Fugi­tive Por­traits

News­pa­per ad­ver­tise­ments from the 18th and 19th cen­turies form por­traits of peo­ple who at­tempted to es­cape slav­ery. How do these unau­tho­rized rep­re­sen­ta­tions as­sert Black pres­ence in a Cana­dian ar­chive de­signed to per­pet­u­ate un­free sta­tus? And what do the

Canadian Art - - Contents - Lind­say Nixon in con­ver­sa­tion with Char­maine A. Nel­son

Cen­turies-old news­pa­per ad­ver­tise­ments form unau­tho­rized de­pic­tions of Black and In­dige­nous peo­ples who tried to es­cape from slav­ery, but also re­veal his­tor­i­cal al­liances

Lind­say Nixon in con­ver­sa­tion with Char­maine A. Nel­son

Char­maine A. Nel­son, a pro­fes­sor of art his­tory at Mcgill Univer­sity in Mon­treal, has made ground­break­ing con­tri­bu­tions to many fields of study, in­clud­ing the vis­ual cul­ture of slav­ery, race and rep­re­sen­ta­tion, Black Cana­dian stud­ies and African Cana­dian art his­tory. She has pub­lished six books fo­cused on post­colo­nial and Black fem­i­nist schol­ar­ship, transat­lantic slav­ery stud­ies and Black di­as­pora stud­ies, and her cur­rent re­search ex­am­ines fugi­tive-slave ad­ver­tise­ments found in 18th- and 19th-cen­tury news­pa­pers in Nova Sco­tia and Que­bec, ar­gu­ing that they con­sti­tute an ar­chive of tex­tual “por­traits” of Canada’s en­slaved peo­ples.

Nel­son’s work has put her at a unique ad­van­tage for con­sid­er­ing kin­ship re­la­tions be­tween en­slaved Black and In­dige­nous peo­ples in Canada’s his­tory—re­la­tion­ships that have been lost within the na­tion­al­is­tic and Euro­cen­tric Cana­dian ar­chive.

Lind­say Nixon: The term In­dige­nous is so loaded and can mean so many things. How have you been think­ing about it in your work?

Char­maine A. Nel­son: I think about the par­al­lel his­to­ries of peo­ple of African des­cent and In­dige­nous or First Peo­ples in ter­ri­to­ries that be­came Canada—the par­al­lel his­to­ries un­der col­o­niza­tion by the French and the Bri­tish, and un­der en­slave­ment (in transat­lantic slav­ery).

Our his­to­ries and sto­ries be­came in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked be­cause we were lit­er­ally en­slaved to­gether, or suf­fered col­o­niza­tion to­gether. Who is do­ing the work to re­cu­per­ate those sto­ries and the shared knowl­edge— and shared knowl­edge of re­sis­tance, too? I see it as an area that is for­got­ten. In­dige­nous stud­ies are go­ing on, and Black Cana­dian stud­ies are go­ing on, but I think there’s a gap—a hole in the mid­dle, where we’re over­lap­ping. That’s a fruit­ful area for re­search.

LN: I know you’ve been fo­cus­ing on fugi­tive-slave ad­ver­tise­ments as vis­ual doc­u­ments. Can you ex­pand on that?

CAN: My next project is look­ing at Canada, specif­i­cally Nova Sco­tia and Que­bec, and do­ing a com­par­a­tive anal­y­sis with Ja­maica. Fugi­tive-slave ads were placed in news­pa­pers by own­ers whose en­slaved labour­ers ran away—usu­ally try­ing to es­cape per­ma­nently. News­pa­pers [dur­ing the 18th and 19th cen­turies] ran weekly, not daily. Far more peo­ple would have es­caped than we’ll ever know about. Be­cause if an en­slaved per­son couldn’t es­cape de­tec­tion for a week, then the owner would get them back, and not even run the ad. So when we find even one ad it usu­ally tells us that a per­son was able to get away for at least a week.

