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Slavery In Nova Scotia Essay, Research Paper

The Fugitive’s Address to the North Star

Thou serious star in Northern Night!

Thou steady lamp of sacred light!

Look kindly on a hapless wight-

A sable refugee.

A Saviour star be thou to me,

Lead me to a country free,

To frozen climes I’ll follow thee,

Thou star of liberty.

Light to the place of freedom’s birth,

An unpaid tiller of the earth,

Where sacred is the home and hearth,

Of men in liberty.

McCarthur, Alexander. Voice of the Fugitive. 15 January 1852(Walker,1)

In the days of the American Slave trade the North Star was a guiding beacon to those who were escaping from the shackles of slavery to freedom, from the United States to Canada. Many stories have been written romanticizing the idea of the slaves’ treacherous journey to Canada, fleeing bondage and those who wished to keep them in bondage, following the North Star to the promise land. In most cases the journey ended with the slaves’ falling to their knees free at last, or were they? Another great myth is that of the Underground Railroad, which ran for seventy-five years, which slaves were transported from the clutches of slavery to freedom, equality, and full participation in Canadian society.(Walker,18)

The Beginning

To talk about the fugitives that followed the North Star to what they thought that was a better life one must start at the beginning, the history behind the myth. Doing this will not give reason to why the myth was formed, but it will give the history that led up to the myth. This will help to give the understanding of the myth and why in fact the north star was a myth.

The institution of slavery was a social and economic necessity in Canada maybe not to the extent that it was in the United States, but it was necessity. In the year of 1628 a young black slave was brought to Canada by the famous privateer, David Kirke. This young slave was later baptized Olivier Le Jeune. The official birth of slavery was not until sixty-one years later in 1689, when King Louis XIV gave his conditional approval to slavery in New France until the colony go on its feet. Twenty years later King Louis XIV gave full permission to slavery in 1709 making slavery a concrete part of the New World existence.

By 1759 the British had taken possession of all of New France and the slave system. The system worked its way smoothly into to British way of life, but the with this regime the slave system eventually met its end.

Early Discrimination & Broken Promises

Whether in the U.S. or Canada by the English or the French, it was wrong. In Canada, unlike the U.S., slaves were mostly of a domestic nature and even where slaves were used for labour, the Canadian seasons limited it. More to the point, “the fact is that slavery is harsh and breeds cruelty on the part of the slave holder.”(Bertley 27) The cruelty and brutality was not uncommon in Canada because it was part of the nature of a holder to let a slave know who was the master, for instance:

- A small child of Windsor, Nova Scotia, was instantly killed when his holder struck him in the head with a hammer.(Bertley 27)

- A slaveholder from Truro, Nova Scotia, in order to punish his slave who had tried to run away, made a hole through the lower lobe of the slave’s ear, passed the end of a whiplash through the hole, knotted it, jumped on his horse and dragged the victim, who died shortly afterwards.(Bertley 27)

One must also remember that slaves were not only employee’s, they were property. A slave owner would pay a pretty penny for a slave and was not happy when they ran away. It was not unusual to see add in the newspaper that a slave owner was looking for a lost slave and would pay a reward for the slave’s return. Also in that same paper you would also see slave auctions being announced of a shipment of slaves that had just landed in Halifax.

Early slavery was not based on color, but the origins of Black slavery can be found with the fact that Europeans enslaved all. They had Indentured European Servants, Natives and Blacks. Blacks were found to be the best for the job because the Europeans could easily blend into the rest of the population and Natives were familiar with the surrounding landscape that made for an easy escape. Blacks on the other hand were stamped slaves by their natural complexion.

The first major influx of Blacks came to Canada not as Slaves, but as free loyalists in 1783. Another 1,500 slave can that same year with their white loyalist masters. The white loyalist’s, to ensure their “property”, the lobbied to have laws passed to ensure the continuity of slavery. Laws such as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1783 which confirmed the legality of slavery and laid down fines that would be penalty to anyone who aided a slave in escaping.

The problems that arose out of this great emigration to Canada was that all of the loyalist were promised free land, so that they could settle and resume or start their life again. The white loyalist that came chose where they would settle and were given the best land. Black loyalists on the other hand were given rocky, swampy land outside the major white centers. This posed a serious problem when new immigrant’s existence was based on farming. This caused the Black’s to turn to labour where the slave stereotypes had placed them anyhow. In desperation the Blacks were easily exploited and were put to work for wages much less than that of a white person. Working for lower wages moves them lower down the socio-economic scale and reinforced the white stereotypes of Black poverty because that is what the low wages got them. The problems fluctuated when white workers were losing work to lower paid Black and hostility built up until the breaking point where violence and destruction ensued. Such as what happened in Shelburne in 1784, “?mobs of working class whites drove the Blacks out of the town and tore down their homes and church.”(Walker 8) Riots and violence went on for many years and finally, “landless” and jobless, stuck in poverty, approximately 1500 Blacks took an offer in 1792 to relocate to Sierra Leone, Africa to try and make a new, far away from the broken promises, and discrimination.

