Canada's Forgotten Slaves

Canada's Forgotten Slaves is a ground-breaking work by one of French Canada's leading historians, available for the first time in English. It reveals that slavery was very much a part of everyday life in colonial Canada under both the French and British regimes.

By combing through unpublished archival records of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Marcel Trudel was able to give a human face to the over 4,000 Aboriginal and Black slaves bought, sold and, above all, exploited in colonial Canada. He describes the joys and sorrows of their daily existence, the tasks they performed, the clothes they wore and the food they ate, as well as the beatings, rapes and executions they endured at the hands of their masters. He also recounts how some slaves struggled to gain their liberty. Trudel's research reveals the identities of slave owners—-from governors, seigneurs, and military officers, to bishops, priests, nuns, judges, and merchants. He documents Canadian politicians, historians and ecclesiastics who deliberately falsified the record, glorifying their own colonial-era heroes, in order to remove any trace of the thousands of Aboriginal and Black slaves held in bondage for two centuries in Canada.

Marcel Trudel was an eminent Canadian historian and a respected authority on the history of New France. A fervent advocate of the secular society, he was virtually banished by the Catholic Church from teaching at Laval University in the early 1960s, then taught for several decades at the University of Ottawa. The award-winning author of more than 40 books, Trudel died in 2011.

George Tombs is a Montreal-based author, filmmaker, award-winning journalist and translator.

"This book provides the only available outline of the contours of the slave system ... in seventeenth and eighteenth-century New France." - Brett Rushforth, Canadian Historical Review

"Marcel Trudel's work on slavery in French Canada is a major and controversial work."

-Jean-Francois Nadeau, Le Devoir



Canada's Forgotten Slaves


Marcel Trudel





Canada's Forgotten Slaves is a classic of historiography. In this bold, highly original work, Marcel Trudel flies in the face of the nationalist historians of previous generations, who portrayed French Canadians either as swashbuckling heroes, virtuous missionaries in black robes, or victims crushed under the boot of British conquerors.

Here, Marcel Trudel gives a voice to the voiceless, to the most humble, powerless people in society, putting a human face on a phenomenon long denied in Canada, and all but forgotten: namely, that Canadian masters and mistresses exploited over four thousand aboriginal and black slaves between 1632 and 1834.

Canadians have long seen slavery in terms, above all, of the Underground Railway, that clandestine network of forest and waterside' paths by which Quakers, black freedmen and other human rights advocates smuggled runaway American slaves northwards to liberty in the early nineteenth century. As many as a hundred thousand slaves escaped to Canada. But for some strange reason, while congratulating Canadians for offering refuge to these fugitives, generations of historians maintained a virtual conspiracy of silence about slaves owned and exploited, bought and sold, by Canadians themselves.

In fact, as Marcel Trudel points out, several prominent French Canadian historians, Francois-Xavier Garneau among them, deliberately misled their readers, skewing the historical record in order to exonerate the Roman CatholicChurch (which held slaves),to perpetrate the vision of a French Canadian nation which could do no harm since it was more victim than victimizer, and to lay the blame for Canadian slavery squarely at the door of the British alone.

Actually, as this work demonstrates, men and women at every level of French and English Canadian society owned slaves, from farmers, bakers, printers, merchants, seigneurs, baronesses, judges and government officials to priests, nuns and bishops. This meant that slaves were not only an accepted feature of society but were also acknowledged both in law and by notarized contract. Yet these slaves remained practically invisible, as if they had long been considered somehow sub-human.

One of the most remarkable parts of this work is in establishing that slaves did not passively wait to be freed by others: some slaves researched their own condition, filed lawsuits, challenged their master's ownership rights, sought to negotiate their release or simply ran away. Slaves suffered for being slaves. In the most poignant case of a slave escape, 1732, the black Angelique set fire to the home of her mistress on rue Saint-Paul in Montreal, to create a diversion in order to run off with her white lover. The fire ended up destroying forty-six houses, and Angelique was caught and executed for this crime, although her lover, being white, was acquitted of any charge.

