Four hundred years ago, in August 1619, the English ship White Lion arrived at Port Comfort (what would later become Virginia) with "20 odd Negroes." Taken from present-day Angola by Portuguese slave traders, the African men were captured by the British and immediately sold as indentured servants and labourers.
This was not the beginning of the slave trade, of course. From 1501 to 1875, over 12.5 million slaves were forcibly moved across the Atlantic, ending up in the Caribbean, Central America, and South America.
The year 1619 represents the arrival of the slave trade in America, though. Commemorative events are happening all next month. The Association for the Study of African American Life and History (which organizes Black History Month) is running a nationwide campaign, the U.S. Congress has created a "400 Years of African American History Commission" and the state of Virginia is doing its own events.
This is all a reminder of how the U.S. is built on the backs of slavery. From the U.S. economy to American culture to the racism that currently permeates the president’s Twitter feed, America’s foundation comes from the slavery of Africans.
Understandably, Canadians like to distance themselves from the violence and genocide of the slave trade. For the 70 per cent of slaves who survived the transatlantic journey, their remaining days consisted of terrible, dehumanizing, deadly conditions where survival was a daily goal. Many resisted, of course, but far more suffered and died.
There were no "good" days as a slave.
So it makes sense that Canadian history books tell us that Britain was the first country in the world to ban slavery (in 1807) and historians remind us that courts in Lower Canada and Nova Scotia were rendering slavery "unenforceable" as early as 1790s.
Canadians like Heritage Minutes showing Canada as a place of freedom from oppression, a place slaves escaped to on the "Underground Railroad".
And this is true, sort of.
While slave ships didn’t transport slaves to Canada and there were no plantations in Canadian colonies, slavery was regularly practiced by rich British and French traders here. In 1628, the first African slave arrived in New France and there were 4,000 more by 1759. Only 1,132 of these were African, however, and 2,472 of them were Indigenous slaves.
Forms of slavery were also practiced by some Indigenous nations. Mohawk chief Joseph Brant used 40 Africans he captured during the Revolutionary War as basically slaves.
Slavery isn’t just about who practices it, but about who benefits from it.
People who rely on slavery to create economies are as guilty as the perpetrators.
In 1670, King Charles II claimed the lands of what would become northern Quebec, northern Ontario, all of Manitoba and parts of Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Nunavut. He called this territory Rupertsland, after the King’s cousin Prince Rupert, who acted as governor.
Prince Rupert was a founder of the Hudson Bay Company (HBC), which was given "the sole Trade and Commerce" over Rupertsland. With a trading monopoly, the HBC commercialized the fur trade, helped create the economic powerhouse Red River Colony, and enabled traders like Lord Selkirk to form treaty with Chief Peguis in 1817, creating non-Indigenous settlement on the Red River and – eventually – the city of Winnipeg.
And where did Prince Rupert obtain his money to build Manitoba’s economy?
The slave trade.
In 1660, Prince Rupert was a principal sponsor for the Company of Royal Adventurers Trading to Africa, which controlled English trade along the west coast of Africa. After trading in silver and gold, the company found much more profitable trade in slavery. From 1680-86, the re-named Royal African Company (RAC) was transporting 5,000 slaves a year to the Caribbean and Virginia to produce and pick mostly tobacco, sugar, and cotton.
The RAC became a global force and was known for branding their slaves with the initials RAC across their chests. By 1689, the RAC had transported 100,000 slaves across the Atlantic.
From the profits of the RAC, Prince Rupert created the Hudson Bay Company, which transported tobacco, sugar, and cotton produced from their slave colonies across the world. This is how these goods came to Manitoba.
Prince Rupert wasn’t alone, of course. The HBC’s second governor, James Stuart (the Duke of York and future King of England), was a governor of the RAC, too.
The HBC wasn’t alone in building their empire via the slave trade. The North-West Company (NWC) was in on it, too.
Charles Chaboillez, one of the fur trader barons who created the Beaver Club in Montreal (the forerunner of the NWC) and James McGill, one of the NWC's nine original partners, both were active participants in the Canadian slave trade. They used profits from the exploitation of people to help expand the fur trade into the north, lands the HBC would obtain when the two companies were forced to amalgamate in 1821.
So, this month, when the United States is recognizing their 400 years of history with the slave trade, know that Manitoba’s economy was built on the backs of slavery.
Know that 1619 is our history too.
Niigaan Sinclair is Anishinaabe and is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press.