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The Abolition of Slavery

Bicentenary of Britain's 1807 Anti-Slavery Law

Throughout 2007, there were many commemorations of Britain's 1807 law which outlawed the transatlantic slave trade. However, Canada's vital role as a safe haven for escaped slaves is now less well known:

Portrait of General Simcoe


General Simcoe's and Canada's Role

In 1793 and after much difficult negotiation, General Simcoe, a former owner of Hemyock Castle, then Lt. Governor of Upper Canada (Ontario) successfully introduced a law to end slavery in that province:

No more slaves could be brought into the province; Adult slaves could continue, but their children would become "free" at the age of 25 years and their children would be "born free."

This pioneering legislation, benefited not only Canadian slaves but also the escaped slaves from elsewhere: Canada became the destination of what was later called the "Underground Railroad," a network of brave sympathetic people – the "Conductors" – together with their transport, "safe houses" and refuges – the "Stations." This extensive network helped slaves who escaped from captivity in the southern United States of America to reach freedom in the northern "Free States" and Canada.

This early abolition of slavery in Canada is believed to have saved the lives of more than 40,000 ex-slaves. A noble legacy of General Simcoe.

The "Underground Railroad," for escaped slaves, was active mostly between about 1780 and 1862; particularly between about 1840 and 1860. Notable advocates of the abolition of slavery, included the Religious Society of Friends (ie. "Quakers"), Congregationalists, Wesleyans, and Reformed Presbyterians, as well as some sects of mainstream denominations such as branches of the Methodist church and American Baptists. Many free-born blacks, white abolitionists, former slaves, Native Americans, Church clergy and congregations all gave active help.

Although only a relatively small proportion of the total numbers of slaves in North America, the issue of slaves escaping from its southern states, was an important trigger for the American Civil War, 1861 to 1865.


Note. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, soon to be released as a movie, is a fictional novel: The underground trains and railroad tunnels depicted in that novel, never existed.


Slavery in Canada – Background

Much has been written about slavery, past and present; it's hard for us to understand why it could ever have been considered acceptable.

Without in any way condoning the practice, or its continuation into modern times, we should understand the context:

In a desire to develop and populate Canada during the 18th century, people (ie. Men!) who emigrated from Britain to Canada could apply for a grant of land, which they would then farm.

Inevitably, this led to a severe labour shortage: Almost everyone was entitled to their own land, so very few people were available to work on other people's farms.

Horrific as it now seems, one solution was to "import" labourers who had no right to their own land: ie. Slaves.

There was resistance to abolishing this practice. As Lt. Governor, General Simcoe negotiated its gradual phasing-out


At that time there were many practices which we now regard as abhorrent. Many ordinary people in Britain lived very hard lives, in terrible conditions.

For example, during times of tension, men were subject to enforced military service: Including the infamous "Press Gangs" and recruiting sergeants in England which effectively abducted men, forcing them to serve in the Royal Navy or military in harsh conditions and under brutal discipline.


Slavery, Servitude & Bonded Labour – As Worldwide Issues

It is a pity that the recent UNESCO report into "Slave Routes" concentrates mostly on the shameful historic transatlantic slave routes from Africa to the Americas. By doing this, and in seeking to blame only the European colonial powers, the UNESCO report seems to ignore the context; the worldwide nature; and the continuing worldwide existence of slave trades. In many countries, it exists even at the local level, where people – especially children – are sold into bonded labour as a way of repaying loans to money-lenders.

Looking further back, men (also women and children) were regularly captured and enslaved by gangs and war parties. At one time, Slavonic people (ie. Slavs) were highly prized in the Middle East, so were captured and traded across Europe and the Orient: Hence the word "Slave"!

Some "Serfs" of Feudal times were slaves.


Barbary Pirates 1530 to 1830

For 300 years, between about 1530 and 1830, Barbary Pirates from North Africa were a menace to seafarers and coastal settlements, particularly around the English West Country, as well as the coasts of Ireland and northern Europe. Many tens of thousands of (non-Muslim) men, women and children were taken captive to be sold into slavery and / or held for ransom. By some estimates, well over a million European people were enslaved. Non-Muslim captives were valuable because their Muslim "owners" were forbidden from enslaving Muslim people.


Modern Slavery

Thankfully, slavery and many other unacceptable practices have now been outlawed in most countries. Sadly, they have not yet completely stopped everywhere. Modern "people trafficking" and migration networks have uncomfortable similarities with former slave trading. Some are run by similar types of people; show similar disregard for their human victims; and even use similar routes.

Victims are recruited using false promises and threats, but even after paying the traffickers, are abused, robbed and put at extreme risk during their journeys. Even people who do reach their destinations often continue to be exploited by the traffickers; the traffickers often also continue to exploit the victims' families in their home countries and continue to extort more money.

It is a pity that NGOs and governments of destination countries, do so little to help governments of the source countries to combat the false promises and activities of people traffickers & people smugglers. Increased efforts in the source countries could greatly reduce the deaths and misery of trafficking victims & their families.



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