Dorothy Williams, author of "Blacks In Montreal 1628-1986: An Urban Demography" and "The Road to Now: A History of Blacks in Montreal," spoke recently at the Women’s Canadian Club of Montreal. In his introduction to her talk, Richard Lord, who is a Board member at the Atwater Library and Computer Centre, mentioned a link between it and Montreal’s black history. Susan McGuire, a former executive director of the library, was also present at Williams' speech, and agreed to expand on it for the Westmount Independent.
The Atwater Library, in its previous incarnation as the Mechanics’ Institute, had an early role in defending the rights of the blacks in Canada, in that it provided provided a venue and platform for abolitionist ideas.
Henry Esson and John Redpath
The two men who were founders and guiding forces for the two successive Mechanics' Institutes in Montreal (1828 and 1840) both became abolitionists.
The Presbyterian founder of the Mechanics' Institution of Montreal in 1828, the Rev. Henry Esson, was in Toronto in the 1840s as a professor at Knox College when he became an active abolitionist, alongside his friend George Brown of Toronto's Globe.
Prominent Presbyterian John Redpath, who re-established a Mechanics’ Institute in Montreal in 1840, interceded in 1849 with Governor-General Lord Elgin to permit the set-up of the Elgin Settlement near Chatham, Ontario to receive black refugees who were coming to Canada from the U. S. on the Underground Railway. This town, now known as Buxton, was the last of four organized black settlements to come into existence. Through his church in Montreal, Redpath also arranged financial help for other black communities in Upper Canada.
Hanford Lennox Gordon
On January 10, 1860, the American Quaker abolitionist, lawyer and poet H. L. Gordon delivered a lecture at the Mechanics’ Institute of Montreal entitled the “Harper’s Ferry Tragedy,” published the same year in a pamphlet produced by printer (and MIM member) John Lovell. It was the story of John Brown, an American abolitionist who was arrested, beaten, imprisoned, found guilty of treason and conspiracy with slaves, and hung in 1859. An older man who lost sons the the same battle, he lived in dignity to the last days of his life. It was an event that engendered a big outcry in the U. S., and some consider it a prelude to the American Civil War.
Gordon asked the questions, "Has [Brown] advanced the the cause of liberty? Has he forwarded the interests of the Anti-Slavery enterprise?" Then Gordon answered his own questions: "I think he has. He has given the world an heroic example. A greater gift he could not have bestowed....He has demonstrated one great truth, namely that slavery rests upon an insecure basis; that it rests on cowardice, cruelty and meanness...
"...Behold a new born hope for the African. He now knows that it is possible for a white man to love him and to die for him. Never was assurance more needed. The ancient slave [in Rome] had his master's complexion...the only distinction between them was removed when the slave was set at liberty. In America the master is white and the slave is black; when the African changes his condition he does not change his colour. Prejudice fastens on this only remaining distinction...and I think it becomes more intense as the black is elevated by the laws to political equality....Freedom then it would seem, instead of joining the two races, separates them. I hope that the love of John Brown and his heroic death will prove a blessing to the free coloured man...
"Southern men used to think Northern men cowards, and that the abolitionists were great talkers, but not disposed to sacrifice much for the cause they talk so earnestly about. But since a self-sacrificing old man makes them tremble beneath his eagle glance, they will think more highly of the class which he represented. The abolitionists too will entertain a higher opinion of their mission, and move with a more manly port in the presence of the nation...
"...Slavery destroyed Roman civilization, the force and dignity of which we so much admire. I fear it will destroy that of my native land.....There are those who expect, and not only expect but threaten, the dissolution of the Union of the American states. The Union is not so easily dissolved. The wisest men of the South, where it is talked of most, do not desire to, even if it were possible. The Free States are too powerful to allow the slave section to withdraw from the Union without their consent. The dissolution of the Union, logically speaking, means civil war....
