Slavery in Canada (New France)

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The issue slavery in Canada has long been glossed-over by historians and by Canadian society in general. Substantive recognition of this past history of slavery did not begin until the 1960s. Slavery was actively practised in New France, both in the St. Lawrence Valley and in Louisiana. This institution, which endured for almost two centuries, affected the destiny of thousands of men, women, and children descended from Aboriginal and African peoples.

Origins of slavery in New France[edit]

Slavery was practiced in New France between 1632 and 1834, but became common only from the 1680s onwards. Initially, slavery in the colony was complicated by France's ethical stance on the matter: slave ownership in New France was not legally recognized, but it could still be justified since only the act of enslaving people was deemed deplorable, and not simply buying or receiving slaves. Slavery operated along these lines in the Caribbean (Rushforth 2012, p. 134). Only when the administration gave in to pressure from slave-purchasing colonial officials and issued the Raudot Ordinance of 1709 did slavery in New France simultaneously become legalized and legitimized in a way that attempted to mimic the chattel slavery of the French Caribbean.

Although the majority of slaves in New France's history were natives, attempts to increase the number of black slaves began as early as the 1680s. In 1688, François Ruette d'Auteuil, the Attorney General of the colony's Sovereign Council, went to Paris in order to seek permission for the importation of black slaves from the Caribbean. His attempts were initially met with opposition: the king and Ruette d'Auteuil's political enemies alike believed the climate of New France was simply too cold to support such slaves. The king eventually capitulated, however, and authorized importation from France’s Caribbean colonies. Nevertheless, the amount of black slaves in New France remained low compared to the amount of Native slaves, especially in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Colonial records show that there were only eleven African slaves in New France between 1689 and 1709 (Rushforth 2012, pp. 152–153).

Even after the capitulation of Montreal to the British in 1760, the French government negotiated that black and native slaves remain the property of their masters.[1] Slaves could be acquired on the public market, by donation or through inheritance but a slave rarely changed master. Prices varied with time and according to the age, health, gender and skills of the slave. Nonetheless, black slaves soon appeared to be an expensive commodity. While the price of a black slave varied from 200 to 2400 livres between 1737 and 1797, a native slave cost between 120 and 750 livres.[1]

Royal Edict of 1685[edit]

The Black Code was essentially designed for African slaves whom the French had used extensively in the French Caribbean colonies since 1685. It was composed of 60 articles and was meant to offer some protection to slaves. The Code, moreover, extended toward “Panis” slaves in New France but its legal application and enforcement remained limited due to the close relationship between French and native tribes.[2]

The Code outlined the rights and obligations of both slaves and their owners. Slaves could not make contracts, own land, testify, or be sentenced publicly. Because they did not have the status of a civil individual, slaves could not be charged criminally as citizens. If slaves were found to have physically harmed or damaged something or someone, the owner or owners were financially and personally responsible for the damages caused. If the owner failed to pay for the damages, his slave could be forcefully removed from his possession.[2]

The owner, additionally, had the right to whip or chain his slave. However, it was illegal to mutilate, kill or torture slaves. Although the Code classified slaves as objects much like a piece of furniture, owners, nevertheless, had obligations toward their slaves. They had to feed, cloth, care for in case of injury or sickness, and provide for aging and crippled slaves.[2]

With regards to births and marriages, under the Black Code, there was no legal recognition of the father’s situation; a marriage between a free man and a slave woman was not legally recognized. A child born from a free man and a slave woman was considered a slave child; a child born from a free man and free slave woman, in contrast, was a free child.[2]

In 1724, modifications were made to the Black Code. After its revision, the Code "insisted on the basic humanity of the slave: each was to be instructed, baptized, and ministered unto as a Christian, families were to be recognized, and freed slaves were to receive the rights of common citizens — in theory the African could aspire to become a Frenchman".[2] In practice, nevertheless, there was a huge gap between the laws written in the Black Code and reality since the large majority of French colonists ignored the existence of the document. It was an exception, moreover, for a slave to become free. And while it has been argued that the French were more lenient and tolerant towards their slaves, in comparison to the British or the Dutch, the living conditions and treatment of slaves, however, was still determined by the attitude of their owners.[2]

Enslavement of indigenous people by whites[edit]

