Throughout 2007, there are 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:
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 the "Underground Railway," 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 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.
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, it's helpful to note 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. 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" which effectively abducted men, forcing them to serve in the Royal Navy in harsh conditions and under brutal discipline.
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.
Most other parts of the world have similar traditions.
Thankfully, slavery and many other unacceptable practices have now been outlawed. Sadly, they have not yet completely stopped everywhere.
Hemyock Castle, Hemyock, CULLOMPTON, Devon, EX15 3RJ, UK.
© 2001–2016. Prepared and published by Curlew Communications Ltd