Major Events in Canadian History: The Atwater Library’s Abolitionist Connections

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)

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