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Expanding Our Selective Memory

Studying black history reminds us of Canada’s impact on slavery —not all of which was good.


David Harris

The young woman followed the guide’s hand to where a passage from Psalm 132 was mounted high on the wall. She read it, then dissolved into tears, knees buckling as she dropped to the floor.
We were in Elmina Castle, built by the Portuguese between 1482 – 86 to defend their slice of the Africa Gold Coast. They used it as a trading post, first mostly for the gold. Soon, however, local tribes began bringing captured enemies whom they sold to the Portuguese as slaves for Brazil and the Caribbean.
In 1637, Elmina (“the mine”) was captured by the Dutch, as they extended their global power. At Elmina, they used the same chapel as the Portuguese had, whitewashing the Roman Catholic paint and gilt in favour of Calvinistic black and white—and a passage from the psalter in Dutch:
For the Lord has chosen Zion;
He has desired it for His habitation:
‘This is my resting – place for ever;
here I will reside, for I have desired it.’
The room beneath this chapel resting – place in Elmina is where the female slaves were packed; stacked vertically so tightly together like cordwood on end that if they slept at all, it was standing up. With little water and no food, many starved to death or suffocated—a few “losses” apparently just the cost of doing business for their captors.
Eventually, 30,000 slaves a year were being forced through Elmina’s Door of No Return for the wretched journey to the New World. In all, between 11 and 15 million slaves arrived alive. How many more millions died is simply unknown.
For the young Dutch woman trying to absorb all this history, the feeling of guilt at the inhumanity of her forbears was just too much.
At least she felt guilt and knew her fortune owed much to the past misfortune of others. Perhaps our glowing pride blinds us to our own dark moments in history.
How often have I heard about how Canada welcomed black Loyalists after the American Revolution in 1776 and how different this liberal attitude was from the racist policies of the U.S. that became entrenched in the ensuing decades?
Many free blacks did come to Canada; so did many slaves of white Loyalists. In all, about 3,000 black Loyalists ended up in Nova Scotia in the early 1780s, their names recorded in the Book of Negroes, recently made famous by Lawrence Hill’s novel of the same name.
Promised the earth (literally), few if any of these refugees received their land grant. After a decade of racial tension and broken promises, in 1792, exactly 220 years to the day that I am writing this, on Jan. 15, almost 1,200 men, women and children sailed for Sierra Leone where they founded Freetown, now that country’s capital.
But black history in Canada is not just about slavery. I remember as a child driving through Africville on the northern tip of the Halifax peninsula.
What I recall most of all were the vibrantly coloured houses.
Africville is one of Canada’s dark events. Denied proper civic services such as water and sewer, the community was expropriated and bulldozed in the 1960s to allow industrial expansion in Halifax and to provide the ramps for the second bridge to Dartmouth.
Crammed into a terrible housing project and deprived of their church—the anchor of the village—the community descended into violence, drugs and crime.
Only now is it beginning to pull itself out of a mire not of its own making, while the citizens of Halifax and Dartmouth have prospered.
The history of Africans, free and slave, in North America cannot be reduced to a month each year, but perhaps it is a way of reminding us of events our otherwise selective memory would prefer to forget.
Presbyterians have an extraordinary opportunity to learn more of the past and connect with modern Africa through the Presbyterian Church of Ghana’s relationship with the Ghanaian congregations in Toronto and Montreal. Recently, the Presbyterian Church of Nigeria established a mission in Toronto which provides another connection.
We may not all be as overwhelmed as the young woman in Elmina, but we could use a little more learning and a lot more humility when it comes to our complicated past.

About the author

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David Harris is the publisher and editor of the Presbyterian Record.

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