Free and Enslaved Africans in Newfoundland and Labrador
History is seldom hidden. We simply need to look.
The first Black person – the first sub-Saharan African – to set foot in Newfoundland was probably a sailor on an English supply ship involved in the fishery sometime in the first 150 years or so after Cabot’s voyage.
And he was a free man.
He was not enslaved.
The reasons are easy to understand.
Newfoundland was never a colony of settlement for any of the European counties who came here. It was an industrial enterprise. In one sense, Newfoundland resembled British or otherEuropean colonies. But in other ways it was very different. The population was very small - fewer that 20,000 toward the end of the 18th century - and a vast territory with very few Indigenous people.
Three things set Newfoundland apart. First, Europeans came to Newfoundland in the late 15th century to fish. The Spanish, French, and Portuguese cured their fish at sea and only needed to come ashore, if at all, for fresh water and wood to repair their ships. They didn’t establish any shore stations at all except at Red Bay. There, Basque fishermen needed large buildings to process the whales caught in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and in the Labrador sea near their settlement.
The English dried their fish in the air and cured them with salt. That process required buildings on shore. They needed buildings to clean the fish and split it. They needed large, raised platforms to spread the fish to dry in the sun and air. And they needed space in other buildings to salt the fish and store it for shipment back to England and on to markets in Europe and later other parts of North American and the Caribbean.
Ships from England came in the spring with crews and supplies. They built new shore premises or occupied the old ones and worked until the fall when they returned to England. Eventually, some fishing enterprises left behind a handful of crew purely to get an advantage for the next season’s fishing. Except for two small attempts at permanent land colonization – at Cupids in 1610 and Ferryland a decade later – English enterprises did not try to exploit the island’s land resources. Their presence was small and limited to bays and coves dotted along the eastern coast south from Cape Bonavista to what is now Trepassey.
The second major difference between Newfoundland and English industrial enterprises on islands and on the mainland of the continent farther south is the near complete absence of any enslaved Africans as labour. While some English merchants trafficked in enslaved Africans to Spanish and Portuguese colonies in the middle on the 16th century, the English did not use enslaved labour in their own colonies until the mid-1600s.
In Newfoundland, planters typically did not use enslaved labour at all. Peter Pope’s history of Newfoundland plantations in the 17th century (the 1600s) found that while they did employ servants, the planters on the English Shore in Newfoundland used no enslaved people. In 1677, there were 163 identifiable planters. That’s it. They employed in total almost 900 servants but no enslaved people. In Bridgetown, Barbados, by contrast, 350 plantations employed 402 servants but three times as many - 1,276 – enslaved Africans.
The third difference was the size of the fishing enterprises compared to large farm plantations. In Newfoundland, typical fishing plantations consisted of a male planter, possibly his wife and children and only a handful of men hired during the season to fish. Yet the typical Newfoundland planter in Pope’s account employed proportionately more labour than those in far larger places like Bridgetown, Barbados or Montreal: In Newfoundland 8.4 servants per household versus 4.8 servants and enslaved people in Barbados. In Montreal, the ratio of servants per household was less than one. Newfoundland was a busy place but its scattered population had ample labour. It simply did not need enslaved people.
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This doesn’t mean there were no enslaved Africans at all in Newfoundland between 1660 and 1834, the years of English involvement in slavery. There is a reference in D.W. Prowse’s history of Newfoundland to a contender for appointment as governor during the reign of Charles II (1660 – 1685). Thomas Oxford had what Prowse described as a “negro house-servant”. Presumably, she was enslaved but the text Prowse relied on called her a “covenent” or contract servant. There are records of other Black people in prominent households in St. John’s or Ferryland, often described in records at the time as servants but most likely they were enslaved.
We can say « most likely » but it is difficult to be certain. To help understand, let’s look to England as the best parallel. Before it gained self-government, Newfoundland resembled England both in law and culture. And, while slavery flourished in England’s Caribbean and in the American colonies between 1660 and 1834, it was not common in England itself.
People of African origin or descent lived in what is now modern day England, Wales, and Scotland after the Roman conquest in 43 AD. They may have been enslaved in the same way that Romans indiscriminately enslaved all people. But many were soldiers, artisans, sailors, or officials of the Roman administration. That pattern continued long after the Romans.
