Black Harbour's fiction as history
New book repeats same falsehoods as earlier CBC series
Boulder’s book version of the three part CBC series on Africans in Newfoundland and Labrador by fiction writer Xaiver Michael Campbell and CBC producer Heather Barrett recycles the same half-baked bits of assumption and sloppy research to produce the same modern, popular racism as the series.
Campbell and Barrett wanted to “open a can of worms” to borrow their words from the preface and tell the story of slavery in the colony of Newfoundland that has been, until now, supposedly hidden by unnamed, sinister forces. Unfortunately, they have absolutely no evidence of whatever it is they thought was there.
The result is a book the publishers puffed up with large type and hard covers plus a dust jacket to make it look more substantive than it is. The book is a string of 40-odd chapters, some as short as two pages long, all printed in an unusually large-sized typeface, as well as a bunch of appendices, all of which covers a mere 182 pages in between a pair of hard covers. There is no coherent sequence to the chapters’ arrangement that leads one easily from one topic to another. There are jumps here and there, both geographically and topically.
Most of the handful of published works listed on two pages in the back as references are not about Newfoundland and Labrador and of the ones that are noted in the text, the most used source was the ancient and largely unreliable history of Newfoundland by D.W. Prowse. Much of the book is about somewhere else with more coming from the imposition of assumptions and assertions onto Newfoundland and Labrador by people unfamiliar with the people, the place, or its history. Given the subtitle holds this book out as a history of people in Newfoundland and Labrador, that’s a devastating failure.
While there are some chapters that could be decent first drafts, many are appallingly bad. Heather Barrett’s chapter on colonies, for example, - a mere two pages - is not up to the standard of a junior high school report and shows no sign she or Campbell read anything worthwhile in trying to understand how Newfoundland and Labrador fit into the Atlantic world from the arrival of Europeans until more recent times.
There is one mention of a useful book, namely Peter Pope’s history of fishing settlements on the English shore in Newfoundland in the 1600s, but that is buried in the back as an apparent afterthought. Regular readers will recognise this as one of three books recommended in the Victoria Day weekend edition of the weekly reading list here at Bond Papers.
This omission by Barrett and Campbell is telling since Pope refutes their premise tidily, namely that like all colonies, Newfoundland was built on enslaved labour. Among other things, Pope compares Newfoundland with Quebec and Barbados, noting the absence of any enslaved Africans at all in surveys done at the time of the local economy. Not a handful. None.
As with all the books, art installations and the CBC series supposedly about Black people/slaves in Newfoundland and Labrador, this is the central problem. If there was slavery as widespread as Campbel and others suggest, where are their descendants? Literally every colony in North America and the Caribbean that relied on enslaved people is marked by their descendants in the hundreds and thousands and tens of thousands. In Newfoundland adn Labrador there are none.
Barrett and Campbell, like the historians, artists, and other so-called experts that Barrett and Campbell rely on even try to explain this blatant discrepancy. Some - like the Dalhousie historian Afua Cooper - simply have no idea about Newfoundland and Labrador at all. She, like the others in the book and series, lump disparate places together as if there were no meaningful differences among. Yet there were meaningful ones.
English plantations in Newfoundland did not need enslaved Africans since they had plenty of cheap and free labour from other sources, all of which could be worked, beaten, abused and in some instances killed without any consequence on the frontier called Newfoundland. The reason why people in some colonies worried of slaves escaping to Newfoundland from the rest of North America or the Caribbean is precisely because this was a frontier, where laws were hard to enforce.
Xaiver Campbell snorts derisively at the idea this was possible yet it iswell supported by evidence. American historian Barbara Fields has explained this for decades. Slavery was not about race, Fields has pointed out. It was about economics. So what about 1619, Fields has asked rhetorically of the idea slavery arrived in what is now the United States with the first boatload of enslaved Africans in 1619. What about 1607, she retorts, when Europeans - Irish, poor English, Scots, and Welsh - were indentured servants, sold, traded as chattel. Lost or won in gambling. Hunted if they ran away. Beaten if they misbehaved.
This is precisely the state in Newfoundland, which was a seasonal fishing station with a few thousand permanent inhabitants for most of its early European history. By the time permanent settlement exploded - at the end of the 18th and early 19th centuries - enslavement of Africans was on the wane in British colonies. The only examples Barrett, Campbell and others have of enslaved people are domestic servants enslaved elsewhere and brought to Newfoundland, where, like England, there were no laws that allowed enslavement.
This is a crucial point for the whole of this book since English law and english attitudes prevailed in Newfoundland throughout this time. Enslaved people brought to England often sued in english courts for freedom or for wages. Some won their freedom on the grounds that there was no legal basis for slavery in England. Those who sued for wages were often unsuccessful because, as the courts argued, they were simply unsalaried workers like others. That they had been bought like property in some other place was irrelevant.