The Native slave system that emerged in New France blossomed in large part because of the noteworthy practice of exchanging captives as a means of forming alliances, a custom that had been dominant among natives of the Pays d'en Haut long before the arrival of Europeans. For both native and European societies, captive exchanges grew to be an important way of establishing or stabilizing relations between the oftentimes intermingling communities. Europeans involvement in such exchanges began in the 1660s when the French first moved into the Pays d’en Haut. In the 1670s, relations between the Pays d’en Haut Natives and the French began to develop in earnest due to the growth of the fur trade (Rushforth 2012, p. 143). For the natives, slaves were a sign of power, a sign that enemies could be defeated and subjugated. They were also meant to represent the shared interests of two parties (Rushforth 2012, p. 144). Eventually, slave exchanges included French merchants in Montreal and Quebec City. Even as this practice developed, especially among the elite, officials both in New France and France, nevertheless, initially discouraged it as they understood the fact that Indians considered these exchanges to be not just mere purchases of laborers but, instead, procedures for starting or ending peaceful relations. In essence, natives, placed deeper meaning on these exchanges than did their French counterparts.

The Great Peace of Montreal in 1701 changed the nature of French and native alliances: a precarious settlement was reached between the French and the natives. Thus, colonial bureaucrats began to value slave exchanges more greatly. Another reason for change of heart was the fact that traders, merchants, and officials had been purchasing native captives in order to sell them to the British colonies to the south. Not only did this ongoing trade mean potential loss of revenues for the French, but also because of tense relations with the British in general, French officials began to worry that alliances would form between the natives and the British against the French in times of war.

In the colony, as the number of panis slaves increased, their sale became increasingly notarized.[1]

The tension between considering natives as potential trade partners and as potential slaves arose simultaneously. Indeed, the natives were potential suppliers of furs, but if France treated them as potential slaves, it would upset the complex system of French-native alliances. However, it is believed that Louis XIV abstained from taking a hard-and-fast position because of France’s traditional policy toward natives. This policy did not aim to destroy the native groups or force them to resettle far from colonial settlements but, instead, supported missionary work directed to educate and convert them. As soon as 1627, for example, baptized natives could even become French citizens with full rights.

France, moreover, was the only European nation to grant this preferential treatment to Natives, which is why Louis XIV refused to sanction slavery by statute for so long. The colony’s judges, therefore, could follow custom in regarding these slaves as slaves.[1] Native slaves were brought primarily to Montreal. In New France, where the number of available workers was small and competing economically with the Caribbean seemed realizable (at least for a time), native slaves served primarily as labourers, farm workers, and domestics (Rushforth 2012, p. 154).

Enslavement of black people by whites[edit]

It is believed that the first black slave, Olivier le jeune, belonged to Guillaume Couillart and was baptized in 1629. In the colony, due to war against Britain, the supply of black slaves was uncertain and mainly came from Guinea. With war ended in 1713 with the Treaty of Utrecht, Canadians could potentially now get more cargo of black slaves. Due to the terms of the treaty, nonetheless, French Canadians lost trading posts on Hudson Bay and saw the value of their paper money fall. Because of this, they were in less of a position to acquire expensive merchandise like slaves from Africa. This is why prospective owners turned to the native population.

By 1750, 3,800,000 slaves[3] from western Africa had been sent across the Atlantic. More than half of these slaves were sent to Brazil and other Spanish colonies in Central and South America. Close to 1,700,000 million[3] of them were sent to other European powers, such as the British, French, Dutch, and Danish, all of whom had colonies in the New World, too. Of the 3.8 million[3] slaves shipped across the Atlantic only 120,000[3] actually made it to North America and only 1,400[3] of them arrived in New France. By this time the colony’s territory stretched from the Gaspé Peninsula to Fort Detroit.[3]

Black slaves in New France represented a small proportion of the total population for the following reasons; first, commercial exchanges among French merchants and native tribes had become a custom by the 1750s, thus native slaves were cheaper to purchase. Second, the major sectors of the French Canadian economy (agriculture, fishing, and fur trade) were not as labour-intensive and profitable as tobacco, cotton, and sugarcane, all of which required large number of individuals to be enslaved. Second, agricultural production in New France remained limited because of the harsh winter climate; the majority of inhabitants, consequently, did not have the capital or resources to purchase black slaves. Third, the Saint Lawrence River was closed by ice from October as late as May. The fact that New France was isolated from the rest of the world for almost eight months of the year added greatly to the difficulty and cost of purchasing slaves from merchants who traveled much more frequently to markets in the south.[4][5]