The ads de­scribe the per­son who ran away—usu­ally first name only, be­cause last names got stripped. Africans were re­named when they made it to the Amer­i­cas as slaves, and their last names be­came the name of the per­son who owned them. That’s why in Brazil, African Brazil­ians have Por­tuguese last names, and why a per­son like me (my par­ents were both from Ja­maica) has a name like Nel­son, which is an An­glo last name.

Be­sides that, the de­scrip­tions were usu­ally the per­son’s age, if they knew it, be­cause of­ten they didn’t know their age. The slave owner in many cases didn’t own the en­slaved per­son from birth, so ages were guess­work based on what­ever the pre­vi­ous slave owner told them. The [ads also in­cluded] height—usu­ally in re­ally pre­cise mea­sure­ments—a de­scrip­tion of the body type, usu­ally some­thing about the hair and the cloth­ing. But also scars and marks on the body, miss­ing teeth, miss­ing fin­gers, whip marks, scar­i­fi­ca­tion and brand­ing. The bulk of the in­for­ma­tion was meant to be vi­su­al­ized. The reader was meant to read the text, make a men­tal pic­ture, spot the en­slaved per­son and turn them in for a re­ward—al­most ev­ery ad had a re­ward. But the re­ward was cou­pled with a threat: “If you har­bour or help them, I will pur­sue you to the full ex­tent of the law.” Of­ten the small­est parts of the ads de­tailed how the per­son spoke and what lan­guages they were speak­ing.

The bulk is vis­ual, and I’m ar­gu­ing that this vi­su­al­iza­tion is a por­trait. But it’s a very du­bi­ous one, be­cause of­ten it’s in­cor­rect. A lot of the time the white own­ers didn’t know how to in­ter­pret African dress cul­ture, for in­stance. So they might de­scribe a head wrap as a rib­bon, be­cause they don’t know what a head wrap is. The en­slaved peo­ple demon­strated a lot of so­phis­ti­cated fore­thought in their es­capes. They would do things like hide cloth­ing in town and then im­me­di­ately change their clothes once they es­caped. There was all this de­cep­tion nec­es­sary in the re­sis­tance of the en­slaved that was per­formed on the level of the vis­ual, be­cause what they were try­ing to do was pass as free Black peo­ple. What does it mean, then, to call these ads por­traits, even though they were unau­tho­rized, and to ac­knowl­edge that in dis­tinc­tion to this, in a le­git­i­mate, hired “high art” por­trait, the sit­ter wanted to be rep­re­sented? If you were a fugi­tive en­slaved per­son, you didn’t want to be rep­re­sented. These were rep­re­sen­ta­tions that could re-im­pose the in­sti­tu­tion of slav­ery. What does it mean that there was this wide cir­cu­la­tion across the Amer­i­cas of such unau­tho­rized rep­re­sen­ta­tions?

LN: Are there al­ter­na­tive ways of read­ing the ad­ver­tise­ments?

CAN: Yes, just the fact that they ex­ist as a repos­i­tory shows that Africans and In­dige­nous peo­ples were re­sist­ing all of the time, all across the Amer­i­cas, wher­ever they were en­slaved. Just the fact that we have fugi­tive-slave ad repos­i­to­ries in Nova Sco­tia, Ja­maica, Bar­ba­dos and Brazil (for in­stance) means that en­slaved peo­ple were al­ways run­ning away. You can piece things to­gether and start to spec­u­late, but you rarely get the de­fin­i­tive an­swer, be­cause there’s a mo­ment where the ar­chive lets you down. The colo­nial ar­chive, cre­ated by Euro­peans and Euroamer­i­cans, was strate­gi­cally de­signed to col­lect data that was meant to per­pet­u­ate en­slaved or un­free sta­tus.

LN: You’ve worked with cloth­ing art as pos­si­ble ev­i­dence of hy­brid Black and In­dige­nous iden­ti­ties. Could you tell me more about this?

