In her autobiography, That Lonesome Road (1977), the Tribune of Black Nova Scotia, Dr. Carrie Best (1903-2001), provides this nation-haunting paragraph:
Hidden in fear and shame, ignored by historians, excluded from the curriculum of the public school system, the story of slavery is nevertheless an historical fact. It is contained in the unpublished volumes of The History That Never Was: written by unknown authors unable to read that which they had written with their own blood. The information contained in these phantom volumes grows with each succeeding generation making possible the writing of The History That Was, The History That Is and The History That Is To Be.
Best understands that our Canadian 'Authorized Version' of New World African slavery holds that 'evil' white Americans¨phony democrats¨persecuted 'Negroes' during a long century when only British North America was a true beacon of liberty (monarchical). Thus, tens of thousands of fugitive African Americans streamed north across the 49th parallel during the four decades immediately preceding the US Civil War to settle in Vancouver, Windsor, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, and BNA towns and villages, all to a big-hearted welcome from us slavery-hating heirs of the Magna Carta and Lord Durham's Report. Omitted from this feel-good history are the slavery we permitted until 1834 and the racial segregation we practiced until the cusp of the Sixties. Although slavery was as 'Canadian Gothic' as our Parliament buildings and the grand, old CP hotels, in our literary chronicles too, we marginalize even the several slave narratives (about US captivity) that were published in early Canada. We deem them un-Canadian and dump them in unkempt archives.
Thus, one must cheer the republication of Broken Shackles, an 1889 'as-told-to' slave narrative, in which "Glenelg"¨the pseudonym of John Foster Jr., of Owen Sound, Ontario¨records and edits the oral autobiography of Charley Chance, or Jim Henson, narrating his slave life in the Great Republic, his liberation, and his settling in Owen Sound. Now titled Broken Shackles: Old Man Henson From Slavery to Freedom and edited by Peter Meyler, the book fulfills the objective of one of its current sponsors, the Old Durham Road Pioneer Cemetery Committee, namely, to "help others see that history is the daily struggle of all people." In addition, the text participates in a recent spate of republished slave narratives and abolitionist works penned by African Americans landed in British North America. In 2000, Richard Almonte edited Thomas Smallwood's The Narrative of Thomas Smallwood (Colored Man) (Toronto, 1851); that same year, a Canadian press re-issued Benjamin Drew's edited collection of ex-slave reminiscences, The Refugee, or the Narratives of Fugitive Slaves in Canada (Detroit, 1856); in 1997, Almonte edited Mary Ann Shadd's A Plea for Emigration; or Notes of Canada West (Detroit, 1852); in 1992, Grant Gordon edited "An Account of the Life of David George" (London, 1793); and in 1991, I unearthed and edited John William Robertson's The Book of the Bible Against Slavery (Halifax, NS, 1854). After 150 years, slavery is, for us, no longer a subject restricted to our anti-American propaganda campaigns.
Introducing his edition of Broken Shackles, Peter Meyler is sensitive, conscientious, and thorough. He knows that, though blacks were present in Owen Sound since the 1840s, they were not always "respected or acknowledged," and, in standard Canadian style, were either disappeared from histories, or disparaged therein. Conscious of the nineteenth-century, bourgeois, rural Ontario provenance of the text, Meyler respects Foster's "long sentences, the use of Biblical quotes and many references to poets popular at the time," but, in deference to contemporary taste, straightens out the deliberately deformed spelling of Henson's words, but refrains, generally, from bowdlerizing the derogatory word "nigger." Meyler's intervention in Foster's narrative of Henson's oral memoir is limited to the provision of endnotes that add context and texture to the text.
As for Foster, he is a purely intrusive presence, forbidding Henson to speak for himself, to tell his own story in his own words. Rather, Foster sets down in sedate, decorous prose a narrative that must have been livelier and more electrifying when uttered by Henson. Even so, despite Foster's inevitable lapses into Victorian racialism and his irritating habit of treating slavery as if it were the laugh track of tragedies (sadism is always prefaced by "amusements"), he treats Henson with admiration and some affection. For instance, he remarks on Henson's great strength and great age: "What, eighty-eight years of age and working for the corporation [of Owen Sound] for wages breaking stones?" But then, Foster notes Henson's "excessively heavy" lips, and offers up the supposedly comic scene of Henson trying to consume a whole watermelon on a hot August day. Henson warns, playfully, "if I bust [open]," hold the grocer responsible. "Fortunately," Foster puns, "neither the melon nor the grocer is responsible for any such meloncholy event." This episode of would-be mirth is chased by Foster's declaration to Henson that the date of their previous meeting was "the eighth day of the eighth month of the year eighteen-hundred and eighty-eight." Henson's reply is witty, admitting his undaunted intelligence: "I knew that day was very warm Ó but landsakes, I didn't know 'twas so full of eights." The primary source of Broken Shackles is a long-lived, long-suffering, indomitable, resourceful, and faith-full ex-slave, whose narrative opens with the kidnapping of his maternal grandmother, Chandesia, from the Bagirmi people, whose nation is now part of Chad, in West Africa, sometime about the mid-eighteenth-century, and ends with Henson "fairly revell[ing] in the consciousness of an untrammeled liberty beneath a Canadian sky."