"...In conclusion, permit me to say that I have not the language to express my admiration of the Constitution which at this moment is giving protection to the oppressed of all lands: I mean the free Constitution of Great Britain. The debt of gratitude which I owe it I can never hope to repay....In obedience of the Constitution, the [British] nation arose above the suggestions of material gain, and by an act unsurpassed in moral grandeur, abolished forever British slavery. The moment a slave breathes your free air he is a free man. The moment an exile touches your shores the genius of liberty attends him, and protects him evermore from the cruel tyrant. Hence the greatness and glory of the British empire."
John Anderson & the Legal System
As described by Edgar Andrew Collard in his book Montreal Yesterdays, the plight of fugitive slaves from the US South was one that moved some members of Montreal society (though not the editorialists at The Gazette).
John Anderson was an American-owned slave from Missouri who in the early 1850s had killed a man who was trying to prevent him from running to freedom in Canada. He lived quietly in Upper Canada until 1860, when someone reported Anderson's whereabouts to the American government, which in turn demanded his extradition to be tried for murder. There were, however, complicated issues of jurisdiction and interpretation of treaties. The British Parliament had abolished slavery throughout the British Empire in 1834, so the question was, since slavery was not recognized in Canada, how could he be sent back to where he would surely be treated as a slave again?
The case was tried in the Court of Queen's Bench in Toronto, and the majority opinion was that Anderson must be extradited back to the U. S. A dissenting voice was Judge Archibald McLean (an ancestor of Gary Aitken, a current member of the Atwater Library). Judge McLean (later Chief Justice), according to the Aitken's book Good People, Book One, wrote not only on the legality of the issue, but on the morality and ethics of slavery. He said that the oppressive laws of Missouri should never be cited in Canada to return a man to bondage. He argued, "Anderson's act was justified by the desire to be free which nature has implanted in his breast."
Not only Judge McLean felt that way. There was outrage among anti-slavery groups in Toronto, Hamilton, and in Montreal that the Toronto court had decided Anderson should be sent back to the U. S.
In January 1861, a meeting to discuss the Anderson matter was held in Montreal at the Mechanics’ Hall, attended by more than 800 people. Leading citizens spoke, including the mayor Charles-Séraphim Rodier (an early Mechanics’ Institution member); lawyer Antoine Aimé Dorion; the Rev. William Bond of St. George’s Anglican Church; Dr. William Taylor of Erskine Presbyterian Church; the Rev. John Cordner of the Unitarian Church; and Dr. William Hingston, who later founded St. Mary’s Hospital and became mayor of Montreal.
The Court of Queen's Bench in England signalled that it wished to have the matter settled in the English courts, but there was resistance in Canada to the idea of a British court deciding on what was viewed as a distinctly Canadian issue. So, before Anderson could be sent to appear in the British court, the matter was sent quickly to Toronto's Court of Common Pleas. Anderson was released on technicality, the court deciding that there had been faulty wording in the arrest warrant. Sir John A. Macdonald had arranged for the use of public funds to cover Anderson's legal fees.
Anderson left Toronto by train for Montreal on March 5, 1861, stayed in Montreal until May 23, and left by the steamer Nova Scotian on May 25 from Quebec City for Liverpool, where he arrived on June 6. From there, he left for Africa and apparently was never heard from again.
His legacy was important. The Anderson affair had significant implications for the evolving independence of the Canadian judicial system. In 1862, the British parliament passed on act which denied British courts the right to issue writs of habeas corpus for British colonies or dominions which had courts capable of handling the matters.
Site of the black cemetery
It is one of those coincidences that the site of the Mechanics’ Institute building of the time (at the corner of St. James and St. Peter streets), had been the site of the Cimetière des Pauvres where, during the French regime, black slaves had been buried.
(Acknowledgements: With thanks for help from Gary Aitken, Frank Mackey and Dr. Dorothy Williams)
(Based on an article in the Westmount Independent, February 24-25, 2009.)
Atwater Library and Computer Centre Archives
Hepburn, Sharon A. and Roger Hepburn. Crossing the Border.
