Though many are well aware of North America’s long and difficult history with slavery, few opportunities seem to present themselves to dive more deeply into the topic. Aside from the simplified history lessons we may be given in elementary school or high school, or perhaps the occasional documentary we glimpse on television or see online, the deeper details of this dark period of history require our own detective work. If ever you are interested in learning about the particulars of slavery in the 18th century Western world as told by an actual slave, look no further than The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano.
The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano is an autobiography that was written by Olaudah Equiano and was published in 1789. Kidnapped as a child from his native continent of Africa and abused for years while mostly working on ships that brought him to the shores of England, the Caribbean, and the United States, Equiano experienced all the horrors of slavery firsthand. This book details his life from his comfortable childhood in what would now be modern day Nigeria, to his being sold again and again to different masters as a slave, to the day he bought his freedom in Georgia after almost 10 years in chains. The details of the other slaves he witnessed throughout this journey are quite harrowing at times: stories of beatings, hangings, disfigurement, and rape come up again and again. After buying his freedom, Equiano settled in London, where slavery was still legal and discrimination against people of colour rampant, but nonetheless was still safer to live in as a freed slave compared to British colonies elsewhere.
Rhetorically, Equiano’s work functions as an argument against slavery. He carefully crafts a narrative that shows the interplay of his Indigenous African identity and his Western Christian identity. By doing this, he tries to draw in his audience (which would have been primarily white and middle class British Christians at the time of publication) to show that he is an authoritative and educated source when it comes to both the hardships of slavery and the importance of Western values and religion in putting a stop to it. Though predominant attitudes were slowly beginning to shift away from slavery at the time of publication, slave trade was not abolished in the British empire until 1807, and the overall practice of slavery itself wasn’t abolished until 1834.
In fact, as a British colony, Canada has quite a lengthy history with slavery, spanning over 200 years from the time it was first introduced by French colonists in the 1600s to the time that slavery was abolished in the British colonies in 1834. Modern day Canada began as part of a huge territory that spanned across eastern North America called New France, and it was here that the slave trade took root. Though Africans made up a large portion of the enslaved people in Canada, the earliest slaves were actually Indigenous, coming mostly from the Pawnee Nation located in present-day Nebraska, Oklahoma and Kansas. Slavery was a way to drive economic growth in the region, where free labour allowed people of different classes to capitalize off the labour of those enslaved.
Equiano’s story demonstrates how the treatment of slaves in the past largely depended on the humanity of their masters: Equiano was taught to read and handle sales for his master, who later promised him his freedom if he could buy it himself. Given an education and some independence as a slave, Equiano was lucky to have the tools necessary to escape his situation. The treatment of slaves in Canada also depended on the needs and temperament of their masters. The type of trades that were popular in Canada at the time meant that there was less of a need for manual labour, so slaves more commonly occupied household roles as servants. Because slavery was less commonplace in Canada, and because the conditions that many slaves faced were not as harsh as those in the southern United States, many believe that Canada was a haven for slaves. Though many slaves from the south did escape to Canada for refuge, this does not excuse our country from it’s complacency in the Atlantic slave trade.
Canada has a pervasive public persona as a progressive and compassionate country, and though some may choose to believe that it was better to be a slave in Canada than in any other region, truthfully, enslaved individuals were treated as property here just as they were in any other region, and that alone is enough to prove that Canada is no more innocent in the history of slave-trade than other prominent Western countries. Keeping stories like The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano alive remind us of that fact, and though they can be difficult to read, they nonetheless force us to reflect on the progress we’ve made in terms of how we treat people of colour, and the great amount of progress we have yet to make.
If you’re interested in other stories related to slavery in Canada, you can also check out interesting reads such as The Hanging of Angelique by Afua Cooper (which details the story of a specific slave charged with starting a large fire in Montreal in the 1700s) and Canada in Africa by Yves Engler (which presents a well-researched historical take on Canada’s involvement in the Atlantic slave trade).