Marcel Trudel passed away on January 11,2011 at the age of ninety-three. I remember discussing my translation with 'him in his lovely' riverside home near Montreal. Even in his nineties, wearing eye glasses as thick as fishbowls, surrounded by an impressive library of first editions, he was passionate about a historian's duty to establish facts, grounding them rigorously in statistical and documentary evidence, and bringing them together in an appealing although balanced narrative. He was passionate above all, in a subversive, irrepressible way, about going against the grain, defying conventional wisdom in his native Quebec, making a contribution to the history of human rights.

He was also proud to have brought out this work for the first time in 1960, although he was ostracized as a result and had to leave Quebec for the more open-minded academic setting of the University of Ottawa. He brought out an updated edition of the work in 2004 and a slightly shorter pocket edition in 2009. By and large this translation follows the 2009 edition, while restoring some passages from the 2004 edition. Going back to original sources, Trudel's endnotes were researched and corrected.

In speaking to Marcel Trudel, I could see he referred to "Canada" the way an authority on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century history would: "Canada" for him was another name for New France, which at its peak in 1712 stretched from Newfoundland down to the Gulf of Mexico, and encompassed Acadia (present day Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick), southern Quebec and Ontario, and lands in the heartland of the continent, along the Missouri and Missisippi rivers, all the way to Louisiana. For this reason, a few of the slaves described in this work fell under Canadian jurisdiction, although physically they lived in what is now the United States.

Marcel Trudel's history of slavery starts with New France, then continues under the British military regime after the Conquest of 1760, when English-speaking masters joined the dark company of Canadian slave owners; then moves in time to the province of Quebec from 1774 to 1791 (which included Michigan and other lands around the Great Lakes, although the Ohio River Valley was ceded to the United States in 1783) and across what is now southern Ontario to todays Quebec; and finally comes to a close in Lower Canada from 1791 to the formal abolition of slavery in the British empire in 1834.

It is important to remember that by "Canada," Marcel Trudel generally means "French Canada" and even when he examines British slave owners, such as James McGill, the founder of McGill University, he only considers those non-French slave owners living on the former territory of New France. This means he sometimes leaves out other parts of modern-day Canada, from British Columbia to Newfoundland and Nova Scotia.

Moreover, he generally uses the term "Canadian" to refer to French Canadians, and "Quebecois" to refer to residents of the province of Quebec, whether or not they were French Canadians; in several cases, he refers to "us" in addressing his French-speaking readership, and I have removed these references; he often uses "English" in referring to people we would call "British," especially since the Acts of Union resulted in the establishment of Great Britain in 1706, so I have sometimes replaced the term "English" by "British" for this reason.

Trudel also uses the word "we" in two different ways. First there is the royal "we", when he proudly announces the result of his groundbreaking researches. Then there is the French-Canadian "we", the sense that he belongs to (and is perhaps speaking on behalf of) a people with common descent, history, culture, language and territory. It should be clear from the context which "we" he is using.

The term pays d'en haut (literally "Upper Country") which appears in the text refers to the vast North American hinterland, upstream from Montreal, which mainly included territory around the Great Lakes region, as well as various river basins where French explorers, fur traders and missionaries were active.

He also uses the racial terminology originally found in the historical record - terms such as "Negro and Negress, mulatto, savage, redskin, Montagnais and Eskimo," although he is careful to use less pejorative modern-day terms such as black and Amerindian in developing his interpretation of the original documents. I have decided to use the French term "Panis" for Amerindian slaves, rather than the modern-day "Pawnee" (the name of an Indian tribe in the Midwest) since "Panis" was used generically to refer to any aboriginal slave in New France, whatever their origin. It has been a challenge finding equivalents for all these terms nowadays: as translator I faced a choice between modernizing all racial references, or of sticking to Marcel Trader's original text. For example, black slaves were sometimes referred to euphemistically as bois d'ebhte or "ebony wood," and the expressions "ebony" and "ebony slaves" appear frequently in this translation.

