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Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The Story of Solomon Moseby

Yesterday I spoke of the G-G's honouring a black slave who started a terrible fire in Montreal, and saw it as an occasion to present a little of the relatively unknown history of slavery in Canada. What I forgot to mention is that I think that the G-G overstepped her role in making comments like “today is sweet revenge,” or “she was treated that way because she was black,” and so on. I wasn’t there in 1734, and neither was she. She is welcome to her private thoughts. But it is not her role as the Queen’s representative today to second-guess the British Courts from a distance of 272 years, any more than it would be her role to judge the courts now. Both she and her predecessor have seemed far too fond of using the office of Governor-General to offer private political and moral opinions, public scoldings, and historical judgements. 

For today, however, I want to present what I think is the more fascinating – and also relatively unknown - story of the thief and runaway slave Solomon Moseby. I think it would make a great historical docu-drama because it involved both the US and the Canadian slave traditions, has complex moral and social elements, and forced a confrontation between the public affection for freedom, the laws of property, and international relations. If anyone has connections with people who might want to turn such a story into a TV or film piece, please let me know. I think it is long overdue. This is my own short dramatization of the material kindly sent to me by the persons listed at the end of the story. Enjoy.   


He could hardly believe his ears when his Master said "Take my best horse, Solomon, and deliver this message to our good neighbour." He had been entrusted with a high duty.

Thus began the little known story of Solomon Moseby.    

For as his heart quickened with the pace, in perfect harmony with the sunlit streams and the fresh smells of Spring, Solomon dared to wonder what freedom might be like.
Irresistibly, he headed straight north to Fort Niagara (now Niagara-on-the-Lake; then, the capital of Upper Canada, and having 400 black residents, a tenth of the town's population).
After two arduous months Moseby arrived, wept with joy - and received a terrible shock.
Incensed at the theft of a fine horse, his Master had tracked Moseby all the way. He complained bitterly to the Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada, Sir Francis Bond Head, who jailed Moseby as a thief. 

The people were outraged. Wasn't this a hero escaping the bitter torment of slavery?
Citizens, white and black, signed a petition cleverly arguing that because a slave was property, and not a person, he was not a free agent, and therefore could not be morally or legally guilty of a crime. Bond Head deliberated deeply on this point, and ruled against them. "This land of liberty," he declared, cannot be made an asylum for the guilty of any colour."
Now here was a whole town of angry citizens claiming high moral principle to free Moseby - while their leader declared a higher principle - to jail him. It was moral gridlock. 

The next day, something magical happened. The local Preacher, Hubert Holmes, upon hearing Moseby was to be returned to slavery, thundered "NEVER WHILE I LIVE!" Black runners (risking capture by "black ruffians, as well as white," who made a living returning escaped slaves to the Americans for money), were sent off each chilly night to get recruits. Blacks from everywhere dropped their tools, and headed for Niagara. The countryside was on fire, the towns in ferment. Temporary shacks, at first a dozen, then hundreds, sprang up around the jail. Captain Richardson of the ferry "Canada," rebuffed Bond Head, swearing "no vessel commanded by me will be used to convey a man back to slavery!"

One week went by. No toilets. No food or water. Cold nights without blankets.
And the black brotherhood watched, and sang. And hundreds of the white townsfolk fed them, gave blankets, and took many into their homes. Sir Bond Head said, they will grow tired. They will be hungry. They will go home. But after three weeks, there was a siege shantytown of some 400 blacks on public grounds. Their fires burned to sweet singing voices.

