Done With Slavery

Done With Slavery: The Black Fact in Montreal 1760 – 1840

By Dr. Dorothy Williams

A review of Done With Slavery: The Black Fact In Montreal 1760 - 1840 by Frank Mackey

Published on November 1, 2009

Done With Slavery: The Black Fact In Montreal 1760 – 1840
Frank Mackey

McGill-Queen's University Press
$49.95
cloth
632pp
978-0-7735-3578-7

With the release of Frank Mackey’s Done with Slavery, Black historians may be buoyed by a credible addition to the slowly growing body of historical literature on Blacks in Montreal. The struggle to re-create a national narrative that includes Blacks has been hampered by the dearth of contemporary scholars of African-Canadian studies and by the incremental pace of scholarly publishing. For the pace to accelerate, a literature must first be created, then disseminated, and ultimately debated. Done with Slavery is a great step in that direction.

Subsequent to the publication of my book, Blacks in Montreal 1628-1986, Montreal’s first comprehensive history on Blacks, monographs have focused on uncovering historical nuggets about the Black presence prior to the twentieth century. Mackey follows that trend, tracing Black Montreal history from the influx of Anglo-American slaves following the battle of the Plains of Abraham until the nineteenth century. This was the period Mackey covered in 2004 in Black Then: Blacks and Montreal, 1780s-1880s. This was a highly readable and engaging collection of 30 distinct stories about Montreal’s unknown Blacks, some upstanding citizens and others scoundrels. For the most part, the stories underscored the poignancy of lives made raw due to slavery and its legacy of racism within Montreal.

In Done with Slavery, Mackey revisits many characters from Black Then in order to contextualize and buttress his thesis that slavery’s end in Montreal had actually occurred decades before the “mythic” end on August 1, 1834. In fact, Mackey strongly contends that the British Emancipation Act of 1833, still celebrated in Ontario and other places worldwide, had no effect on slavery in Quebec because of the province’s unique confluence of legal and social circumstances.

Mackey has pulled together an impressive array of archival sources and reinterprets them in light of his own dogged research. Nothing and no one is sacred; challenging existing facts is fair game. Like all serious writers of African-Canadian history, Mackey opens with a discussion of the difficulties of locating reliable Black sources and of the impossibility of establishing an unbroken chain of evidence. He asks: How can one determine the precise number of Blacks through records when there was no agreement on who was Black in Montreal? Moreover if a particular record referred to an individual as Black why assume he or she was a slave? The Introduction alone is worth a read, and along with Chapter 11 (in which the same subject is elaborated), should soon find its place on suggested reading lists in courses on Canadian and Quebec historiography, racism, settlement, and ethnicity.

Another thread Mackey weaves into the narrative is that “Christians and Jews, French- and English-speaking, male and female, high and low – once engaged in slavery in Quebec…” This point builds on pioneering Quebec historian Marcel Trudel’s earlier evidence of the widespread use of slaves in Quebec, among all classes and in all regions. Yet despite this acknowledgement, Mackey challenges the assertion that Quebecers of the day were racist and that the law was their handmaiden. He attempts to recast the city’s landscape through class and language, not race, and even suggests that race be taken out of the equation in order to truly understand the unique circumstances of Montreal’s Black past. Surely this point alone marks a radical break from the voluminous literature making the case that there has always been a relationship between race and the enslavement of non-white populations, as between racist ideas and the persistence of inequality.

Done with Slavery is not an easy read; it is replete with statistics, interwoven with dizzying genealogical and legal threads. The breadth of Mackey’s research is remarkable, and the book’s 400-plus pages (including appendices) are sure to keep history buffs busy for years. mRb

Dr. Williams, author of "The Road to Now: A History of Blacks in Montreal," is program director at the Black Community Resource Centre.

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