I opted to remain true to his original intention, which imparts a somewhat archaic flavour to some passages in the book. Readers should take note that Marcel Trudel provides footnotes for short quotations, but not for longer passages. He often refers to leading authorities providing eye-witness accounts of New France simply as "Lahontan, Lafitau, Charlevoix and Bougainville" as if they were second nature to every reader nowadays. Louis-Armand Lorn d'Arce, Baron Lahontan (1666-1716) was a military officer, explorer and precursor of the Enlightenment who wrote admiringly of the Hurons; Joseph-Francois Lafitau (1681-1746) was a Jesuit ethnologist and naturalist who wrote extensively about the Iroquois, comparing them to the Greeks of Antiquity; Pierre-Francois-Xavier de Charlevoix (1681-1761) was the author of a multi-volume history of New France, published in 1744; and Louis-Antoine de Bougainville (1729-1811) was a French naval officer, mathematician and explorer who wrote about his experiences during the French and Indian War, and went on to circumnavigate the globe three years after the British Conquest of Canada.

I remember asking Trudel why this pioneering work had only just begun to spawn new studies and fiction about slavery in Canada. He shook his head wistfully, replying that this subject had long been a blind spot in the French Canadian psyche. But what of English Canada, I asked? Why had no comparable work on slavery in English Canada ever come out? Could there be some way of adapting my translation, so that it included as many references to slaves belonging to English Canadian as to French Canadian owners? Otherwise, readers of my translation might get the mistaken impression that slave owners in Canada had mainly been French-speaking, and rarely English-speaking! He seemed daunted by the amount of research such an adaptation would involve.

It is to be hoped that some future historian will be inspired by this translation to provide a more complete history of slavery in what is now Canada. Such a history would reconstitute the way aboriginals on the Pacific and in the Eastern woodlands sometimes enslaved other aboriginals; it would mention the revolt of Celtic slaves against their' Viking masters on Baffin Island, in 997 (as recounted in Thorsigl's Saga); it would show how the Portuguese explorer Gaspar Corte-Real seized sixty Beothuks or Mi'kmaq in Newfoundland in 1500, later selling them as slaves in Portugal; and it would recount how the Patuxet Squanto, taken from New England to Spain in 1614, to be sold there as a slave, eventually managed to return to his native Massachusetts via England and Newfoundland, ultimately settling with Pilgrims in the new colony of Plymouth.

A history of slavery in what is now Canada would indicate that white people could also be slaves: after all, Barbary pirates seized a fleet of fishing vessels off Newfoundland in 1625, taking their crews back to North Africa and throwing them into bondage there; when the Marquis de Tracy brought soldiers of the Carignan-Salieres Regiment on the ship of the line Le Breze to New France in 1665, by way of French Guiana, they had first to fight off Barbary pirates intent on enslaving them, in a fierce naval battle off Portugal; when Louis XTV began condemning French Protestants to be galley-slaves in 1685, Huguenots had a new incentive to abjure their faith, convert to Catholicism and resettle in New France; finally, when approximately 1500 New England captives were taken by aboriginals in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and spirited up to Canada, some were called "slaves" by their captors, and treated as such, although there was little chance an Abenaki or Mohawk captor would register slave ownership before a notary!

A word about currency. In terms of exchange rates, one ecu in the late seventeenth century was worth three French livres. In the late eighteenth century, one pound Quebec currency was worth-about twenty-four French livres, or just under one British pound one shilling, or one guinea. (There were twenty shillings to the pound.) The value of currency was naturally affected by the gradual introduction of card and paper money, differences in the value of money between Paris, London and the colonies, and inflation, which began rising particularly under the French regime in the 1720s.

Of course, any future history of slavery in Canada would have to explain the distinction between captives, debtor and chattel slaves, indentured servants, prisoners, hostages, kidnap victims - these are not just semantic gradations, but distinct realities for people deprived of their liberty. In the meantime, Marcel Trudel's work is the most complete history of Canadian slavery we have.

In doing this translation, I have benefited from the wise counsel of Frank Mackey, author of Done with Slavery: The Black Fact in Montreal, and Sue Peabody, co-author of Slavery, Freedom and the Law in the Atlantic World. I hope it will give a voice to the voiceless, contributing more generally to a debate in Canada about liberty, the universality of human rights, as well as "man's inhumanity to man."

George Tombs