The Hamilton Spectator
Black Hamiltonians have history defending Canada
Last July, the Canadian government apologized to the Black community. During the First World War, army recruiters denied Black volunteers the right to enlist solely on the basis of their colour.
After protest from the Black community, the military set up a segregated all-Black unit known as the No. 2 Construction Battalion. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau mentioned during his speech that it was the only all-Black battalionsize formation in Canadian history.
Those not in the know might have come away thinking that this was the only all-Black formation of any kind.
Rather, it was part of a long, valiant history of Blacks who defended Canada against all enemies, foreign and domestic. And Black Hamiltonians played a significant role in those actions.
Ironically, these earlier all-Black companies were formed voluntarily by the Black soldiers themselves. During the War of 1812, a “Coloured Corps” was organized by a remarkable African known as Richard Pierpoint.
Captured in Senegal, West Africa, he was enslaved in America, escaped and fought in the American Revolution on the British side. He was given 200 acres of land in what is today St. Catharines, where, at the age of 68, he petitioned the government to form a special Black unit.
This company would help ensure that Canada remained British. Four surviving muster roll lists reveal that several of the men came from the Hamilton area. This corps fought valiantly in the Battle of Queenston Heights and served throughout the Niagara campaigns of 1813 and 1814. They also built Fort Mississauga to defend against further incursion by the enemy.
During the 1837 Rebellion, a number of separate all-Black units from Niagara, Toronto, Windsor and Chatham hastily formed to fend off the rebel forces led by newspaper publisher and politician, William Lyon Mackenzie.
In Hamilton, men of colour quickly assembled, issuing a statement of support for the government and a request to be allowed to “tender our services to the officer commanding in the Town of Hamilton …” Just as in 1812, Blacks thought that if Canada were to become part of the United States, they would be re-enslaved. With Barbados-born William Allen as captain, 21 of the leading Black men of the city volunteered, signed the petition and were engaged in practice drilling.
Austin Steward was in Hamilton during this time to attend an African Methodist Episcopal Church conference. Steward was a Rochester, N.Y. grocer who had briefly moved to Upper Canada in the 1830s to lead the Wilberforce Settlement near London.
He remembered the pride he felt in seeing Black men in uniform with swords at their sides marching and standing guard around town, something he could never witness in America.
We do not know if they were at Montgomery’s Tavern to quell the uprising on Yonge Street in Toronto on Dec. 5, but the Hamilton unit did accompany Col. Allan MacNab and several other contingents to the London District to suppress rebel reformers nearby.
They then patrolled the area along the Niagara River once Mackenzie and his rebels set up a provisional government on Navy Island. Captain Allen and his men had even volunteered to storm Navy Island, although this became unnecessary after the rebels evacuated their position for Grand Island and then Buffalo, N.Y., by January 1838.
The Hamilton corps made a triumphant return to the city in February, where Captain Allen received a sword on behalf of his men by the sergeant-in-arms of the House of Assembly. It was in grateful recognition of their “exemplary service” during the uprising.
I have written about these exploits in “The Journey from Tollgate to Parkway: African Canadians in Hamilton” (Dundurn Press, 2010). More recently, my article “Giving Trouble: Black Protest and Activism in Early Hamilton, Ontario” will be on the “Black People’s History of Canada” website.
This project introduces new downloadable research and curriculum for teachers and students in the hopes that Black history will become essential learning in Canadian classrooms.