Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Canada's First Race Riot

Slavery didn't last very long in Toronto. The man who founded our city, Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe, wanted it banned from the beginning. But since some of the men he'd chosen to help him rule Upper Canada were slave owners, he was forced to compromise.

Slaves who had already been brought into the new province would live the rest of their lives as property. But no new slaves would be allowed on our soil and any new children born into slavery would be freed when they turned 25. They say it was the very first law to limit slavery in the history of the British Empire.

So when the English finally abolished it altogether in the 1830s, Toronto was already slave-free. By then, Canada had become a beacon of hope for Black Americans escaping to freedom along the Underground Railroad. And there are stories of slave hunters – men who came north to capture former slaves and take them back – being violently run out of town.

But there was still a shitload of racism in this city. And some of it came from the most powerful people in Upper Canada. Like, say, the man who the British had chosen to be the new Lieutenant Governor of the province: Sir Francis Bond Head.

Bond Head was one of the crappiest rulers our city has ever known. He was sent to Toronto (the capital of Upper Canada) from England to make progressive reforms, but turned out to be a die-hard conservative whose incompetence and corruption helped push liberals into full-blown rebellion. And just a few months before his army clashed with William Lyon Mackenzie's rebels on Yonge Street, he was behind a particularly shameful moment in the history of Canadian government.

In the spring of 1837, a man by the name of Solomon Moseby escaped from slavery in Kentucky. His "master", David Castleman, was a rich and well-connected horse breeder. (His nephew would one day lose a presidential election to Abraham Lincoln.) That May, Moseby took off on one of his master's horses and rode north. It took him two long, dangerous months to make it to Canada, but he did eventually escape across the border and into Niagara-on-the-Lake. There, it seemed like he was finally free.

But his owner wasn't ready to give up. Back in Kentucky, Castleman had the courts charge Moseby with theft – for having taken the horse. And then he followed him to Canada with an arrest warrant. Our government had already made it perfectly clear that we wouldn't return former slaves back to the United States to live a life of servitude. But we did return criminal fugitives to face American justice. When Castleman showed up in Niagara-on-the-Lake with the warrant, Moseby was immediately arrested and thrown into jail. It would be up to Bond Head to decide whether or not he'd be sent back south, where Castleman promised to make an example out of him.

Niagara-on-the-Lake rose up in protest. The town, so close to the American border, was home to lots of escaped slaves. They say a full tenth of the population was Black. Many of the town's leading citizens, including the mayor, signed a petition demanding that Bond Head release the escaped slave. Hundreds of supporters spent weeks camped outside the court house where Moseby was being held, promising that if the authorities tried to move him, they would be there to stand in the way. They even offered Castleman $1,000 to cover the cost of the horse and his travel expenses. He, of course, refused. This wasn't about the horse; this was about making sure slaves couldn't get away.

Sir Francis Bond Head
It was September by the time Bond Head announced his decision: "this land of liberty," he declared, "cannot be made an Asylum for the guilty of any colour." He ordered that Moseby be extradited back to the United States.

But it wouldn't easy. The crowd of supporters gathered outside the courthouse made sure of that. Moseby was led out of the court house in handcuffs by constables and soldiers with bayonets drawn. They loaded him into a carriage, but before it could move it was surrounded by hundreds of Black Canadians. A throng of women blocked the entrance to the bridge the carriage needed to cross, singing hymns and standing their ground. The local preacher who had been leading the protests, Herbert Holmes, got in front of the horses. Another man, Jacob Green, stuck a fence post in the spokes of the carriage's wheels.

That's when the sheriff ordered his men to open fire. Holmes was shot through the heart. Green was run through with a bayonet. They both died. Others in the crowd were slashed and bloodied. Some threw stones. Dozens were arrested. But it worked. In the confusion, Moseby slipped out of the carriage and out of his handcuffs (at least one witness claimed that his guard had left them loose on purpose; another that the blacksmith had intentionally forged them to be weak). In the days that followed, the government would put a price on his head, but years later, he'd travel to England and successfully win his legal freedom. In the end, he was allowed back to Niagara to live the rest of his life in peace.

