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Douglas Fetherling - Escape from North to North
by Douglas Fetherling

I've often been frustrated, in picking up some new U.S. book touching on Canada, by the way American authors, scholars as well as popular ones, display flaws in their basic knowledge of this country: cities misspelled and in the wrong locations, the directions rivers flow in reversed, Sir John A. Macdonald (if they know the name at all) rendered as MacDonald or, worse, McDonald, like the hamburger. On these grounds alone, I was impressed by Shadrach Minkins: From Fugitive Slave to Citizen (Harvard University Press, US$27.95), by Gary Collison of Pennsylvania State University. The story of his subject's days in Canada takes up about a third of the book, and Collison has masticated his Canadian research thoroughly. In fact, he gives Canadian readers a useful glimpse of an area of their past too little written about.

Everyone has read of the rich heritage of African-Canadians in Nova Scotia going back to the Loyalists and also about the clusters and colonies of former slaves in what became Ontario (not just the southwestern part but also Toronto and places as far east as Kingston, Cobourg, and Cornwall). But until now I for one have found hardly anything on the "free blacks" who chose to settle in Montreal, the nearest large city from the section of New England where the abolitionists helped many across the border. Why the record of Montreal's escaped slaves is so sparse is obvious: they were few in number and, being anglophone, were a small minority within a larger minority, a solitude within a solitude. Still, as Collison's book makes plain, at least one of them, Shadrach Minkins, was in his time an international celebrity.

Minkins did not write or read himself but he survives in other people's accounts as intelligent, courageous, and amiable. He was born in Norfolk, Virginia, sometime between 1814 and 1822. Not being certain of "either the day or even the year of his birth.reminded many a slave that in the eyes of the dominant society, he or she had been born a thing," Collison writes. What's clear is that Minkins came of age in a period of escalating trouble on both sides of the slavery question. Slave uprisings, particularly the one led by Nat Turner in 1831, spread panic and stirred repression in the Southern states, while at the same time the abolitionist movement, strongest in cities such as Boston, grew powerful and sophisticated.

As this was going on around him, Minkins found himself passed, by sale or inheritance, from one owner to another (including the future paymaster general of the Confederate States navy), working variously as a grocer's assistant and as a household servant and finally as a slave-for-hire. The biggest external political development affecting him took place when Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which permitted escaped slaves to be arrested in non-slave states and returned to their masters-the final part of a bigger package of ill-conceived compromises intended to placate the South.

With even the faint hope of eventual freedom slipping away, Minkins, like thousands before him and thousands later, fled. He moved to Boston, which had had a free black community since the eighteenth century and could still, despite declines in recent years, boast 2,500 African-Americans out of a population of about 130,000. Minkins found a place for himself in that milieu, which Collison reconstructs in loving detail.

Part of what Collison's investigation shows is that, despite the presence of the transcendentalists and of William Lloyd Garrison, the famous abolitionist editor, the Boston area was by no means so liberal as its reputation suggests. "As was true for every black in the North, Shadrach Minkins found his economic opportunity restricted by long-established patterns of custom and prejudice." Plus there was always the danger of being spotted by one of the fugitive-hunters who haunted such areas as the commercial district where Minkins worked as a coffee-house waiter. Sure enough, while serving breakfast on February 15th, 1851, Minkins was nabbed by federal marshals: "the first fugitive slave to be seized in New England under the Fugitive Slave Law."

International attention focused on him, and the notoriety could only increase after a band of abolitionists snatched him from the clutches of authority and sent him into hiding. (They were later the defendants in a celebrated trial; one of their lawyers was Richard Henry Dana Jr., the author of Two Years before the Mast.) Less than a week after his dramatic rescue, Minkins was living in Montreal, where he became proprietor of first one small restaurant and then another and was sought out by visitors as one of the authentic sights of the city. Collison pieces together the narrative by going through the successive census reports and discovering articles pro and con in the anglophone and francophone press (which must be compared on the basis of Catholic-Protestant tension). He also does well by the cumulated work of important Canadian historians such as Robin Winks, whose pioneering 1971 work The Blacks in Canada, I'm pleased to see, has been brought back into print by McGill-Queen's. (And this year Véhicule Press has published The Road to Now: A History of Blacks in Montreal, by Dorothy Williams, who mentions Minkins.)

As a result, Collison is able to reanimate Montreal at least as vividly as the, for him, more familiar ground of Norfolk and Boston, drawing a detailed map of Montreal's black community at this time, its isolation and cohesiveness, its sensitivities and concerns.

In 1854, about the stage that Minkins married an Irish woman and had a son, a Unitarian minister visiting from the U.S. went searching for Minkins in Old Montreal, but "after going through several narrow streets, and examining all the signs, but finding no `Shadrach', finally went into a small shop over which was a little sign with `S. Makins, Victualler &c.' " and inquired where the famous Shadrach could be found. "I am Shadrach," Minkins answered. Whereupon the clergyman reproved him for lacking the "Yankee calculation" to exploit his famous name for business purposes. With one of his next restaurants, however, Minkins took the hint and improved upon it, calling his establishment Uncle Tom's Cabin, after Harriet Beecher Stowe's momentous bestseller of 1852 (which contains a scene set in Montreal, a place Stowe had never been). By 1859, the restaurant business having turned against him, Shadrach Minkins was a Montreal barber, as were a number of other former slaves. In 1860, he was one of the petitioners seeking authority from Sir Edmund Walker, the Governor General, to raise an all-black militia unit. Permission was refused. Minkins was accustomed to denial and resigned to it, but he had no desire to return to the U.S. after the Civil War. He died in Montreal in 1875 (as did his only son, in 1935, without issue).

Shadrach Minkins's tale, writes Collison, "reveals much about the frustrations and the triumphs of African-Americans in the nineteenth century. It is a story of those who renounced their enslavement, who found the promise of the North unfilled, who left the country that they felt had betrayed them, and who found in Canada a measure of freedom and security. It was not a paradise free from racial prejudice, but nevertheless it was an environment in which Shadrach Minkins and his fellow refugees could create new lives, find new identities, and build a new community." 

Douglas Fetherling is believed to be somewhere on a Russian tramp steamer.


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