Feltoe, Richard. A Gentleman of Substance. Toronto: Natural Heritage/Natural History Inc. Toronto 2004
Redpath, James. The Public Life of Capt. John Brown. Boston: Thayer and Eldridge, 1860
Gordon, H. L. "A Lecture on the Harper's Ferry Tragedy." Montreal, John Lovell, 1860
Mackey, Frank. Done with Slavery, Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2010.
Prevost, Robert. Montreal: A History
Aitken, Henry Gordon. Good People, Book One: The Kertlands of Canada, Montreal 2007
Wikipedia, "Extradition case of John Anderson.," 22 Feb 2010
Newspaper: Pilot, 5 March, 22 May, and 6 June.
Rev Henry Esson by James Duncan (Presbyterian Church of Canada No. G-16-FC)
In early 1817, a letter was received at Marischal College in Aberdeen from the Scotch Presbyterian Church in Montreal, asking that a clergyman ordained in the Church of Scotland be sent to Canada to assist in the Montreal church, known popularly as the St. Gabriel Street Church. The salary offered was £400, a goodly sum at the time.
The man chosen for the job was Henry Esson, born in 1793, son of a respected Aberdeenshire farmer. In 1807, he had entered Marischal College in Aberdeen, winning prizes for academic excellence and graduating in 1811. He earned an MA. He was ordained in the Church of Scotland in May 1817, arriving in Canada in the fall of 1817 at the age of 24. After a few years, he replaced the incumbent minister, and in all remained at the St. Gabriel Street Church for 27 years.
One of the intellectual leaders of Montreal, idealist, scholar and sparkling conversationalist, the Rev. Esson was not afraid of controversy. He was a vocal proponent for recognition of the Presbyterian Church as an established church in Canada, in order to gain for the Presbyterians a share in the revenues from the extensive lands called Clergy Reserves that had been established in 1791 in Upper and Lower Canada.
Of major importance in the development of education in Canada were his efforts over a period of years against the continuation of McGill College as an exclusively Anglican preserve, and he stood up for the rights of the Church of Scotland to share in directing the schools in the province and in furnishing them with teachers. The Rev. J. S. S. Armour, minister emeritus at Montreal’s Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul, comments: “Without Esson, there might have been no William Dawson at McGill nor, I think, the highly successful High School of Montreal. The fact that both institutions were decidedly Scottish in outlook might also be to Esson’s credit.”
One of Esson’s projects was the establishment in 1822 of the Montreal Academical Institution. In this he was assisted between 1822 and 1827 by the Rev. Hugh Urquhart, and it became a successful private school catering mainly to the English-speaking Montreal establishment. By the end of 1823, the school had 79 pupils, 58 of them studying the classics. Among the pupils in the school were Henry Starnes who was mayor of Montreal in the 1850s; and Aaron Phillip Hart, who became a prominent lawyer. Another pupil for a time was Amédée Papineau, son of Louis -Joseph Papineau, who attended the school in 1828. He notes in Souvenirs de jeunesse 1822-1837 that it was at the Esson school that he took his first lessons in French --studying Fenelon’s Télémaque. (Amédée had previously gone to Miss Waller’s school until she died.)
In 1829, Esson published A sketch of the system of education and course of study pursued in the Montreal Academical Institution. His school closed in 1832, the year of the first cholera epidemic and also of a controversial riot that was a precursor to the 1837-38 Rebellions.
Montreal Mechanics’ Institution
In 1828, the Rev. Esson was the founder and guiding light of another learning institution, one which subsequently had a lasting impact on adult education in Montreal: the Montreal Mechanics’ Institution, which continues to thrive today, 180 years later, as the Atwater Library and Computer Centre.
Esson’s vision for the institute was formed by his sense of Canada’s need to progress into the future. He perceived that the apprenticeship system was breaking down in Montreal as it was in Scotland and England, and that there was a resulting need to educate young Canadian-born workers, as well as the young immigrants flooding into Montreal. At that time, there was no educational facility in Montreal where young men could learn the arithmetic, geometry and drawing skills needed to work effectively in the evolving building trades and in the newly emerging factories.
