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    Black colony in Upper Canada heralds Underground Railway for runaway U.S. slaves

     SOCIAL HISTORY: stories of life and times in Canada past

    Canada’s gain is U.S. loss, says American newspaper

    Slavery was abolished in Upper Canada in 1793 (excluding those few already there); in Britain and all here colonies in 1833; in the United States, in 1865. Canada’s door was opened to a heaven for runaway black American slaves, some 40,000 of whom travelled north on the fabled underground railway, starting the in 1840s. But before the underground railway, Upper Canada’s first planned colony of American blacks was established some 15 miles northwest of London at what is now the village of Lucan. Although harshly oppressed by discriminating laws and other actions, these were not slaves but nominally free American citizens, many of them former slaves.

    It was a series of oppressive laws in Cincinnati in 1829 that motivated the colonists to trek north in search of freedom and liberty. In a reaction to a growing black population, Cincinnati’s oppressive laws culminated in an order in July, requiring blacks to post $500 “good-behaviour” bonds or leave the city. Without the bonds, the blacks could not legally hold jobs.

    Lieutenant Governor John Colborne encouraged the blacks to settle in Upper Canada. With funds provided by Quakers in Ohio and Indiana, 800 acres of forested land was purchased from the Canada Land Company.

    The settlement was named Wilberforce, after British abolitionist William Wilberforce. By 1833, the colony had 200 black families who established farms, a school for both blacks and white students from nearby farms; Baptists and Methodist churches, a sawmill, and a temperance society. Despite this promising start, the Wilberforce colony foundered, at least in part because of dissension within the management and directors and accusations of corruption by an agent ostensibly seeking funds for development of the colony and assistance for prospective new members from the United States. Only a few families remained by 1840.

    The initial establishment of the Wilberforce colony was viewed by an American newspaper as a blessing for the blacks, a gain for Canada, and a loss for the United States. From the St. Clairsville, Ohio Historian, excerpted from the Brockville Recorder, February 2, 1830:

    The people of colour will have a colony of their own, and be represented in the Provincial Parliament. They are at once given their rights and due weight in the government.

    Thus as it were in a day, a colony has sprung up without the patronage of the American people, which must have a powerful effect in changing the condition of the people of colour, and also our situation in regard to them. In case of a collision between England and American governments, they will powerfully strengthen the English. In addition to this, Canada is within reach of the slave population—and hundreds of thousands of them will no doubt go there. As we observed, the colony will be under the immediate protection of the British government. And it would be madness for the slave holders to think of following them.

    We have no hesitation in saying that the condition of the people of colour will be a thousand times improved. And we believe there will be no need of passing laws to prevent their emigration to this state. In a political point of view, we think the people of this state have overshot the mark. It will draw a very considerable amount of labourers from the United States. And all must agree that the labourers are the real producers of wealth—and in addition to this, they will powerfully strengthen the rival government.

    TAGS: Slavery, Runaway slaves, Slavery abolition, People of colour, Underground Railway, Black Americans, Upper Canada, Wilberforce, Lucan, John Colborne.

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