was very outspoken and condemned his church colleagues for being slave owners (since it was common for clergymen to “own” slaves) and he “bought” many slaves from others in order to grant them their freedom.
In 1807, the Slave Trade Act outlawed the slave trade in the British Empire. It wasn’t until 1833, however, when the Slavery Abolition Act was passed, that slavery was outlawed all together. Following the abolition of slavery, subsequent generations began the painful and slow process of healing and establishing and rebuilding communities. Despite the abolition of slavery, policies continued to ensure inequality and the collective public perception did not necessarily change because laws did. Segregation, which is the physical separation of races, was systematically imposed through law and policy. Additionally, the indentured servitude system enabled the continued oppression following the abolition of slavery. With this system, landowners could essentially enslave people through contract law in which the worker would work not for money, but rather, to repay their “debt” for food and shelter, which was provided by the landowner or head of household. When indentured servants gave birth, their children were also automatically indentured. This continued to perpetuate slave mentality, and enslavement itself, long after slavery was outlawed.
Around the same time as the abolition of slavery, the first Black church was founded in Nova Scotia. Richard Preston, a visionary religious leader and abolitionist who escaped slavery the US and came to Nova Scotia, dedicated his time to travelling throughout Black communities in Nova Scotia and establishing churches. This eventually led to the creation of the African United Baptist Association (AUBA) network that brought all communities together. The church became the voice of the AFNS community where members advocated for change. The establishment of the African United Baptist Church network became a foundation for social activism that has since shaped the identity of African Nova Scotians.
Advocating for more equal educational opportunities was a primary focus for the AUBA. Educational opportunities had been made separate and unequal for African Nova Scotians by White institutions. Segregated education was made law in 1865 and existed in Nova Scotia for more than a century. In 1883, the AUBA formerly petitioned segregated education in the City of Halifax. Ultimately, the petition was denied and only resulted in a strengthening of the legislation in retaliation to the petition. Segregated education would not end in Nova Scotia until after the Canadian Human Rights Act was passed in 1977. In fact, the last segregated school in Nova Scotia closed in 1983.
During the twentieth century, additional migrations of people of African heritage can be noted. From 1899-1912, for example, many moved from the West Indies to Cape Breton to seek work in the steel and mining industries. One community near Sydney, Whitney Pier, was considered one of the most diverse communities in all of Canada at the time. This continued into the 1920s, when hundreds of Caribbean migrants arrived in Nova Scotia in search of labour.
Many people making important decisions about the shaping of the province were slave owners or only one generation removed from slave owners. Therefore, the mindset of racial inequity and slave mentality was common and far-reaching. It was intertwined in the Province’s legal system. Systemic racism occurs when systems and structures have procedures and processes in place that create inequality or disadvantage marginalized groups. Slave mentality did not disappear with the abolition of slavery. Despite no longer being enslaved, African Nova Scotians faced many barriers to education and employment. The majority worked as “servants” or labourers and were underpaid. African Nova Scotians have experienced, and continue to experience, systemic racism in Nova Scotia for centuries.
Today, there are over 50 African Nova Scotian communities in Nova Scotia. Despite early attempts at ethnic cleansing in Nova Scotia and pervasive discrimination, African Nova Scotians have displayed admirable resilience. They have been victim to broken promises and continued inequities. From the beginning of their arrival, they were denied sufficient food and shelter. They were segregated and did not have equal access to education. But African Nova Scotians have fought for social justice and continue to actively fight systemic racism and inequity today. Another thing that plaques African Nova Scotian communities and their locations is environmental racism. This is the disproportionate placement of facilities with health hazards, such a landfills, near marginalized communities. These things are not always overt or obvious but they can have major repercussions for community members and are still present in Nova Scotia today.
Many initiatives for reparations are ongoing today. But, much like reconciliation, this is a continuing process and commitment to make amends for the wrongs that have been done to a group of people on the basis of skin colour and perceived difference. An important aspect of reparations includes education and understanding of the past in order to unlearn the misconceptions that have been taught to us over the years.
One recent accomplishment has been the official recognition of Emancipation Day on August 1, 2021. This is a big feat but we, as Nova Scotians, still have a long way to go in understanding the region’s history of Black settlement, oppression, and systemic racism.
Everyone can contribute to reparations and more inclusive historical narratives simply by studying, learning, being open to unlearning, and sharing what you’ve learned with others around you. Collectively, we can make a difference in how history is told.
Please stay tuned for Part II when we connect the history and struggle of the Black community in the town of Truro to these early beginnings of our Province.
Copyright 2022 by Ashley Sutherland. From whence we come and where we go Part I: Tracing the Path of African Nova Scotians in Nova Scotia. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other non-commercial uses permitted by copyright law.