Recent scholarship – like Miranda Kaufman’s Black Tudors – has identified several hundred people of African origin in England before 1603. They occupied different positions in English society, and all lived as free men and women. Kaufman illustrates her research with 10 specific stories, including a court trumpeter for Henry VIII and a salvage diver. In 1590, two years after the Spanish Armada, there were Black sailors living in Bristol, having escaped from Spanish ships or, more likely been wrecked along the coast. In their new home, and free, they crewed English ships that went around the world, including to Newfoundland. One of them may well have been the man who first stepped on a rocky beach along the east coast of Newfoundland.
That isn’t the only connection to Newfoundland. Kaufman also tells the story of a man named Edward Swarthye, who worked for wages as a porter for Sir Edward Wynter on his estate in Gloucestershire. Swarthye was not alone. Kaufman found evidence of other Africans working in prominent households for wages.
Swarthye administered a punishment - a whipping - to John Guye, who managed Wynter’s ironworks. Guye left his post, according to Wynter. James Buck, Wynter’s neighbour and rival put the whipping down to Guye’s “crime” of marrying James Buck’s daughter. Wynter had Swarthye whip Guye for his misdeeds, whichever cause you want to believe. To paraphrase Kaufman, the incident was shocking to the community not because of the colour of Swarthye’s skin but because Guye held a higher social status. Swarthye testified in court in a case about the whipping, showing that the court did not consider Swarthye to be enslaved or otherwise disqualified from giving evidence. Guye left Wynter’s employ, became prosperous on his own, and in 1610 founded a colony at Cupids.
Even after 1660, Africans and their descendants lived in England, some enslaved and some not. Kathleen Chater researched the lives of more than 5,000 people who appeared to be African or of African descent living in England, and Wales between 1660 and 1807. There was no legal recognition of slavery in England and Wales. Sometimes enslaved people sued for wages. Typically courts rationalized that these were just forms of contracted work, just with no wages. Chater found evidence like emancipation in wills, run-away slave advertisements etc. that make it plain some people did consider others to be slaves. But at the same time, and as with Kaufman’s work on an earlier period, Chater found a great many Africans lived and worked in England and Wales as undisputedly free men and women.
Chater’s research is especially useful to understand Newfoundland since, until the early 19th century, Newfoundland’s legal regime was closer to that of England than to one of the colonies that had local government and that passed laws that recognized and enabled enslavement. As Chater notes, few people except the well-to-do and criminals left any traces in official records. English government and religious records frequently made no mention at all of race, ethnicity, or even birthplace outside England unless the mention was relevant to civil or criminal case in court or would affect the treatment of a widow or child under the settlement and poor laws, in the case of church records for marriages and births. The same is generally true in records related to Newfoundland.
Tracing people who were from other countries than England who were not white posed a problem for both Kaufman and Chater. In fact, until 1991, the United Kingdom did not record ethnicity in its regular census of population. Older records of the kind both Kaufman and Chater used frequently describe people from any part of Asia or Africa as being Black. Sometimes they were called Moors, blackmoors, Ethiops, or, as with Edward Swarthye, their anglicized name was an obvious reference to their dark complexion.
The records can make firm conclusions about an individual sometimes hard to draw. Simon Newman’s 2022 study of men and women who escaped from slavery in London after 1660 sometimes relies on nothing more than an assumption about one or another piece of evidence. The reality is that a handbill or newspaper ad for help finding an escaped slave looks identical to one for a servant who had absconded from his or her contracted work. Both refer to the person placing the ad as a Master and describe the offence in identical terms. In some respects, their legal status was hard to distinguish, at least with modern eyes, as was their experience at the time. Life was brutal for most.
The same challenge faces any researcher in Newfoundland. But in the case of industrial slavery in Newfoundland, we have no records because there weren’t any fishing enterprises that relied on slave labour. A fishing ship from somewhere else that tried using an enslaved crew on the Grand Banks is part of the history of that place, not of Newfoundland.
