Slavery & Neglect

In New Brunswick: 1538-1928 .
An United Empire Loyalist elite aimed to establish a model colony under the "most gentlemanlike" government on earth. In August, 1784 the British separated New Brunswick from Nova Scotia and put its new colony at their service. They attempted to institute and legalize a system of enslavement of Blacks. Under the pauper system, this also extended to poor whites, who were bought and sold in New Brunswick until 1928.

Shunpiking Magazine No. 38

Scene from Dollar Woman.
Slavery no doubt existed in North America prior to the arrival of Europeans. But without written records, it's not clear if Aboriginal societies actually accepted slavery or not. What is certain is that human bondage is part of the very earliest records of the first European explorers. Columbus returned to Europe with slaves, and Cartier routinely captured natives he encountered in the "New World", as recorded in his diary, The Voyages of Jacques Cartier. On his first voyage in 1534, he erected a large wooden cross on the Gaspe shore claiming the coast for his King, and detained two Iroquois natives from the Stadaconan tribe who had travelled east to fish along this coast. He took the two "savages" to France and brought them back the following summer. The natives, to his surprise, turned against him. The Stadaconans, who had been forced to winter in France, refused to board his ship, while other members of their tribe began to act as if Cartier had been violating their territory. Despite the tension, he succeeded in seizing more natives, including Chief Donnacona who, along with nine other natives, were transported to France. All but one died of European disease. Cartier's final journey to New France in 1541 ended in disaster. The Iroquois were now his enemy.

John Gyles - Slave

During the French settlement era, people were routinely enslaved as a consequence of war but also to help offset the chronic shortage of labour.

One of the earliest written accounts of life in 17th century New Brunswick is John Gyles' remarkable autobiography of his nine years as a prisoner living among the Maliseet and The French on the St. John River. Abducted at age nine from his New England home at Pemaquid by a Maliseet raiding party, Gyles was taken through an old inland portage route from the Penobscot River to the Eel River and over to the Maliseet's fortified headquarters at Meductic on the St. John River. Here, the first English-speaking resident of what is today New Brunswick, became enslaved first to the Maliseet and later to a French seigneur's family at Jemseg, experiencing numerous adventures and conflicts involving warring factions in the disputed region of northern Acadia. Set free in 1698, Gyles returned to New England and later recorded his story including his interesting observations on the life and customs of the Maliseet.

Paupers,SJ Daily SunFluent in Maliseet and Mi'kmaq, as well as French and English, Gyles proved a valuable asset to the struggling New England colony, serving as translator, advisor, and negotiator in prisoner exchanges and other matters of war. Promoted a British officer, Captain Gyles was given command of a number of New England forts as his reputation for predicting Indian and French military behaviour grew. He ended his days in Roxbury, Ma, having lived to see the destruction of the French fortifications in Acadia during the 1750s. John Gyles historical journal served as the basis for Stuart Trueman's work, The Ordeal of John Gyles.

The 1763 Treaty of Paris (surrendering New France to Britain) stipulated that Blacks and Indians enslaved by the French would continue to be slaves under British dominion. Slavery existed in New Brunswick well before the arrival of the Black Loyalist "servants" in 1783. But it is left to the Loyalists under British rule to attempt to institute and legalize a system of enslavement - against both Blacks and whites, though in different forms.

Black Loyalists -1783

By 1784, a large number of Black Loyalists, freemen and slaves, had arrived at Saint John harbour. While one muster roll reported 1232 servants on vessels, estimates usually claim that about 1000 Blacks arrived in New Brunswick during the Loyalist migration, with at least 500 enslaved. Almost 3000 Blacks had left New York and were received at Shelburne, NS, but a fair number did end up in the Saint John area. They were given marginal land.

Some Blacks also arrived as indentured servants, which involved working for a specific period of time whereby a master would be served in order to pay off a debt.

Most prominent white Loyalists including Edward Winslow, Reverend Jonathan Odell, and Gabriel G. Ludlow, brought Black slaves with them to New Brunswick. Despite Britain's decision to discontinue slavery at home, many Loyalists were interested in continuing the institution of free labour in British North American.

Blacks for saleThe only known clear exception to universal slavery in early Loyalist New Brunswick was at Beaver Harbour, Charlotte County, where a Quaker settlement was established that prohibited slave owners. The Fundy Bay settlement had posted the following sign: NO SLAVE MASTERS ADMITTED.

All Blacks - including those set free in return for fighting for the British during the American Revolution - could not vote in early

Most prominent white Loyalists including Edward Winslow, Reverend Jonathan Odell, and Gabriel G. Ludlow, brought Black slaves with them to New Brunswick. Despite Britain's decision to discontinue slavery at home, many Loyalists were interested in continuing the institution of free labour in British North American.

The only known clear exception to universal slavery in early Loyalist New Brunswick was at Beaver Harbour, Charlotte County, where a Quaker settlement was established that prohibited slave owners. The Fundy Bay settlement had posted the following sign: NO SLAVE MASTERS ADMITTED.

