Nfld. & Labrador·Unearthed

Slavery in Newfoundland and Labrador Episode 2: Who Lived Here?

There are many documented existences of enslaved Black people in the province, but one of the most detailed comes out of Ferryland in 1791, in the last will and testament of John Benger, who wanted to free his slaves and named them and their descendants.

New series explores connections of enslaved Black people in the province

Xaiver Campbell stands in front of the Anglican Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in St. John's, where a nearby cemetery has many unmarked graves, some believed to have been domestic enslaved workers. (Heather Barrett/CBC)

Unearthed: Slavery in Newfoundland and Labrador is a multipart radio documentary and digital series that examines connections of  enslaved Black people in the province. It features Xaiver Michael Campbell and is produced by the CBC's Heather Barrett, who is host and producer of Weekend AM. New episodes air on Fridays on CrossTalk on CBC Radio 1 and will be available as podcasts


In the second part of the series, entitled Who Lived Here?,  Xaiver Campbell learns  — with the help of several historians — about the first known existence of enslaved Black people in the province. 

One of those, though it isn't the first, includes a fascinating tale that wouldn't be known but for the discovery of the will of a man who lived in Ferryland in 1791. 

John Benger was a prominent planter, a prominent settler who ran the fishing establishment, says Barry Gaulton, an associate professor of archeology at Memorial University.

"In his last will and testament, he states that he wants to free his slaves," said Gaulton. The names of the enslaved individuals were Sancho and Sarah, and Sarah had three children: Jack, Nancy and Stephen, he said.

"It seems quite clear to me, and I'm sure to most, that the practice of slavery not only was acceptable but in some cases it was quite commonplace in various European settlements in the province. I guess if you were to look back 300 to 400 years ago … I think it was, in many cases, generally accepted."

Barry Gaulton, an associate professor of archeology at Memorial University, says the practice of slavery was not only acceptable but in some cases quite commonplace in European settlements in Newfoundland and Labrador. (Submitted by Memorial University)

Listen below to the full documentary Who Lived Here?

Black slaves were among the people who lived in early Newfoundland colonies. Xaiver talks to researchers who are trying to find out more about who they were. 15:03

Afua Cooper, a Halifax-based Black historian, writer and artist, said some people have a hard time accepting that fact.

"People are shocked, like, no, that didn't happen here, or if it happened, the slaves were well treated," she said, and so the experiences of slaves and their descendants aren't part of the province's accepted history.

"We don't even hear their voice. They are not part of the story," she said.

Afua Cooper is a Canadian historian and author of the book Black Matters. (Roseway Publishing)

Dale Jarvis, a Heritage N.L. public folklorist, says that reluctance perpetuates a cycle of omission in provincial history.

"People of colour are almost invisible in the historical records of Newfoundland and Labrador," he said. The only historical document they appear in is penitentiary records, he said.

"When we look at the colonial records from the time early 1800s, which were often broken down by race when we were talking about population, the columns for coloured people or Black people are often just blank, completely blank, no entries of any kind. But often census takers would just not record them as people in the records."

Dale Jarvis, a Heritage N.L. public folklorist, says, 'People of colour are almost invisible in the historical records of Newfoundland and Labrador.' (Kelly Jones)

It doesn't mean that Newfoundlanders and Labradorians should be ashamed of the province's past, said Jarvis.

"But I think a better understanding of our past helps us move in a more healthy way towards our future," said Jarvis. 

We welcome your feedback on this and future segments of Unearthed. You can email unearthed@cbc.ca.

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Each week, Unearthed will include recommended reading on Black people in Newfoundland and Labrador and the North Atlantic, from Bushra Junaid. 

Born in Montreal, she grew up in St. John's. With a mother from Jamaica and a father from Nigeria, the Junaids were one of the few Black families living in Newfoundland and Labrador during the 1960s. That experience greatly influenced her work as a visual artist and curator, which included exhibitions at the Eastern Edge Gallery and The Rooms, titled What Carries Us: Newfoundland and Labrador in The Black Atlantic.

This week's recommendations are:

  • Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail  by W. Jeffrey Bolster 
  • Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route by Saidiya Hartman 
  • The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano by Olaudah Equiano

Being Black in Canada

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

(CBC)

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