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Abolitionist John Brown Visits Chatham

For the week of Monday May 9, 2011

On May 10, 1858, American abolitionist John Brown held an anti-U.S. slavery meeting at the First Baptist Church in present-day Chatham, Ontario. Why here in Canada? The answer lies in the differing abolitionist histories of Canada and its southern neighbour.

Slavery ceased in Upper Canada long before 1858. The 1793 Act Against Slavery, championed by the first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, John Graves Simcoe, heavily restricted the practice by barring the importation of new slaves and freeing the children of existing slaves at age 25. Forty years later, Britain emancipated slaves throughout most of the Empire, including those who remained in Upper Canada, in an 1833 Act of Parliament.


John Brown
© Public Domain / Metropolitan Toronto Library Board

Abolition in the United States proved a much more divisive process. Although northern states began to abolish slavery around the same time as Upper Canada, southern states, whose economies relied heavily on slave labour, fervently opposed abolition and refused to follow suit. Tensions between abolitionists and supporters of slavery led to increased militancy and outright violence.

Hoping to establish a quasi-state in the American South to which slaves could flee and from which abolitionists could conduct guerrilla raids, Brown knew he needed to expand his base of support. The 1850 Fugitive Slave Act had cost runaway slaves and free Black residents in the northern states their legal protections and thousands fled to the United Province of Canada. Consequently, Brown considered Canada a likely source of supporters and a safer place to meet than the United States. In May 1858, Brown visited Chatham, a town near the American border, home to a large and politically active Black population, and held a convention there to rally support for his plans. The attending delegates approved a constitution and provisional government for the planned state.

Ultimately, Brown’s ambitious plans were for naught. The next year he led 21 supporters in a raid on the United States Armoury at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Hoping to capture weapons with which to arm slaves and launch his revolt, he was instead surrounded, captured, and later hung. In the United States, though the raid hardened opposition to slavery in the North, it increased support for slavery in the South and helped lead to the outbreak of the American Civil War two years later. In Canada West (Ontario today), thousands mourned Brown’s death, underlining the popularity of abolitionism among Black residents and other activists in the colony.

Today, John Brown’s visit to Chatham is remembered as part of the Abolition Movement in British North America National Historic Event, designated in 2004.

For information on other sites, persons, and events of national significance related to Black history, read past This Week in History stories such as: The Legendary Harriet Tubman, Reverend Richard Preston Fights Slavery!, Shadrach Minkins, Slavery Attacked in Upper Canada, and Thornton and Lucie Blackburn Test the Fugitive Offenders Act.

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