All Blacks - including those set free in return for fighting for the British during the American Revolution - could not vote in early New Brunswick elections nor could they become freemen of the new City of Saint John. Only freemen could practise a trade or sell goods within the city, so this restrictions was a important setback to acquiring a livelihood in Loyalist Saint John. Despite considerable public opinion against slavery and the absence of laws actually recognizing slavery, many Blacks were still enslaved before 1800. This advertisement in the March 7, 1786 edition of the Royal Gazette was typical: For Sale twelve hundred acres of land… Also, a Negro man and woman, slaves, and three good milch cows… enquire Capt. Stewart. Auction sales of cattle and household goods often included sales of slaves and while many slaves attempted to escape, if caught prior to 1800, the law would always support the white master over the runaway.

The Slavery Trial - 1800

Scene from Dollar WomanThe Loyalist system of slavery was finally challenged in 1800. Nancy Morton, a Black woman, protested her enslavement to a York County Loyalist Caleb Jones. He claimed to have purchased her from another slave owner, Stair Agnew, who had acquired her in the American colonies. As a highly controversial test case, the issue was presented to the full Supreme Count Bench that included three judges who owned slaves; one, John Saunders, did not. Solicitor General Ward Chipman and Samuel Denny Street presented the anti-slavery case challenging the legality of the institution. Defending the slave master was the remaining legal elite of the province, including Attorney General Jonathan Bliss, himself a slaver. Chipman masterminded the defence of the slave by relying partly on the legal advice of his Nova Scotia friend, Sampson Blowers, who was also attacking slavery in Nova Scotia where, in 1787, the law had refused to recognize slavery. Chipman was a clever legal scholar and careful to leave out certain legal cases he knew would be damaging to his position. New Brunswick's first slavery trial was complex because no slavery laws existed in the province but on February 18, 1800, Chief Justice George Duncan Ludlow and Judge Joshua Upham upheld the slaver's rights while Judges John Saunders and Isaac Allen ruled that slavery was illegal in New Brunswick since it was not recognized in British law.

While Nancy Morton was returned to Caleb Jones, Judge Isaac Allen set his own slaves free and the result touched off a wave of protest and conťict in Fredericton. Slaver Stair Agnew challenged Judge Allen to a duel while Samuel Denny Street also challenged another pro slaver lawyer, John Murray Bliss, to a duel. After shots were fired outside the British American Coffee House on Queen Street, Bliss apologized to Street.

The net result of the split decision was that while slavery was not ruled illegal, it became an unpopular and unworkable institution. Many Blacks became indentured servants, whereby they agreed to serve their master for a number of years in exchange for their freedom.

After 1800 the courts began to rule more in favour of protesting slaves. Slave owners saw that the system could not be maintained, and gave up on the practise. By 1822, the New Brunswick Government claimed that no slaves were living in the province; 12 years later, full emancipation was enacted. However, it was well into the 1840s before Blacks were allowed citizenship and voting privileges.

Black Refugees - 1815

A second wave of Black immigrants arrived in Saint John in 1815 aboard the vessel Regulus. The 371 refugees were mainly escaped slaves from the Chesapeake Bay area who had been promised their freedom, and carried off by British ships to Bermuda during the War of 1812. Other shiploads of escaping Blacks had been sent to Nova Scotia but, by 1815, the Halifax authorities had become alarmed at the number of possible refugees and asked New Brunswick to accept a share of the human exodus.

Temporary shelter and meagre supplies were handed out to the new arrivals but unlike Nova Scotia, where some provision had been made to settle the Blacks at Preston, New Brunswick made little effort to assist the immigrants. At the time, white settlers were receiving 41 hectares per immigrant but it was only after the refugees petitioned the government's Executive Council for land allotments and received the legal assistance of Judge Ward Chipman, that 20 hectare lots were laid out in the Lock Lomond area near Saint John.

Blacks were also expected to pay for the land survey. They were not given clear title to the land but promised a "license of occupation" until such time as "sincerity and exertion had taken place." Food, clothing and shelter that had been given to white settlers, were not distributed to the Black refugees. With no titled land grants, the fortunes of these new Blacks in New Brunswick were guaranteed to fail.

Unable to afford the initial costs of establishing a homestead in rural New Brunswick, refugees were described as "hovering about Saint John in a very distressed state," Soon a number of the 20 hectare allotments at Lock Lomond were re-assigned to white settlers. Black grievances were many but they received little assistance from the Emigrant Society of Saint John. Even a House 'of Assembly committee formed to resolve land title questions failed to act decisively on behalf of the Blacks.

