Artist highlights N.L.'s slave trade connection in Bonavista exhibition

19 slave ships were built in Newfoundland, and salt cod fed slaves in the Caribbean. Now, Camille Turner wants us to think more about that little-known legacy.

Province built 19 slave ships, sold salt cod to feed slaves

Camille Turner's work at the Bonavista Biennale explores Newfoundland connections to the legacy of slavery. (Camille Turner/Submitted)

Newfoundlanders and Labradorians hold their salt cod and shipbuilding heritage up high, immortalizing it in songs, stories and museums. 

But an artist exhibiting at the 2019 Bonavista Bienniale is highlighting the connection between those parts of the province's history and the cross-Atlantic slave trade, as she tries to give a voice to the millions who suffered in the forced diaspora from Africa.

"I'm not here to blame. What my intent is, is to really honour the people who are made invisible by this rewriting of history, and writing them out," said Camille Turner, a Jamaican-born, Toronto-based artist.

Turner calls her work, the Afronautic Research Lab, "a counter archive, countering what is presented as truth" — a collection of documents and books that highlight connections to slavery that have mostly been shoved aside. 

"I'm really trying to map this place as a site of the black Atlantic. This place was made by people from the African Diaspora crossing the Atlantic," she told CBC Radio's On The Go.

That diaspora directly connects to this province. Salt cod fished from Newfoundland and Labrador not fit to sell to Europe was instead sent south, becoming an important staple of slaves' diets and an important piece of the then British colony's economy.

Slaves aboard a slave ship are shackled before being put in the hold. Illustration by Swain, circa 1835. (Rischgitz/Getty Images)

Newfoundland slave ships

While the trade of cod for rum, sugar and salt is well documented, Turner's work also includes references to a lesser-known Newfoundland connection to the slave trade: the slave ships built in the province.

In her research, Turner unearthed 19 such ships, catalogued on Harvard University's online Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database.

"They range from 1751 to 1792,  and that was the most intensive time of slavery, so it makes sense that these ships would've been made here," she said.

The details in the database are slim but stark. No specific places in Newfoundland are given, and the only people named are the white captains and crew.

A ship called the Torbay was built in Newfoundland in 1783, and took 245 people from Angola to Grenada, with nine of them dying along the way.

We didn't create this history. None of us did. We weren't here, but it is what shaped us.- Camille Turner

Another schooner, the Maria, built in 1785, loaded up 80 people from West Africa to sell in Grenada. Ninety-three per cent of those were children.

Another one, the schooner Fly, built in 1781, never made it across the Atlantic at all. The database notes that after it picked up 113 people in present-day Nigeria, the ship was attacked — "cut off by Africans from shore" — and its human cargo were freed back to shore.

"It's really interesting that these ships have been so overlooked," Turner said.

Turner's work attempts to correct that, with one video piece shot in the Bonavista area, in which she, in character, walks across the landscape holding a stone.

The stone is "really symbolic, because the ships would've been ballasted with stones from Newfoundland," she said. Those stones would have then been unloaded on African shores, and replaced with slaves, a little piece of Newfoundland abandoned on another continent in favour of a lucrative and cruel cargo.

"I'm using this stone as a way to really think about the people who are missing in this story," she said.

Understanding history

By bringing to light a painful and dark aspect of local history, Turner hopes her work contributes to people understanding what has gone before, in order to inform the future.

"We didn't create this history. None of us did. We weren't here, but it is what shaped us," she said.

"By not dealing with it, we can never move on from here. We can't really move into a future where things are equitable. So I think it's really important to acknowledge these stories."

Turner's work is being shown at the fish store of the Mockbeggar Plantation in Bonavista daily, until Sept.15.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from On The Go