Harvard research on Nova Scotia slavery ads aims to broaden understanding of history
'I've never yet had one Canadian student enter [my] class knowing that slavery transpired in Canada'
Twenty dollars. That's the reward offered for the capture and return of an enslaved African-American man in an advertisement in an 18th century Nova Scotia newspaper called the Weekly Gazette.
This ad, along with others from Nova Scotia, Quebec and Jamaica, are the subject of research at Harvard University exploring the history of transatlantic slavery through the ads used to sell, auction and recapture enslaved people.
The research is being conducted by art historian Charmaine Nelson, who is normally a professor at McGill University in Montreal, but is currently at Harvard as the William Lyon Mackenzie King Chair in Canadian studies.
Some history rarely discussed
Nelson said comparing fugitive slave ads in two Canadian provinces and Jamaica takes the history of slavery beyond its association with a tropical plantation model, as existed in the Caribbean or the southern U.S., and opens it up to include places where that history is rarely discussed or acknowledged.
"It's very important the question you first pose and the sites you first turn your attention to because to a certain extent they're going to predetermine the answers that come out of that research. So I'm trying to shake things up," she told CBC's Information Morning.
Nelson said her research, which included time spent in the Nova Scotia Archives, shows differences between ads, depending on their purpose.
"If you're trying to sell another human being, just like if you're trying to sell, let's say, a chair, a desk, a horse, you're never going to say it's defective. So what you see in the slave sale and auction ads, people are always supposedly healthy, they're always strong," Nelson said.
Ads fuel for abolition
Fugitive slave ads, by contrast, featured detailed descriptions of the enslaved person's scars and injuries, whether that was from branding in a place like Jamaica or, as was more common in Nova Scotia and Quebec, the marks of hard labour and corporal punishment.
"Some ads will actually say, … 'This person has lost of the toes off his foot because of frostbite,' but other times surely it's because the person has been whipped or beaten," Nelson said.
It was this latter category that ultimately had the opposite of the intended effect, as abolitionists used the ads to highlight the brutality of slavery.
"Abolitionists seized on this … saying, 'Listen, you people have said that slavery is a Christian, civilizing mission, and we would like to push back against that using your own words. These ads are full of examples of your heinousness and the brutal attacks and assaults against the enslaved.'
"So eventually, it was the beginning of the end for slavery in a lot of ways."
Slavery in the north
Nelson said she expects the American students she'll encounter in her year at Harvard to have blind spots about this aspect of transatlantic slave trade.
"They have been taught that slavery was the big bad horrible institution that happened only in the American South."
She said the Canadian students she teaches at McGill have a similar gap in their understanding of how slavery functioned north of the border, before it was abolished in the British Empire in 1833.
"I've never yet had one Canadian student enter [my] class knowing that slavery transpired in Canada," said Nelson.
"But they have all been schooled in the fact that, 'Listen, we as Canadians were good abolitionists. We helped to liberate African-American slaves who fled north.' That is what they've been, you know, inculcated with, that's been ingrained in them since elementary school."
With files from Information Morning