Henry Esson based his proposed model on ideas that had evolved in Scotland in the early 19th century and which had become formalized in the Mechanics’ Institute established in London in 1823. He called a meeting at his home on November 21, 1828 to explore the idea of establishing a mechanics’ institute in Montreal, the first of its kind in Canada. The goal of the proposed new organization would be “to instruct the members in the principles of the Arts and in the various branches of Science and useful knowledge.” And he described how this goal would be achieved:
1. The voluntary association of mechanics and others and the payment of a small sum annually or half-yearly each.
2. Donations of money, books, specimens, implements, models, apparatus.
3. Library of reference and reading room.
4. Museum of machinery and models, minerals and natural history.
5. Academy or school for teaching arithmetic, algebra, geometry and trigonometry, and their different applications, particularly to perspective, architecture, mensuration and navigation, to which might be added ancient and modern language.
6. Lectures on natural and experimental philosophy, practical mechanics, astronomy, chemistry, civil history, political economy, philosophy of the human mind, literature and the arts.
7. An experimental workshop and laboratory.
At least twelve men paid a $2 membership, and were appointed at that first meeting to draw up a constitution and laws for the governing of the new Institution. These were the Rev. Esson; John Henderson, civil engineer; Thomas Cliff, cabinetmaker; William Shand, cabinetmaker & builder; Teavill Appleton, builder; P. H. Ogilvy, teacher; William Farquhar, jeweller; William Boston, painter; James Poet, turner; and Messrs Savage, Clarke and Walker
After several intervening meetings, Esson chaired a meeting on December 9, 1828, at which the constitution of the new organization was adopted, and a Committee of Management elected. As expressed in the documents s surrounding the development of the London Mechanics’ Institute, and in the Montreal institution’s constitution which also closely followed that of the London organization, the founding officers were leading citizens in the community who would provide preliminary funding and direction, but the actual running of the organization would be by men in the trades and professions. It was to be non-political and non-religious.
First president was the Swiss-born sheriff of Montreal, the Hon. Louis Gugy, who was a member of the Rev. Esson’s church, but whose family in Three Rivers [Trois-Rivières] were Anglicans. Vice-presidents were Canadian-born lawyer and politician Louis-Joseph Papineau; American-born merchant Horatio Gates and English-born industrialist John Molson, both former members of Rev Esson’s church; and Esson. Treasurer was builder/cbinetmaker William Shand, a member of St. Gabriel’s Church; and P. H. Ogilvy, teacher in the Rev. Esson’s school, was secretary. In addition there were elected 32 committeemen representing a cross-section of trades and professions in the city.
At the December 16, 1828 meeting, the Rev. Esson delivered an introductory lecture entitled, “Object & Advantages of Mechanics Institutions.” He chaired most of the weekly meetings in the first year of operation. Others who chaired the weekly meetings during the first year were Robert Cleghorn, garden nursery owner; teacher and surveyor Alexander Stevenson, ordnance officer William Holwell, lawyer Acheson Clarke, immigration officer and land agent James Allison; tobacconist Samuel Joseph, British & Canadian School teacher John Minshall, builder Joseph Bronsdon; and Messrs Savage, Shand, Boston, Poet, Francis Howson and L. M. Janes. The two semi-annual meetings were chaired by the president, the Hon. Louis Gugy.
On May 5, 1829, the Rev. Esson appears to have been thinking about adapting the original ideas that came from England to the realities of the situation in Montreal. He suggested a discussion be held at the next meeting to seeking answers to “What are the peculiar advantages to be obtained from a Mechanics’ Institute in the existing state of society in this part of the world?” Adaptations to the format and programs of the meetings were made often during the first months and years.
Henry Esson served as vice-president of the Mechanics’ Institution in 1828, 1829, 1830, 1834 and 1835.