However, by 1783, the number of black slaves rapidly increased with the arrival of British loyalists to Canada, which more or less coincided with the decline of the native slave market. (Trudel, deux siècles, 86). The normalization of black slaves’ trade is also explained by the reprobation of slavery by the Church and by the demographic decline of the native population due to diseases as soon as the 16th century. In Louisiana and the Caribbean, the French administration prohibited the slave trade involving natives but by 1700, this rule was neglected.[2]

Slavery on Ile Royale[edit]

The Louisbourg in the colony of Île-Royale (Cape Breton & Prince Edward Island) is one city of New France with official records of a black slave community. Louisbourg was an important trading port for the colony because of its key geographical location. It was the midpoint between Europe and France’s Caribbean colonies, and was not so subject to sea ice as the settlements to the west. Its economy depended on fishing, the military and trade.[3] It is believed that hundreds of black slaves traveled through the port aboard merchant vessels; only 216 black individuals,[3] nevertheless, were actually enslaved on Ile Royale. The majority of these slaves were the property of the wealthiest individuals of Ile Royale: merchants, government and military officials. Owning slaves increased one’s living conditions and social status within the colony.[3]

The slaves of Ile Royale had very different backgrounds as some came from the Dutch West Indies while others directly came from Guinea.[3] However, despite not having the same heritage or ethnicity, they had the common experience of being slaves. What is interesting about Ile Royale is that slaves on the island had a variety of occupations that included being servants, gardeners, bakers, tavern keepers, stonemasons, soldiers, sailors, fisherman and hospital workers. What is most important about this specific part of the French colony of New France is that the enslaved blacks became citizens of the community; not only were they mothers and fathers who became part of a growing African-French colonial culture but they also helped shape colonial life, too.[3]

Slavery in Louisiana[edit]

Although Louisiana was established much later than other colonies within New France in 1699, it still acquired blacks far more quickly than Canada as it had the advantage of being closer to the Caribbean market. It also had the opportunity to exploit the native market of the vast Mississippi valley. In Louisiana, plantation owners preferred African slaves; some still kept natives as maids, nevertheless.

Some Panis were enslaved by the beginning of the 18th century, even though it was prohibited officially. These slaves were captured by other native tribes during conflicts and then sold to the French.

In 1717, John Law advised the Mississippi Company to import black slaves into Louisiana in order to develop the economy with plantations. Around 6,000 black slaves were brought in between 1719 and 1743. Some slaves were sent to the Illinois Country, in Upper Louisiana, New France, a part of French North America, to work in the plantation fields and lead mines.

The Black Code regulated the condition of the slaves just like in the other French colonies, aside from Canada. The Black Code, nevertheless, was not highly respected and slaves enjoyed relative autonomy. During their days off, for example, slaves could cultivate a piece of land and then sell their produce. Others would hunt, log wood, or take care of cattle; all of these actives could occur far from the plantation. Even though interracial marriages and gatherings of slaves was prohibited, both of these practices were nonetheless recorded. Despite this small window of freedom, the lives and work of slaves remained extremely difficult. Harvest period was the most disagreeable season for them. Their belongings, in addition, were sparse and usually only consisted of a few personal items. Still, slave revolts were rare in Louisiana.

The slaves also contributed to the creolization of this part of the colony. Even if the Black Code mandated that slaves receive a Christian education, most continued their native practices.

Enslavement of whites by indigenous people[edit]

Man Holding a Calumet. Louis Hennepin, Nouvelle découverte d'un très grande pays situé dans l'Amériques. Utrecht, 1697. Courtesy Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library, College of William and Mary. Taken from Rushforth, 2012.

Enslavement was deeply entrenched in the military and political culture of the natives of the Pays d'en Haut, the region ostensibly defined to the south by the mouth of the Missouri River, to the east by Lake Huron, and to the west by the Minnesota River. Indeed, the Sioux, Illinois, Crees, Miamis, and Ojibwes (to name a few) performed raids on enemies during which they enslaved women and men alike.[6] Slave raids were motivated either by revenge or by the perceived need to weaken another potentially threatening group (Rushforth 2012, p. 37). The fear of such raids occurring tended to influence the behaviour of natives. For example, at the centre of native diplomacy were ceremonies involving the calumet, a ceremonial pipe. During these ceremonies, the warriors of one group would offer the calumet to their guests as a sign of friendship and alliance and would recount the stories of all the slaves they had captured. The guests, wishing to avoid the fate of those slaves, tended to accept the friendship (Rushforth 2012, pp. 30–33).