What’s important here is not the pretension that slavery did not exist but that legally, English law rationalised that unpaid labour was unpaid labour, regardless of the race of the person doing the work. The point aligns with Fields. This becomes important in the story of Katherine, an African woman who Barrett and Campbell present as evidence of wide-spread enslavement in Newfoundland that was no on permitted here but supported by the local authorities.
What they do not point out is that in 1777, the Governor revoked the liquor licence held by John Phillips, the purported owner of Katherine. His offence was beating his servant Katherine. Barrett quotes historian Neil Kennedy: “She tries to flee his house and the governor tries to intervene as a justice of the peace to protect Katherine by placing her in jail. But Phillips won’t allow her to leave his house.” She’s eventually freed by the governor but as Barrett attributes Kennedy with saying, this “confirmed that she was an enslaved woman.”
Actually, it doesn’t. What the story does confirm is the extent to which physical abuse and indeed enslavement was *not* tolerated in Newfoundland, the colony, and that the colony’s ultimate local authority was prepared not only to suspend Phillips’ way of making a living but also of taking the woman into custody to protect her. were she legally enslaved, there’d have been no action action him for abusing what would have legally been his property.
The governor’s treatment of the woman is consistent with English legal treatment of other Africans brought to places like England where the law did not allow enslavement. Another story of Dinah and her family ignores the law at the time with respect to children under the age of majority, regardless of race, not proof that the children could be enslaved after the end of slavery in the British Empire in 1834. The fact the person on whom Barrett and Campbell relied in this story has academic credentials does not make her claims magically true or even well-founded. what’s more, they do cite Jerry Bannister’s landmark history of the development of the Newfoundland legal system. it would only have taken a short leap to move from Bannister to the other works already available about the legal status of supposedly enslaved Africans in England and the rest of the United Kingdom.
One of the books listed in the May 2022 reading list was Untold Histories. It “looks in detail at the experiences of the average black person in England and Wales during the period of the British slave trade. Drawing on a database which is the most extensive of its kind, it reveals for the first time information about sex ratios, ages, from where in the world they came, and how they were treated by the criminal justice system. As well as unique statistical data, there are the life stories of ordinary individuals and how they integrated into society.”
As the publisher’s blurb explains,
This book overturns many of the conventional assumptions that have been made about their lives. They were not enslaved, stigmatized outsiders, but woven into English society as government officials, defenders of the country, tradesmen, entertainers, and founders of families who have left a legacy of their presence in the form of descendants that, in some cases, can be traced to the present day.
The approach is factual rather than theoretical, using the techniques of the genealogist to reconstruct individual lives. It is written in a lucid, accessible style that will make it essential reading not just for academics, but for those who are interested in this aspect of English history and may want to learn how to find out more about the black people in their own localities.
Another useful source for those interested in understanding events at the time is Freedom Seekers, which features “a series of original case studies on those enslaved people who escaped captivity, this volume provides a rich source of information about slavery in eighteenth-century mainland Britain and the “freedom seekers” therein. Using maps, photographs, newspaper advertisements, and more, the book details escape routes, the networks of slaveholders, and the community of people of color [sic] across the London region.”
This refutes definitively other comments made by Dale Jarvis and Kennedy that suggest that the absence of references to Africans in local official records was a deliberate effort to hide slaves. As Untold Histories makes clear, these supposed omissions reflect the irrelevance of race at the time to those keeping the records, not a desire to hide a dark secret.
There are some signs that some of the people the authors spoke to are aware of the world of the Atlantic before 1834, one more complex than the colony = slave, slave = black string of assumptions that underpin this book. But they are scarce and for the most part historian Neil Kennedy’s word get easily laced into the superficial perspective of both the book and the series.
This is now old stuff to regular readers and frankly, the bulk of the story Barrett and Campbell concoct is already dealt with in a column published here here not long after the series appeared [above] or in another column that reviewed a book about remains uncovered in Labrador. [below]
There were undoubtedly both free and eventually enslaved Africans in and around Newfoundland. None of this is secret. None of it is hidden. The story is merely one people have not asked much about and, as Barrett and Campbell make plain, are still not interested in telling unless they can do their own job of misleading and misrepresenting and ignoring so that their result fits into currently popular tropes, including the racist ones that dominate parts of Canadian society these days like universities and the CBC.
The full story of Africans in Newfoundland and Labrador waits for something far better than the Al Capone’s vault school of gotcha journalism and self-referential fiction-writing of this series and now book.
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