Rev. Esson was a founder of the Montreal Auxiliary Bible Society in 1820, and of the Protestant Orphan Asylum in 1822. He was a founder of the Natural History Society in 1827, a group of mainly physicians and educators whose chief activity was to sponsor lectures on scientific topics. He was a founding member of the St. Andrew’s Society in 1835, and was its chaplain from 1835 to 1844. Rev. Esson was elected to the committee of management of the École Normale de Montréal in 1836, a two-denominational, teacher-training school that was open to both Catholics and Protestants until 1842. He was a founder of the High School of Montreal in 1844.
In one of the more bizarre happenings in his life, in 1936 he testified, along with architect John Ostell (a member of the Mechanics' Institution and later president of the Mechanics' Institute) and others, in front of Justice of the Peace Benjamin Holmes, against one Maria Monk, who had made salacious and sensational accusations against some Catholic clergy. His statements helped debunk the story she had told in the booklet published as “The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk.”
The early 1800s had seen struggles between moderates and evangelicals in the Church of Scotland. This division was mirrored within the St. Gabriel Street Church, where the moderates sided with Henry Esson; while the evangelicals—including early Mechanics’ Institution members Robert Armour, William Dow and John Redpath—favoured the second minister at St. Gabriel’s, the Rev. Edward Black (who had arrived in Montreal in 1823). This evangelical group separated from St. Gabriel’s and formed a new church. A few years later there were more changing loyalties among the Presbyterians, not the least of which were Henry Esson becoming an evangelical Presbyterian shortly after his second marriage in 1842, and Edward Black becoming a traditionalist.
The struggles among various factions within the Presbyterian community in Montreal led in 1844 to the Rev. Esson’s departure for Toronto, where he accepted an offer to teach history, literature and philosophy at what later became Knox College for the training of Presbyterian clergy. While in Toronto he published works including A Plain and Popular Exposition on the Principles of Voluntaryism (1849); and Strictures on the Present Method of Teaching the English Language and Suggestions for its Improvement (1852). Sharon A. Rogers Hepburn, in her new book Crossing the Border, notes that, “Rev. Esson, a professor at Knox…possessed strong abolitionist sentiments.”
The Rev. Esson was married first to Maria Sweeney, from a prominent Montreal family headed by Campbell Sweeney; she died in 1826 at the age of 24, and both their children died in infancy. He married Elizabeth Campbell in 1842 before moving to Toronto.
Henry Esson died in Toronto in 1853 at age 60. His friend George Brown, editor of the Globe and later a Father of Confederation, wrote, “He was a man of studious habits and of varied learning; of unquestionable logical powers and of fertile imagination; and into all that he did, he carried with him a noble enthusiasm, which enabled him to triumph over many obstacles…Of most agreeable manners and amiable temper, in his private life he was respected and beloved.” The Rev. Principal Willis, DD, of Knox College said in a sermon, “Mr. Esson was one whom it was impossible to know and not to love.”
He is buried in Mount Royal Cemetery near his first wife and sons.
Acknowledgements: With thanks to the Rev. J. S. S. Armour and the the Rev. Harry Kuntz for their assistance with this article.
Adapted from articles that appeared in Quebec Heritage News, November-December 2008; and in The Journal of the St. Andrew's Society of Montreal, May 2009.
Minutes of the Montreal Mechanics' Institution
Armour, J. S. S., Saints, Sinners and Scots, A History of the Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul.
Borthwick, J. D., History and Biographical Gazetteer of Montreal to the Year 1892.
Campbell, Robert, A History of the Scotch Presbyterian Church.
Papineau, Amédée, Souvenirs de jeunesse 1822-1837, ed. Georges Aubin.
Kuntz, Harry. "The Educational Work of the Two Montreal Mechanics' Institutes" (master's thesis). Montreal: Concordia University, 1993
Dictionary of Canadian Biography: (Esson; François-Joseph-Victor Regnaud).
“Awful Exposure of the Atrocious Plot Formed by Certain Individuals against the Clergy and Names of Lower Canada 1836.”
J. H. Dorwin, “Montreal in 1816.”