The absence of industrial slavery in Newfoundland does not mean the people who lived here and who traveled to and from here did not know slavery existed. They most certainly did. They also accepted it as an everyday part of life even if it was not part of their everyday life.
There are many ways to show the connections between Newfoundland the rest of the English world in the 400 years after Europeans first arrived to fish. In 1741, a New York court banished to Newfoundland three men accused of leading a slave revolt. The courts sentenced some of the accused to death by fire. Others were deported by authorities to parts of the Caribbean. A woman was accused of being part of the revolt identified implicated three men. She was known, perhaps mockingly, as “Peggy the Newfoundland Beauty.”
Black men and women might well have come to Newfoundland in other ways. They were part of pirate crews, including those that sailed around Newfoundland and the coast of Labrador. Masters and officers on both English warships and commercial ships - especially after 1660 – might have personal servants who they considered to be their property, their slaves. David Kirke, who took over the Ferryland colony from George Calvert enslaved people and likely had one or two enslaved African servants at Ferryland when he visited there. Similarly, one of the later residents at Ferryland left instructions in his will, probated after 1790, that freed his Black slaves.
Ships from Newfoundland carried fish to markets and brought goods back. Some of them took contracts to carry human cargo – slaves – between parts of Africa and parts of the Caribbean and North America. People from Newfoundland encountered Black people who were on those and other ships or who were living - free or enslaved - in the ports they visited. And sometimes, their ships carried people in chains from African ports to slave markets in the New World.
A person in or from Newfoundland could work alongside Africans in other ways. The Royal Navy shows the different experience of Black people at the time. The Royal Navy chartered local boats crewed by slaves to navigate inland waters during the American Revolutionary War, although having enslaved people crewing British ships was unheard of. The RN also repaired ships during the Revolutionary War in yards along the North American coast that used enslaved Africans and their descendants as labour. Some 40 years later, though, British warships encouraged insurrection among those same people during the War of 1812 and the descendants of the men who crewed those galleys looked on the British as angels of freedom.
And some time afterward, a young man died on a ship, possibly an English ship as it sailed along the coast of Labrador. Erosion exposed his resting place at L’Anse au Loup. Archeologists were surprised to discover the remains were of a young Black man. Nothing about the grave – not the condition of the skeleton, not the grave goods found with him - suggested he was enslaved at the time of his death or that he had ever been enslaved.
Africans and their descendants were part of the world in which people in Newfoundland lived after Europeans arrived here in the late 1400s. Some were free. Some were enslaved. They all came on ships, sometimes on the same ships. Both free and enslaved, they worked here. They were few in number, though, far fewer than one could find in other parts of British North America and the Caribbean. The conditions in which they lived differed little from the overwhelming majority of men and women, those from southern England and Ireland who also came to Newfoundland to live, work, and eventually die.
Not all Black people were enslaved. Not all colonies relied on slave labour. In Newfoundland, there is simply no evidence of any large-scale presence of Black people, enslaved or not. There is no record because they and the records like ships’ manifests, bills of sale, articles of incorporation, or church records cannot record what did not exist.
That doesn’t mean there were no enslaved people in Newfoundland and Labrador, that people here were unaware of enslavement, or that those enslaved people who did live here had wonderful lives. What did happen in Newfoundland and Labrador was different, even if only from the assumptions based on modern prejudices that people make about enslaved men and women. That difference is real and it is valuable especially in a society that is generally and sometimes willfully ignorant of what happened in the past. History is seldom hidden. We merely have to look.
There is more to the story of Africans and Newfoundland.
We’ll come back to the story of enslaved Africans and Newfoundland in a column on the fish trade.
We’ll come back a third time to look at developments in the 19th and 20th centuries, particularly during and after the Second World War.
And in a fourth look at the issue, we’ll review CBC’s three part series that purported to be about slavery in Newfoundland. The series illustrates several persistent themes in writing about Newfoundland and Labrador history that reflects more the perspective of the writers than the evidence or the subject. It also reflects problems CBC sometimes has with presenting potentially controversial history to a modern audience. The working title is “The Valor and the Horror Meets Al Capone’s Vault.”
Wednesday: “Embracing Racism” (Indigenous relations in Newfoundland and Labrador before and after Confederation)