In 1796, four year after the first let down the Nova Scotia tried again. Six hundred Jamaican Maroons were brought to settle in Nova Scotia but again failed. The Maroons, although content at first, faced the same persecution that the Black loyalists faced. The Maroons were forced to the same fate as the Loyalists when the took passage to Sierre Leone to try and establish a new life there also just four years after their arrival in Nova Scotia.

Around this time in late 1700’s to early 1800’s slavery began to be viewed as wrong and immoral and people were beginning to galvanize support to have it removed from society. In 1807, the British parliament passed the General Abolition Act that banned the slave trade in Canada. This only banned the trade, slaves were still being kept as property and still facing persecution and racist acts.

The myth of Canada a safe haven for men and women of color traveled deep into the Southern United States. At the outbreak of the Civil War another great emigration of Blacks out of the States brought thousands of refugees, following the North Star, to Canada. “Once again [with promises] of freedom, equality and land?[and] once again, hopes of renewal were dashed.”(Alexander, 66)

Blacks were faced with similar conditions as before and tried to make the best of what they had. This time another variable was added to the list that mounted the problems before. Nova Scotia was hit with a recession that in turn caused more tension amongst the inhabitants. The previous stereotypes returned with a vengeance and the problems began to build. Black refugees were still pouring into Canada and Nova Scotia, but this time a new path was taken to foil the immigration. Instead of deportation they chose legislation. The Nova Scotia government voted to stop the immigration of Blacks into the area with the justification that the jobs for servants and manual labourers were all taken. “Time and time again, Blacks were encouraged to emigrate to protect British interests in Canada. Once the threat was over, they were forced to live segregated lives [or they were blatantly forced out].”(Alexander, 63)

Around this same time one of Canada’s most glorified moments in history was founded, The Underground Railroad. This was a system of routes and passages that slaves followed, with help from certain agents, to get from the clutches of slavery in the United States to freedom in Canada; as the story goes. The name was coined because of the use of railroad dialect that was used to confuse slave bounty hunters. In the years of operation, this system brought more than 50,000 fugitive slaves to Canada. From this one must look at this and say “What they came from was bad, but what they came to?Was it any better?

When Black fugitives arrived in Canada they were not worshipped or taken in to other people’s homes. The old stereotypes were not thrown out and the race discrimination and segregation barriers were not taken down. Not everyone participated and agreed with the Underground Railroad and in some cases people in Canada would help to return Black fugitives to their masters in the South. As the population of Blacks began to build in Canada changes to help deal with the “Black problem” were not far behind. As Boyko noted, negative Black stereotypes and racist suspicion led to quick creation of discriminatory laws and practices that isolated, segregated and humiliated Blacks. Blacks were seen as lower on the scale of humanity and even inhuman, still stamped with their slave status marked by their color. They were tolerated, but by no means accepted. (22)

In 1833 the final death of slavery came to Canada when the British parliament passed The British Imperial Act which prohibited slavery in all of the British colonies. This was not the end of the Black mistreatment that plagued Canada. Two year before Canada officially became Canada, in 1865, as if the racist and discriminatory laws were not enough, the depopulation of black communities began and restrictive immigration policies were put in to place. Even at the wake of Confederation this nation still embraces discriminatory practices and mistreatment.

The Canadian Slave trade and Slavery in Canada was tucked away and Canadians denied the existence of slavery in Canada attributing it to the Americans only. Canada and its people assumed a position of innocence and have denied their history of ill treatment towards Blacks. The North Star was actually a bright light that allowed the overt and systematic racism to hide behind. The end of the Civil War meant the return of three quarters of the Black fugitives that had come to Canada because at least the severe racism in the United States a Black person could easily see where they stood in society. In Canada, on the other hand, the overt and systematic racism gave slaves false hope and a false sense of security which they soon found was worse that the alternative.

Now I would like to give an explanation for the poetry used. The use of McCarthur’s poem is clearly evident based on the subject matter of the paper. The relevancy is based on slaves following the North Star to Canada, “Light to the place of freedom’s birth.” The second poem is a little more complex because it seems that the narrator is some sort of sailor or something. For my own purposes the poem was used to show a picture of a slave who had come to Canada. Therefore, it must be read with this frame of mind. The main part of the poem that I wish to stress is the last stanza:

Down, down I sink:

Earth again holds me.

Again, North Star, I see thee shine.