On the last day, the prisoner was dragged out between armed constables, to a wagon pulled by two fiery horses. Soldiers with fixed bayonets fended off the angry crowd. The rooftops were covered with whites and blacks shouting to stop this horrible deed, as the terrifed, handcuffed Moseby was pushed into the wagon. Then, just as The Riot Act against insurrection was read, the crowd growing angrier with each word, "the gates were thrown open, and the spirited team came out with a rush."  Frightened horses reared. Women threw rocks at the guards. The Sheriff "went up and down, slashing with his sword...and many of our people had cuts on their necks."
Boldly, Preacher Holmes grabbed the reins, while Jacob Green shoved a fence rail through the spokes of the wheels. A confused Sheriff McLeod on his stamping horse was blocked by a large black woman, who would not move aside, "her ponderosity happily offering an effectual bar, but on whom he hesitated to use his sword." When he saw the horses stopped dead, and fearing mayhem, he shouted "Fire!" At which one soldier shot preacher Holmes straight through the heart. Another ran his bayonet through Green as he struggled to get away. Amidst the furor, Moseby leaped out of the wagon, and disappeared into the night. One witness said the jailguard intentionally hadn't locked the cuffs. Another, that the blacksmith had made them to open easily.

Forty blacks were jailed for insurrection. At the trial, the death of Holmes was declared "justifiable homicide." But for months to come, Upper Canada's newspapers continued the debate. One paper said Moseby was a hero; another, an ungrateful villain provoking civil disorder.But by December 4th. the Mackenzie Rebellion was under way, so the prisoners were released to fight for Canada in a special black platoon.

Meanwhile, having heard of their jail plight, an American force had moved close to Niagara to "liberate" the blacks from British Rule in the name of "republican democracy." But wanting none of that sort of "freedom," our black soldiers begged permission to fight them, and thus "to defend the glorious institutions of Great Britain."  While all this unfolded, Moseby somehow got to England, where he became legally freed. Years later, he returned to a Niagara somewhat reluctant to forgive him the sadness he had provoked in their midst.

It's time to make this great story into a great documentary.

(Thanks are owed to historians Michael Power and Nancy Butler of Welland Ontario, authors of Slavery and Freedom in Niagara, and to eye-witnesses who spoke for the record in 1897).    

Posted by williamgairdner on April 11, 2006 | Permalink


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An interesting story. The date isn't given, but if it was the year of the Mackenzie Rebellion, it would have been 1837. Niagara on the Lake was not the capital of Upper Canada at that time. Toronto, originally York, had been the capital for more than forty years, since 1796. The Fort at that town is Fort George, not Fort Niagara, I believe. Fort Niagara is across the river, in New York state. Strange that the historians couldn't get these details right. Wonder how accurate the rest of it is.

Posted by: BillBC | 2006-04-11 8:40:51 AM

Ironically enough the crown now owns her butt as surely as it would have when she was considered "property"...times change, methods change but Black victimhood is still a good lucrative industry.

Posted by: Wlyonmackenzie | 2006-04-11 10:17:44 AM

Have you people ever thought that maybe the blacks (and other visible minorities) had a point about the inequities in Ontario society? It would explain the public outcry when pretty white teenager (almost the perfect kid!) Jane Creba was gunned down but no one except the black community cared when 77 others had the same fate.

Why is it that guns always seem to kill the cutest, sweetest, nicest kids?

Posted by: Scott | 2006-04-11 10:22:28 AM

Oh Billy, questioning the GG??

She's an authority and you've said it yourself, "Don't question authority." Or does that relate to only white authority?

Now be a dear and go watch "Brokeback Mountain."

God knows you've been living it for long enough.

Posted by: Justin Fossey | 2006-04-11 10:40:07 AM

Justin, you regularly accuse posters to this blog of being homophobes, and yet you imply that William is gay as an insult?

I know taking you seriously doesn't make sense, but this time you've really got me confused.

Posted by: dr_dog | 2006-04-11 12:54:47 PM


Considering the same "historians" apparently claim that Delaware abolished slavery before Upper Canada (in fact, slavery was legal in Delaware until the end of the US Civil War in 1865 -- even after the Emancipation Proclamation!), I wouldn't put any stock in the accuracy of their claims.

Posted by: Jim in Toronto | 2006-04-11 8:00:27 PM

Slavery was legal in Delaware but it was so limited as to be of almost no importance. Less than 2% of the African population was enslaved. This leads to the misconception that slavery was illegal there. It must be pointed out that abolitionism played no role in this - rather, economics had all but ended slavery in Delaware. Slave labor had priced itself out of the market when compared to free labor.