American Indian Slave Halter. Eighteenth Century, Great Lakes Region. Colonial Williamsburg Collection, 1996-816. Courtesy The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Taken from Rushforth, 2012.

Europeans were also subjected to enslavement and slave raids, since they began developing relations and alliances with the Pays d’en Haut Natives in the 1660s and 1670s and thus became involved in Native conflicts (Rushforth 2012, p. 139). One such slave, Louis Hennepin, a Belgian-born Récollet missionary, was captured by a group of Siouan-speaking natives after he identified himself as an ally of the Algonquians, the enemies of his captors. Hennepin was ceremonially adopted as a replacement for the war chief Aquipaguetin’s son who had recently died. Even though he was ceremonially integrated into a native family, Hennepin was not treated as well as actual native family members. He was beaten, poorly, fed, and subjected to forced labour (Rushforth 2012, pp. 15–17).

Hennepin’s fate was not uncommon given the natives' understanding of slavery. For the natives, enslavement did not simply consist of capturing an enemy, treating them poorly, and forcing them to work; rather, it involved rituals and practices designed to domesticate the captive. In fact, the Anishinaabe verb meaning enslave meant to make someone a dog; a word for slave used by Miami-Illinois speakers also meant dog (Rushforth 2012, pp. 35–36). The process of domestication had a number of stages: Firstly, before raids, feasts were held at which dog meat was eaten, a way of expressing the connection between consuming flesh and enslavement in native culture. Secondly, the slaves were captured and, at night, they were bound to stakes which symbolized their subordinate status. Next, while the slaves were being led back to the villages, they were beaten and verbally abused. Fourthly, the members of the village gathered to torture the slaves and mark them as part of the society by maiming their hands or face or by cutting off their noses. Finally, slaves were sorted: some were killed, and some were kept alive either to replace dead villagers (like Hennepin) or to be given as gifts in the alliance-making process (Rushforth 2012, pp. 37–45).

The Panis and black slave population[edit]

By the end of the French regime in Canada in 1759, there were around 4200 slaves,[1] 1443 of whom were blacks while the majority were Panis, who made up 65 percent of the total slave population. The term “Panis” actually refers to a group that included more than 20 indigenous societies (e.g. the Meskwaki, Panismahas, Panetoca, Pana, Paneake).[5] Native slaves were usually young and mainly female. Native slaves, although constituting the majority of the slave population, made up only about 5 percent of the total population of New France. Unlike in the British colonies and Louisiana, black slaves were not a major part of the slave system that developed in Canada. Nevertheless, the number of black slaves increased from 300 to about 800 by the late-18th century, mainly because slave-owning Loyalists were forced to find refuge in Canada during the American Rebellion.

Living conditions of slaves[edit]

Slaves were usually purchased before their thirtieth birthday as older black slaves rapidly lost value. With regards to native slaves, their masters preferred to obtain them young so that he or she fully adapted to the French way of life and did not attempt to go back to his/her tribe.[1] Nonetheless, slaves died on average before turning 20. Their burials proceeded like that of a free citizen.[1]

Natives performed many essential tasks by working as domestics or farmers. Their tasks consisted of attending the gardens, cutting wood, feeding animals, transporting water, and completing domestic tasks such as cleaning the house, cooking, and washing clothes. French families started to purchase them as laborers in increasing numbers, especially around the beginning of the 18th century. Because the colony consistently struggled to attract an adequate number of workers, especially after the importation of engagés ended in 1666, native slave labor was a key component of completing necessary work to keep the colony afloat. Because women were less numerous than men, French men were allowed to marry native women.[1] The presence of slaves contributed to the interbreeding of the Canadian society, through formal or informal unions.[1]

Because crimes were usually isolated, corporal punishment in New France was usually less severe than in the French West Indies. Slaves were punished on the same terms as people of a free condition. When slaves were found guilty of a crime they would be deported, whereas Canadians were hanged for the very same offenses. The law was rigorously applied and slaves received the same treatment as a free person. For instance, slaves would appear before a judge just like a free citizen of the colony. In Canada, 80% of the slaves were baptized, which allows for their count thanks to their registration, even if it was anonymous.