But from the naked night I will not shrink;

And I privately I take

A courage for thy sake,

Because thou hast thy place and I have mine;

Because I still need thee;

Because thou need’st not me.

I used this to the point where Canada called on Blacks to come to Canada promising freedom and equality. Calling on them to come when it was beneficial to defend British interests, but when the need subsided the Blacks where seen as different once again and the Colony no longer needed them and turned them away.

The North Star

I was contented with the warm silence,

Sitting by the fire, book on knee:

And fancy uncentred, afloat and astray,

Idled from thought to thought

Like a child picking flowers and dropping them

In a meadow at play.

I was contented with the kind silence,

When there invaded me-

Not a sound, no, there was no sound,

But awareness of a menace

Creeping up around

The little island of my mind:

A creeping up of gradual waves out of a sea,

With storm coming behind:

Wave on pale wave, smile inhuman smile,

Driven on by the black force of alien will

To drown my world, to be the burial

Of joy, beauty, and all

That seemed impossible to kill:

Even the secret home that hope inherited.

I sat in an unreal room alone.

Befriending and familiar shapes were gone:

And I seized with dread.

Then I became restless,

As if in bonds that must at any cost be burst,

The very peace seemed to oppress:

I was imprisoned and athirst,

And rose, and crossed the floor,

Craving to front the naked outer night.

At the opened door

Stood a thin mist, ghostly and motionless.

Smell of the leaves rotting

Breathed through a cold vapour

Bitter to the nostril.

My feet stumbled;

In my heart was a cry:

O for some singe point of certitude!

I lifted up my face, and saw the sky.

There where I stood

Low mist clung to the earth.

But above, pale and diminished,

Only the larger lights pierced the dim air.

I faced the North.

And far and faint over a shadowy pine

But homelessness suspended out of time,

Where I had sout to climb.

North Star, it was no shroud

Of mist, nor glory of overflowing sun;

It was no blotting curtain of blank cloud,

But a thought in the mind that deposed thee.

Down, down I sink:

Earth again holds me.

Again, North Star, I see thee shine.

But from the naked night I will not shrink;

And I privately I take

A courage for thy sake,

Because thou hast thy place and I have mine;

Because I still need thee;

Because thou need’st not me.

1938 That rose out of the mist

I saw the North Star shine.

I remembered sailors of old

For whom unclouded night

Was stretched above the dark Mediterranean,

A blue tapestry pricked with powdery gold,

Where legendary presences shone bright,

Each with a memory and a name;

And under the luminous maze

Steering by the North Star

Ships to their harbour came.

And now through thick silence

On the stifled fog-possessed Atlantic

I was hearing, distant or near,

Muffled answer of horn to horn,

The rocking clang of the buoy-bell,–

Sound crossing sound, to warn

Steamers, that on their blinded motion still

Unfaltering over seas invisible

Held to a silent clue

Because with the assurance of that star

The needle points them true.

There was a voice whispered:

Ascend, ascend!

Out of the earthy vapour, out

Of the invading doubt,

Into deliverance, into bare

Heights of unmeasured air.

Utterly stilled I stood,

Climbing in dizzying thought without an end

To that magnetic light,

That affirmation of old certitude.

And pinnacled alone in the vast night

My thought was there.

Oh, earth is gone.

My earth is lost.

North Star, North Star,

Dost thou fail me?

Thou art not what thou wast,

And all I was is taken from my mind:

For there is neither path nor direction

For any thought to find

No North, nor South, nor East, nor West,

Binyon, Laurence. The North Star and Other Poems. MacMillian and Co. Ltd.

London. 1941.


Alexander, Ken, Avis Glaze. Towards Freedom Seekers: The African-Canadian Experience. Toronto: Umbrella Press. 1996

Bertley, Leo W. Canada and Its People of African Decent. Canada: Bilongo Publishers. 1977

Binyon, Laurence. The North Star and Other Poems. London: MacMillan and Co. Ltd. 1941

Boyko, John. Last Steps to Freedom: The Evolution of Canadian Racism. Canada: Hignell Printing Ltd. 1995

Grant, John N. Black. Black Nova Scotians. Halifax: Museum of Nova Scotia. 1980

Hill, Daniel G. The Freedom Seekers: Blacks in Early Canada. Canada: The Book Society of Canada. 1981

Tulloch, Headley. Black Canadians: A Long Line of Fighters. Toronto: NC Press Ltd. 1995

Walker, James W. St. G. Racial Discrimination in Canada: The Black Experience. Ottawa: The Canadian Historical Association. 1985.

Walker, James W. St. G. The Black Identity in Nova Scotia: Community and Institutions in Historical Perspective. Halifax: The Black Cultural Association for Nova Scotia. 1985.

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