Governor general to open new research institute on African people

Canada’s Governor General Michaëlle Jean will open the Harriet Tubman Institute for Research on the Global Migrations of African Peoples on Sunday, to mark the 200th anniversary of the British abolition of the slave trade. The governor general will also be awarded an honorary doctor of laws.

“We are truly honoured that the Governor General will be inaugurating the Tubman Institute, which is unique in Canada in its field of academic research,” said York President and Vice-Chancellor Lorna R. Marsden.

The official opening will be preceded by an international symposium on Friday and Saturday, bringing together experts on the African diaspora to discuss topics ranging from the impact of British abolition to the legacy of slavery.

Right: Governor General Michaëlle Jean

“The Tubman Institute will be a window through which the slave histories of black people in Canada and throughout the African diaspora can be seen. Their stories cannot be whitewashed from our collective memory,” says York Professor Paul Lovejoy, director of the new institute and Canada Research Chair in African Diaspora History.

The new institute will build on work done by researchers at York’s Harriet Tubman Resource Centre on the African Diaspora, headed by Lovejoy since 2002. The centre – and now the institute – are named in honour of Harriet Tubman, a Maryland woman who fled slavery in 1849 and became a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad that helped enslaved Africans flee the US for the relative safety and freedom of Canada in the 1850s. (For more on the new institute see the full story in the March 14 issue of YFile.)

“The role of slavery in the creation of the modern world is too often forgotten,” says Professor David Trotman, associate director of the Tubman Institute. “The institute will help to ensure that African slave names, voices and experiences take their place in the institutional memory of this society, and will contribute to an informed discussion about issues of social justice in the world today.”

Personal and official documents, photographs, interviews and maps archived by the Institute tell the stories of the migration of African peoples around the globe, whether voluntary or by force, over hundreds of years. To ensure that the archive of primary documents can be shared with the world, the Tubman Institute is developing leading-edge digital technology.  The only academic research centre in Canada that focuses on the dispersion of Africans around the globe, the Tubman Institute has close ties to other types of institutions that are preserving the stories of black Canadians. Researchers affiliated with the institute, both at York and other institutions, are involved in projects in more than 14 countries.

More on the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire

Be it therefore enacted by the King’s most Excellent Majesty, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons, in this present Parliament assembled, and by the Authority of the same, That from and after the First Day of May One thousand eight hundred and seven, the African Slave Trade, and all and all manner of dealing and trading in the Purchase, Sale, Barter, or Transfer of Slaves, or of Persons intended to be sold, transferred, used, or dealt with as Slaves, practiced or carried on, in, at, to or from any Part of the Coast or Countries of Africa, shall be, and the same is hereby utterly abolished, prohibited, and declared to be unlawful.

– An Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, 1807

On March 25, 1807 the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade received Royal Assent and became law throughout the British Empire. It was the result of a long and arduous campaign in the British Parliament by an alliance of Evangelical Anglicans and Quakers led by William Wilberforce, MP (1759-1833).

Left: William Wilberforce

The 1807 Act did not abolish slavery itself, but prohibited the traffic in slaves, and as such was an incremental step towards recognition of the damaging effects of slavery and towards the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1833.

Upper Canada, now Ontario, was a pioneer in this movement. In 1793 Governor John Graves Simcoe passed the Abolition Act. This law freed slaves aged 25 and over and made it illegal to bring slaves into Upper Canada, which became a safe haven for runaway slaves.

Simcoe’s law also made Upper Canada the first jurisdiction in the Empire to move toward the abolition of slavery. Between 1800 and 1865, approximately 20,000 black people escaped to British North America via the Underground Railroad. (Source: Government of Canada, Department of Canadian Heritage)