CAN: First I should back up. In Que­bec, the French were col­o­niz­ing the re­gion up un­til 1760, when the Bri­tish took over. When Que­bec was part of New France, they were en­slav­ing In­dige­nous peo­ples and Africans si­mul­ta­ne­ously. When the Bri­tish showed up, one of the first things they did with the Treaty of Ca­pit­u­la­tion at Mon­treal was to say to the French,

OP­PO­SITE: De­tail of a fugi­tive-slave ad pub­lished in the Halifax Weekly Chron­i­cle on March 15, 1794

What does it mean to call these ads por­traits, even though they were unau­tho­rized? If you were a fugi­tive en­slaved per­son, you didn’t want to be rep­re­sented. These were rep­re­sen­ta­tions that could re-im­pose the in­sti­tu­tion of slav­ery.

“You can keep your slaves.” And then the Bri­tish, who in some re­gions were only en­slav­ing Africans, ac­tu­ally adopted the French prac­tice of en­slav­ing both African and In­dige­nous peo­ples. James Mcgill, the founder of Mcgill Univer­sity, at dif­fer­ent points in his life owned both In­dige­nous and African en­slaved peo­ple. There are ads in Que­bec un­der the Bri­tish regime for both fugi­tive Africans and fugi­tive In­dige­nous peo­ples—a catchall term for In­dige­nous en­slaved peo­ple was pa­nis (panise for fe­males).

Scholar Frank Mackey has at­tempted to ex­ca­vate all the fugi­tive-slave ads for peo­ple of African des­cent in the Mon­treal and Que­bec Gazettes. He has found about 50 ads, and the cloth­ing de­scrip­tions are para­mount. Slav­ery stud­ies his­to­rian David Wald­stre­icher says, “De­scrib­ing the clothes is like de­scrib­ing the per­son,” since poor whites and un­free peo­ple in the 18th and 19th cen­turies usu­ally had only one set of clothes. Their clothes seem to have been a com­bi­na­tion of Euro­pean cloth­ing (pet­ti­coats, breeches, etc.), but of­ten moc­casins, too. There­fore, we know that In­dige­nous cloth­ing was a part of [en­slaved peo­ples’] wardrobes as well.

LN: Is there any­thing else you wanted to men­tion in re­la­tion to the themes we’ve dis­cussed that you didn’t get to say?

CAN: There must have been house­holds that were en­slav­ing In­dige­nous and African peo­ple at the same time. What did that look like? What did those al­liances look like in terms of love re­la­tion­ships, fa­mil­ial bonds, hav­ing chil­dren to­gether, cook­ing to­gether, eat­ing to­gether and shar­ing kin­ship to­gether? How many of the fugi­tives be­ing de­scribed in some ter­mi­nol­ogy that we con­sider to be of African des­cent are ac­tu­ally mixed-race—part-in­dige­nous and part-black, but the white own­ers were mis­read­ing their bod­ies? How size­able was that pop­u­la­tion, and has that pop­u­la­tion been erased by that lack of knowl­edge of the white, slave-own­ing class?

In Que­bec, where there was par­al­lel en­slave­ment of Black and In­dige­nous peo­ples, where did peo­ple run? You see in the ads the slave own­ers are specif­i­cally threat­en­ing the ship cap­tains and warn­ing them not to har­bour the run­aways. This was due to the fact that there was a sig­nif­i­cant pop­u­la­tion of free Black sailors in the Bri­tish Em­pire, and Black male fugi­tives sought to take up work on mer­chant ships to pass them­selves off as a part of this pop­u­la­tion. But I’m not sure if In­dige­nous peo­ples would have pri­or­i­tized es­cape by sea. They would have thought, “No, I’m go­ing over here, where there’s a free com­mu­nity of In­dige­nous peo­ple.” If In­dige­nous peo­ples were liv­ing with Black peo­ple in the same house­holds, at what point did the African peo­ple say, “I know the In­dige­nous peo­ple over here. I’m go­ing with them.”? Where are those his­to­ries? How do we re­cover them? Don’t tell me that didn’t hap­pen. I am hope­ful that if the writ­ten ar­chive fails us, that such his­to­ries are still re­mem­bered in oral tra­di­tions. ■

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