Black History Month 2008 at the ROM

Celebrate this February with two important new exhibits and concerts

The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), Canada’s largest museum covering world cultures as well as natural history, celebrates Black History Month 2008 with two new exhibits, The Ontario Bicentenary Exhibition: The Act to Abolish the British Slave Trade and Enslaved Africans in Upper Canada. Presented on Level 3 of the ROM’s Centre Block, the exhibits run from February 1 to 29, 2008. Both exhibits were produced by the Government of Ontario to mark the 200th anniversary of the 1807 Act that signalled the end of slavery in the British Empire.

“Our government is pleased to pay tribute to the many Black Ontarians who have helped weave the social, cultural and economic fabric of our province,” said Ontario Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Michael Chan.

The Act to Abolish the British Slave Trade

This informative exhibit provides the history of the transatlantic slave trade, which involved many countries including Canada, during the early period of French and English colonial rule. It also honours the memory of the enslaved Africans and the spirit of all who fought for freedom, equality and justice.

The story is told in eight thematic bilingual sections featuring maps, historic photographs and illustrations. The section titled African Empires provides an overview of the Empires of Ghana (9th to 13th centuries CE), Mali (13th to 15 centuries CE) and Songhai (14th to 17th centuries CE), which preceded the development of slavery. The Triangular Trade section describes the major transatlantic slave trade route, beginning from Portugal in 1441 and Britain in 1562, in which ships left Europe for Africa carrying manufactured goods, then crossed to the Americas loaded with African captives and other “commodities”, and returned to Europe carrying sugar, rum, rice, cotton, coffee, tea and other goods. The Middle Passage section details the arduous conditions endured by the captive
Africans in their up to nine-week trip from Africa’s west coast to the Americas. Narratives of the Enslaved features the stories of three remarkable people: Olivier Le Jeune, Canada’s first slave, who was purchased in Quebec in 1628; James Somerset, a freed slave who successfully sued for his freedom in London, England in 1772; and Marie-Joseph Angélique, a slave who was executed after having admitted, under torture, that she set fire to the City of Montreal in 1734.

The next section describes the 1793 Act to Prevent the Importation of Slaves into Upper Canada, the first statute to limit slavery in the entire British Empire, the passage of which was led by Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe. Fourteen years later, the British Parliament passed the 1807 Act to Abolish the Slave Trade, which outlawed the slave trade throughout the British Empire, and the use of British ships to transport enslaved Africans. The 1807 Act was significant for marking the beginning of the end of slavery, but total abolition in the British Empire really came with the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. The Slavery in Canada section demonstrates that between 1628 and 1834 the laws of Ontario, Quebec and the Atlantic provinces provided slaves with no legal rights and resulted in a harsh existence for them. The final section, Black Abolitionists, introduces some of the inspiring leaders who fought for the end of slavery and the end of racial discrimination in Canada, including Henry Bibb, Samuel Ringgold Ward, Josiah Henson, Harriet Tubman, Mary Ann Shadd Cary and Austin Steward.

Enslaved Africans in Upper Canada

Produced by the Archives of Ontario as a travelling exhibit, Enslaved Africans delves into the history and people who were connected to the practice of slavery in Upper Canada. Historical photographs and documents of slaves and their owners paint a clear picture of the personal experiences of five Ontario slaves.

Chloe Cooney was a Canadian slave sold to an American buyer in 1793; her resistance prompted John Graves Simcoe, Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada, to enact anti-slavery legislation. Sophia Berthen Pooley was an American slave sold to Mohawk chieftain Joseph Brandt, who owned some thirty slaves at his home in the Mohawk reserve in Upper Canada. Having escaped to Schenectady, New York, Canadian slave Henry Lewis wrote to his ex-owner in Niagara to buy his freedom. For some slaves, difficult behaviour was a form of resistance. Peggy was a slave considered so troublesome that she could not be sold by her owner. In 1804, the fortunate Dorinda Baker and her three children were unexpectedly freed after the drowning death of their owner, who had specified their freedom in his will.

Two ROM Concerts

In honour of Black History Month, the highly-regarded Xist Records artists, Sharon Riley & Faith Chorale, will perform a celebration concert at the ROM on Sunday, February 10th at 2:00 pm. This concert by Canada’s premier gospel choir is free with Museum admission.

Jazz and pop singer Molly Johnson and her Trio will also perform at the ROM during Black History Month on the evening of February 29 at 8 pm as part of ROM Half-Price Friday Nights, free with admission.