However, slavery was also legal in New Jersey until 1865 even if no slaves had lived in the state for decades before.

Posted by: Scott | 2006-04-11 9:22:18 PM

Did the authors of _Slavery and Freedom in Niagara_ claim that New Jersey had abolished slavery in the 18th century? We're questioning the credibility of the authors, not the economics of 19th century slavery.

Posted by: Jim in Toronto | 2006-04-11 11:51:53 PM

It sounds like this book was written by local historians, and should not be taken as academic history. Clearly they have a political objective - to promote Canada as a haven for those on the bottom of American society. Unfortunately for non-whites in Ontario, they are facing a revival of a similar race-based labor system in Ontario.

The irony is that America is the haven for the best Canada has to offer. The talent moves south.

Posted by: Scott | 2006-04-12 7:53:35 AM

OBIT: Rudolf Vrba [Auschwitz Survivor]
Telegraph UK ^

Posted on 04/12/2006 7:40:17 AM PDT by Grendel9

Rudolf Vrba, who has died aged 81, survived two years in Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland before escaping to warn the world of Nazi plans to exterminate one million Hungarian Jews in 1944.

But when he and his fellow escaper Alfred Wetzler made contact with the Jewish Council at Zilina in Slovakia, offering the first detailed eye-witness accounts of what had previously been unconfirmed rumour, they were treated with caution.

First they were asked to dictate their personal accounts separately and then rigorously cross-examined about their revelations.

The results then formed the 32-page report known as The Auschwitz Protocols.

Although Winston Churchill was to declare that Auschwitz was "probably the greatest and most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world", theeir evidence met a tardy response.

The Hungarian Ministry of Justice, awaiting take-over by the Germans, actively participated in the deportations.

The Allies, hard-pressed in the battle of Normandy, refused to divert aircraft to the difficult task of of bombing the railway line from Hungary to Poland.

Sharp criticism was to be levelled against some leaders of Hungary's Jewish community, who failed to warn their people what being "resettled" in Poland meant.

Vrba was disgusted by the excuse that these leaders were negotiating with Adolf Eichmann for the one million Hungarian Jews to be spared in exchange for cash and rail trucks which the Germans could use on the eastern front.

He said that there was no chance of the talks succeeding, and the resulting delay caused some 50,000 Hungarian deaths. + more

Posted by: maz2 | 2006-04-12 10:12:18 AM

RIP - sounds like a good and decent person who tried to save lives. How sad that the people of Ontario still refuse to acknowledge the occurrance of the Holocaust.

Holocaust denial is an insult not only to those who perished, but also to the veterans of the Allied forces from around the world who sacrificed in order to end it. The stupidity of Ontario is most clearly revealed on Rememberance Day, when they "claim" to honor the veterans yet continue the legacy of Ontario's favorite son, Ernst Zundel. A disgrace.

Posted by: Scott | 2006-04-12 10:44:11 AM

Scott, interesting points. Didn't know there were still Westerners who deny the Holocaust.

I have heard a rumour, and it is wild speculation, that the number of girls and young unmarried women that disappear in the Islamic world (under Sharia) is in the tens of thousands every year.

Honour killings: today's very real holocaust.

Posted by: cracker-crusader | 2006-04-12 11:26:49 AM

Holocaust denial knows no geographic or cultural barriers. However, in Canada, the elitist Ontarians have this image of the west being intolerant. They really should look at themselves to see the greatest form of racism: multiculturalism. Whenever non-whites allege racism, the elites counter with how tolerant and pleasant they are. At the same time, non-whites are placed in the worst jobs, the worst neighborhoods, and given none of the benefits of whites. They see Holocaust denial as another form of debate, rather than a fraud - mainly because their own society is a sham.

Posted by: Scott | 2006-04-12 12:26:26 PM

Indeed development on the "Moseby Affair" film is already underway right here in Canada. Thanks for the interest and suggestions, it just goes to show the importance of a story like this.

Richard M. Landau
Executive Producer
"Moseby Affair"

Posted by: Richard M. Landau | 2006-05-04 11:43:13 AM

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