Henson, via Foster, iterates the essential meanings of any slave narrative: slavery is Hell, whatever its cornpone, pastoral pretensions. Thus, an African chieftain's daughter becomes one member of a "great crowd of human cattle Ó bound for slave life in one of Great Britain's colonies"; on the Maryland plantation where Jim Henson was born "Charles Chance," in 1800, "Every Monday morning was whipping morning"; and slaves were given only niggardly portions of cornmeal, pound, salt herring, and a few vegetables to eat. Foster gloats¨opportunistically¨over American hypocrisy regarding the nation's failure to apply Thomas Jefferson's constitutional aphorism that "all men are created equal" to "the African." However, Foster recognizes that slavery was also practiced in Lower Canada and Upper Canada. Indeed, in the latter colony, Governor Russell put up for sale, in 1806, "Peggy, aged forty, a cook, for $150, and her son Jupiter, aged fifteen, for $200Ó."
Henson's experience of slavery veered between okay and disastrous, for his fate depended upon the whims and circumstances of his masters. His second master was his late master's widow, "Old Missis," who was "uniformly kind," and memorably generous during Christmas. Better still, her will stipulated that all of her slaves should be freed at age 35. But when she died, Henson, being only a child, became the property of a new master, who 'used him well' for five years, then died, thus disposing the lad upon yet another master, who put him to work in a flour mill where he was often berated by a white miller. Then, he was sold "outright, like a bullock in the market, or a horse at the sale-stables" to Orrick Ridgely, who refused to allow Henson any "schooling" and then accepted to pair him off with Lucinda Caskey, an unattractive woman owned by an uncouth master. Foster's portrait of Lucinda is indebted to racist stereotype:
Her walk was awkward and her step heavy. Her hands were like a man's hands, her features decidedly coarse, her nose flat, lips thick, teeth good, but coarse and irregular, and her ears were disproportionately small, while her eyes were excessively large.
Maybe Lucinda really was 'ugly'; yet, this description could have been pulled from one of Thomas Chandler Haliburton's negrophobic 'comic' sketches, so popular in this period. In any event, after Ridgely sells "Charley" to another master, Freeman the lawyer, and after Freeman buys Emily¨Henson's real love interest¨and her parents, as a 'gift' for his new slave, Henson decides to buy his freedom. Instead, the good-hearted lawyer surrenders to greed and sells Henson to Barton, the symbol of "Duplicity and heartlessness." Thus, "Charley," who had "twice passed into different hands by will, had been sold thrice; and counting Executor Howard as one, had had seven different masters in slave land." Given this past of transactions, Henson elects to escape, "to make a tremendous effort to burst the shackles of ownership." In a phrase that is likely Henson's unfiltered own, he leaves "with his back on slavery and his face toward freedom."
Reaching Pennsylvania, in the anti-slavery north, Henson discovers the stark difference of freedom: "It was the same country, had the same government, the same president, and yet there was this great difference." Achieving his freedom, "Charley Ó laid aside his slave name of Charley Chance and renamed himself James HensonÓ. His slave name was put off like an old suit of clothes; and the new one, a free name, as a new suit, was put onÓ." Moreover, Henson becomes an abolitionist orator, along the lines of Frederick Douglass, but specifically local¨in Medford, New Jersey. His 'mother wit' is such that he trounces a pro-slavery preacher: "This minister may be a rich man, but he is a poor Christian." Preferring "snow and frost to the crack of the slave whip" and British law to the US Fugitive Slave Bill, Henson abandons, ultimately, the United States for Upper Canada, where, at Artemesia Settlement, just outside Owen Sound, he finds "a stretch of three miles on the Durham Road which was all occupied by black families." The book ends bittersweetly, with Henson free, but also separated, still, from his wife.
Meyler must be commended for assiduously annotating and resurrecting Broken Shackles. Apart from its intrinsic interest as the more-or-less memoir of an early African Canadian settler, it is also, given Foster's orchestration of facts and lore, a rich slice of slave history and, at times, an estimably written text. Although Foster's effort to balance episodes of humour with stories of horror is annoying, the sketches¨some derived from Henson, some Foster's own¨are artful. In one Chaucerian story, the lovesick slave Josh is tricked into kissing a dead pig's lips. In a melodramatic tale, two mixed-race slave sons of their slave-master father behead his white overseer¨"This brutal man, in the faded likeness of God's image"¨and are, in turn, "Suspendatur per colum." A chapter titled "The Cruelty and Vices of Slavery" ends with the Hardyesque liaison between Bill Black, a white overseer, and Bell White, "a full blooded black" woman. Anthropological essays examine slave ceremonies such as the corn husking and the religious "camp meeting." (Here Foster records the lyrics of several spirituals). A proto-magic realist tale treats a slave mother's loss of her baby: "a very large eagle swooped down and took the infant in its great talons, spread its wings and bore its precious burden away." Henson's chief memory of the War of 1812 is of the passage, through Maryland, of "a number of blacks, male and female, who were prisoners [of war] Ó brought from CanadaÓ. [T]he whole party Ó had been taken in a battle at Canard River near Amherstburg, a village on the Detroit River, in Canada." Foster's greatest tour de force is his paragraph on the US Civil War:
By the rattle of rifles, boom of cannon, bursting of bombs, tread of cavalry, tramp of armies, slash of weapons, burning of buildings, destruction of property and slaughter of thousands of human beings in this greatest of civil wars, under this [Abraham Lincoln's] Proclamation of Independence four million, enthralled in the most extensive and worst system of slavery which the world ever saw, came up from slavery.
But the true strength of Broken Shackles is the elementary but poetic speech of Henson: "My heart and bones were full of freedom." Here is one of the humble wellsprings of what we now proudly term African-Canadian literature. ˛
Poet George Elliott Clarke's latest books are Execution Poems (Gaspereau Press, 2001) and Blue (Raincoast¨Polestar, 2001).