To what extent did the War of 1812 impact black slavery in North America?
A: Historical Significance
In the War of 1812 we hear a lot about the conflicts with and between the Americans, the British, and the First Nations peoples of Canada, but an integral (an often overlooked) party involved in the war were the very people dominated and exploited to build the foundations of the “New World” that this war primarily took place in. These people were the slaves. Black slaves took part in the war by fighting on both sides as soldiers and sailors, and many are remembered today as heroes.
Black slavery began in North America in the early 1600s. For the purpose of my post I’m going to be excluding Spanish colonies in the New World, which also utilized black slaves for economic and social benefit. The first slaves in pseudo-Canada were introduced by French colonists in New France, while the first American slaves were brought to Jamestown, Virginia in a Dutch ship in 1619. These slaves were taken from places like Senegambia (today’s Senegal and Gambia area) and west-central Africa (today’s Angola, Congo and Democratic Republic of Congo area) and capitalized as a cheap and plentiful labour source.
Britain’s control over the former colony of Quebec resulted in the creation of two new colonies: Upper Canada and Lower Canada. Upper Canada became the home of British Loyalists who had fled American dissent for Britain and those who remained loyal to them, but ultimately had a very small population. To attract immigrants so he could raise the population and establish an aristocracy, the first governor of Upper Canada, John Simcoe, offered land to those who lived in Britain and America. In 1793 to further this attempt he passed a law against slavery in Upper Canada that made it a destination for slaves that wished to escape their predetermined fates.
When war incited between British and American colonies in the New World, black slaves used it as opportunity to gain their freedom. In Canada, thousands of black volunteers escaped their owners and enlisted in the war in Black and regular regiments where rules permitted and often where they didn’t. An example is the famous Coloured Corps, a black Upper Canadian regiment from the Niagara region. In 1812 Richard Pierpoint, a former slave who had won his freedom by fighting for the British in the American Revolution, petitioned to form a Black regiment. His request was granted as long as the commanding officer was a white man. The unit was formed and consisted of about 30 men from the Niagara region, many of whom had escaped slavery in the States.
Slaves also fought valiantly for the Americans on the other side of the war. Many escaped slaves decided to volunteer for the American army, particularly the navy. Blacks made from 10-20% of sailors on American ships during the war. On both sides of the war, black soldiers and sailors were known for their fierceness and courage.
Continuity and Change:
As slaves in North America in the 17-1800s, people would most definitely not be treated with the same courtesy that has been normalized in today’s culture. In America in that time period, for all intents and purposes, black Americans were only considered 3/5 of a person. This dehumanized them and made them seem like what they were ultimately considered at this time: property.
Our lives today are different than this, at least where black slavery is concerned. Slavery has been abolished in North America for well over a century now, but that doesn’t mean that it’s completely over worldwide. In fact, there are more people in slavery today than at any other time in human history. Examples of this include bonded labour, child labour, human trafficking, and early or forced marriage. We as a society have progressed, but not by much when you think of the some of the things that continue to happen in today’s revolutionized world.
Focusing more on black slavery, we can see the effects this traumatic period in time has had on today’s society. White or non-coloured individuals do see some form of privilege in this day and age. There is statistical proof that white people have a greater advantage in areas like education, employment, and finances. Even though the world has seemingly progressed so far, black people continue to be slaves to the world’s stigmas and prejudicial roles in society. When looking at history, we can see how the treatment and roles of race (which some argue is a social construct) juxtaposes the part it plays in today’s world.
Cause and Consequence:
Slavery in North America, as aforementioned, had been present since the early 1600s. These slaves had been taken from their homes and countries and treated as property by the white people who had overpowered and dominated them. To the black Canadians and Americans who had been slaves for as long as they could remember, freedom would be but a dream and a goal that may not be achieved for generations to come.
Desperate people do desperate things, and regardless of how unforgiving or unrewarding serving in the army may have been, to a black slave it was their only chance of living as a free person. The reason so many of these slaves braved the harrowing and treacherous journeys it took to reach Upper Canada is because of the promise of freedom in exchange for something as trifling as allegiance to the Crown.
Their voluntary service allowed for just that many more regiments to fight on both sides of the war. It was seemingly a mutually beneficial relationship: black slaves would gain their freedom and possibly even land upon completion of their service, and Britain and the United States would receive hardworking and diligent soldiers and sailors. The reality was most likely not as fair towards the slaves, but as far as accounts go, this is a basic one.
The consequences of these migrations and services in the war were plentiful. The owners of these slaves didn’t let them leave willingly, and most demanded British authority that their slaves be returned. Even Charles Ball, a former slave who fought for the British navy, tried to convince black slaves to return to American soil. In his memoir it’s stated that he “talked to them a long time, on the subject of returning home; but found that their heads were full of notions of liberty and happiness in some of the West India islands”. This shows the hope that this war gave black slaves of a better future. Many of the ones who fought in the war ended up being freed and settled with lands of their own, particularly in today’s Nova Scotia in terms of Canadian slaves.
B: Social Studies Inquiry Processes
The war didn’t end in a distinctive victory for either the British or the Americans, and it didn’t do much to further black slaves’ fight for freedom, liberty, and equality either. Some sources believe that the war left blacks wedged between slavery and freedom and only served to reaffirm prejudicial racial distinctions, but I see the situation differently. I think this war was an opportunity for black slaves to prove that they would do what it took to free themselves from the cruel bondage society had placed them in. While the mindsets of white people didn’t really change when it came to slavery, they began to see blacks as more than just property and as (almost) equals on the battlefield.