Personal history of slaves[edit]

Pierre was one of the first recorded slaves in New France. In 1690, he appeared on the official hospital records at the age of 15. Between 1690 and 1692, his Jesuit master who identified Pierre as his "domestic" placed him twice in the care of the hospital. He was of Panis origin; initially captured in the Illinois territories, he belonged to the Jesuit missionaries of Quebec.[7]

Marie-Joachim was an enslaved Mesquaki (Fox) Indian who belonged to Julien Trottier dit Desrivieres, a wealthy merchant of Montreal. She was brought to Montreal as a slave around 1712 but only appeared in official records in 1725 at the age of 22 due to her involvement in a criminal trial. She was accused of stealing trade goods from her master's warehouse with the intention of giving them to her French lover. While she was sentenced to have her hands cut off, she was sold, instead to a master in Quebec City where she worked as a domestic slave. She eventually died a few years later in her late 20s.[7]

Marie-Marguerite was an enslaved Plains Indian who belonged to Marc-Antoine Huard de Dormicourt, a naval officer from Quebec City. Marie-Marguerite appeared in the record in 1740 in her late twenties when she sued Marc-Antoine Huard de Dormicourt for her freedom. Her trial ignited a debate within the population of New France because she was challenging the legality of her enslavement and forcing inhabitants to question the legal boundaries of slavery. Unfortunately for Marie-Marguerite, however, she lost her appeal and was sent to work on a Caribbean sugar plantation.[7]

Charlotte-Barbe was an enslaved Plains Indian who belonged to Governor Charles de la Boische, Marquis de Beauharnois. Charlotte-Barbe appeared in the record in 1729 when she died at the age of 9. This governor held more than twenty enslaved natives at various times during his tenure.[7]

Marie-Joseph Angélique was one of New France's most well known slaves. While pregnant, she set her mistress' house on fire for revenge or to divert the attention away from her escape. She ran away with the father of her child, who was also a black slave and belonged to another owner. The fire that she started ended up burning part of Montreal and a large portion of the Hôtel-Dieu. Later on she was caught and sentenced to death.

Marie Louise is a famous figure for black slaves in New France but more specifically on Ile Royale. She was the third enslaved woman to be freed on the island. On January 21, 1754, she married 25-year-old Louis Coustard who had arrived to Louisbourg three years earlier from the port of LaRochelle in France. He was the only white man to marry a black slave on Ile Royale. Prior to her marriage, Marie Louise had given birth to 7 illegitimate children, all of whom had to become slaves because she had not yet been free. With Louis she gave birth to two children, both of whom inherited free status from their father.[3]

Road to abolition[edit]

A side effect of the Treaty of Paris was that Panis enslavement in North America greatly diminished and eventually disappeared at the turn of the century, most likely due to harsh economic conditions.[2] In 1793, importing black slaves became prohibited in Upper Canada, but it was not until the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 that the institution finally was abolished in the entire British Empire, though on a gradual basis.[8]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i Trudel, Marcel (2004). Deux siècles d'esclavage au Canada. Montreal. p. 65. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Gilles, David (2008–2009). "La norme esclavagiste, entre pratique coutumière et norme étatique: les esclaves panis et leur statut juridique au Canada (XVIIe-XVIIIe s)". Ottawa Law Review. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Donovan, Kenneth (1995). "Slaves and their Owners in Ile Royale 1713-1760". Acadiensis: 30. 
  4. ^ Greer, Allan (1997). The People of New France. University of Toronto Press. ISBN 0-8020-7816-8. 
  5. ^ a b Rushforth, Brett (2003). "A Little Flesh We Offer You: The Origins of Indian Slavery in New France". The William and Mary Quarterly. JSTOR 3491699. 
  6. ^ Rushforth, Brett. 2012. Bonds of alliance: Indigenous and Atlantic Slaveries in New France. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. Print. p. 20
  7. ^ a b c d Rushforth, Brett; Kahn, Andrew (18 January 2016). "Native American Slaves in New France". Slate. 
  8. ^ Oldfield, Dr John (February 17, 2011). "British Anti-slavery". BBC History. BBC. Retrieved January 2, 2017. the new legislation called for the gradual abolition of slavery. Everyone over the age of six on August 1, 1834, when the law went into effect, was required to serve an apprenticeship of four years in the case of domestics and six years in the case of field hands