Still, the extradition of former slaves would be an issue in Canada for decades to come. The last case wasn't heard until the 1860s, just before slavery was finally abolished in the United States. It seems that even in Canada, an escaped slave couldn't feel entirely safe.

That same autumn Solomon Moseby was fighting for his freedom, an English feminist and writer, Anna Brownwell Jameson, happened to be staying in Toronto. On a trip to Niagara-on-the-Lake, she met Sally Carter, one of the leaders of the protests. And then wrote about it:

"She was a fine creature, apparently about five-and-twenty, with a kindly animated countenance; but the feelings of exasperation and indignation had evidently not yet subsided. She told us, in answer to my close questioning, that she had formerly been a slave in Virginia; that, so far from being ill treated, she had been regarded with especial kindness by the family on whose estate she was born. When she was about sixteen her master died, and it was said that all the slaves on the estate would be sold, and therefore she ran away. 'Were you not attached to your mistress?' I asked. 'Yes,' said she, 'I liked my mistress, but I did not like to be sold.' I asked her if she was happy here in Canada? She hesitated a moment, and then replied, on my repeating the question, 'Yes—that is, I was happy here—but now—I don't know—I thought we were safe here—I thought nothing could touch us here, on your British ground, but it seems I was mistaken, and if so, I won't stay here—I won't—I won't! I'll go and find some country where they cannot reach us! I'll go to the end of the world, I will!' And as she spoke, her black eyes flashing, she extended her arms, and folded them across her bosom, with an attitude and expression of resolute dignity, which a painter might have studied; and truly the fairest white face I ever looked on never beamed with more of soul and high resolve than hers at that moment." 


The main image is a photo of the court house where the riot happened.

Anna Brownwell Jameson, while progressive for her time, could still be more than a bit condescendingly ethnocentric (as you can tell a bit from that excerpt). Her book, Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada, is full of interesting stuff from her travels here in 1836-37 though, so I'm thinking I'll be posting lots of quotes from it over the next while. You can read a volume of highlights from it in the much more terribly-titled Sketches in Canada, and rambles among the red men here.

The Solomon Moseby riot happened just a few years after the first race riot in Detroit's history, which was a similar story. In that case, it was Thornton Blackburn and his wife who escaped from slavery in Kentucky and ended up settling Toronto, where he founded our city's first cab company. You can read that story here.

I wrote about Bond Head's role in the Rebellions of 1837 in a post called "Bond Head The Bonehead" here.

And you can read more information about Solomon Moseby and the riot in places I've pieced all of this together from: here and here and here and this PDF here

The photo of the court house I found here

Update: Ooh cool. Mackenzie House tweeted some related William Lyon Mackenzie quotes from his paper, The Constitution, on September 27, 1837:  "Moseby was doomed by law to perpetual slavery in Kentucky – his master might buy and sell and torture him...not because he was a criminal, but because his complexion was dark...they say he mounted his tyrant's horse and sought a home and freedom in Upper Canada. This is his crime with Sir Francis!" Mackenzie, as I briefly mentioned in the post, was in a huge political battle with Sir Francis Bond Head in 1837 that would culminate in outright rebellion that December.


  1. Ugh, Francis Bond Head. Not so hot with First Nations, either, wanted them to just die out on Manitoulin Island.

  2. I live on the site of the courthouse and jail in the story. I tell people the race riot and runaway slave trial happened in my driveway . I don't think they belive me or the whole thing is so unimagineable that they are speechless. My home is the former guards quarters and the only remaining structure from the courthouse and jail complex.
    Mike Brown
    Niagara on the Lake

  3. Excellent research and writing to put together this story. My wife's great great grandfather, Pte. Lewis Toliver joined the "All Coloured Corps" at the age of 16. He served in Captain Sears' Niagara Company initially and then for others until 1849; a total of 11 years. Lewis eventually settled in Todmorden Mills (East York), married and had a family. His great great granddaughter Nerene Virgin grew up in East York and is listed on their "Hall of Fame" website: http://bestofeastyork.com/about-us/ I think Pte Toliver would have been proud... Nerene is certainly proud of him.
    Alan Smith