Though the form of slavery ended, racial discrimination continued. The failure of the black settlement to prosper at Lock Lomond was largely the result of the treatment received. While the harsh northern climate and unknown farming techniques needed to prosper in New Brunswick also worked against these southern refugees, the land itself in Lock Lomond was unsuitable for agriculture purposes since the soil was only marginal for growing crops. Despite claims by eminent historians such as Stewart MacNutt, the black population did not prosper; the first provincial census of 1824 listed 1513 Blacks while the 1911 census counted only 1071 Black New Brunswickers. Many factors contributed to the impoverishment of the Black refugees, but the initial decision to issue licenses of occupation instead of land grants seems critical to the later problems of black poverty and discrimination.

The reason land title was withheld from Blacks by the Loyalist-dominated Executive Council was never fully revealed. Fear that freeheld land would imply voting privileges for Blacks was no doubt a concern, since they did not receive the right to vote until the 1840s.

The Human Auctions

Poverty and human cruelty persisted. Enslavement of the poor continued.

George Francis TrainThe controversial pauper contract system in New Brunswick developed because the colony inherited the British legal system, including the old Elizabethan poor law of 1601, asserting civic responsibility for the destitute. The New Brunswick Poor Law of 1786 established that the relief of the poor would be financed and administrated by its 34 parishes. Yet, without significant taxing powers, many small and rural parishes were unable to afford to construct and maintain their own poor houses. To offset the expense, a system had evolved in New Brunswick whereby paupers were either taken in at an almshouse or sold at annual public auctions to the lowest bidder, who then received payment from the parish for his upkeep. The contractor was also able to force the pauper to work - much like the mediaeval system of enslaved labour. A parish overseer was responsible to ensure humane treatment for paupers, but parish authorities were unwilling to pay any additional costs and the system was essentially slavery. Wilful neglect and physical abuse was all too common.

Kings County, NB was no exception, During the approximately 100 years that human auctions took place, at least 1000 paupers were sold or rented out.

"Paupers for Sale" posters had appeared in Sussex prior to the December 31, 1884 auction and promptly at 2 p.m., auctioneer W.H. White began this auction of four elderly paupers who stood shivering in horse blankets on a railway platform near the station.

What was their value? White yelled, "What am I bid?" for an emaciated-looking Bernard McCann.

McCann had been part of the mid-century Irish immigrant movement to New Brunswick. He had found some work as a labourer on the railway lines but had ended up destitute. The bidding began at $90 for a one-year sale by his previous owner, as White attempted to force down the price to save the parish taxpayers from a high payment. Since no further bidding took place, his owner was paid the $90 to house the old pauper for another year. Hannah Boles, an elderly lady, went for $72. Bidding was strong for John McLaughlin who went for an afternoon low of $64.50.

No bids were received for the last old pauper, Martin Condon. The crowd recognized him as a well-known town drunk who would steal property at all costs in order to "get a drink". Condon would later have to be contracted out by private sale, or he would have remained in the county jail.

In 1887, the American Human Rights crusader George Francis Train travelled to Kings County. After witnessing the annual Pauper Auction in Sussex, where impoverished citizens were publicly sold like the old slavery auctions in the US, he exposed this system of human bondage to the world. Train had been an avid anti-slaver in his native US. He was shocked to see a similar auction system at work in New Brunswick. Despite numerous newspaper articles and speeches denouncing the practice, the annual auction was maintained in Sussex until December 31, 1898, when the last auction took place in Kings County. A permanent poorhouse soon opened in nearby Norton.

The inhumanity of the pauper system was also at work in other regions, including nearby Albert County. There, in 1903, a contractor submitted a controversial bill to the Hopewell parish after the death of a pauper. Alexander Hawks charged it $106.26 including board, lodging, medical costs, and even burial expenses for the upkeep, illness, and funeral of Paul Doherty. The parish attempted to avoid payment by citing the bill as excessive, and even claimed the pauper's residence to be the neighbouring parish of Harvey and thus its responsibility. Similar disputes while a pauper was alive would sometimes mean that the destitute person would be turned out if payment was in doubt.

Although the pauper auction and contract system was seen as cruel and inhuman, it continued to be maintained in some parts of New Brunswick until the late 1920s. By then, most counties had constructed poor houses where the mentally ill, the sick, homeless infants, and vagrants were given permanent housing.

*Moncton native Dan Soucoup has written Maritime Firsts and Historic New Brunswick, published by Pottersfield Press. He has worked in publishing and bookselling for the past 25 years.

George Frances Train attacked and exposed the "sale of the poor" and human bondage in New Brunswick in the town of Sussex from 1887 to 1888. Train was finally forced to leave town.

Scene from The Dollar Woman - the sick child

This notice appeared in the Saint John Daily Sun in 1884, advertising the cruel practice of auctioning off the poor

Evidence of the real existence of slavery in New Brunswick, from the Saint John Gazette, October 3, 1788

Scene from The Dollar Woman - Martin Condon, pauper. This play was written by Alden Nowlan and Walter Learning in 1976 about the pauper auctions, and staged by Theatre New Brunswick in 1977. No paintings, art and photographs of Black slavery or the human auctions in Brunswick could be found. We have used a scene from the play to illustrate this article.

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