Out of Africa

Out of Africa

York University researchers are digitally archiving thousands of documents that reveal how Africans fleeing the slave trade in the 18th Century relocated in Upper Canada
September 1, 2004
When a colleague of Paul Lovejoy's drew his attention to an Arabic document that was more than 150 years old, Lovejoy had no idea he was on the verge of an exciting discovery. Mistakenly catalogued as fragments of the Koran, the sacred book of Islam, the text had long been overlooked and its author ignored by history...

As Director of the Harriet Tubman Resource Centre on the African Diaspora, Lovejoy is on a constant quest for documents and biographical data to tell the story of the African diaspora. The diaspora is the forced migration of millions of African slaves around the Atlantic basin in the 18th and 19th centuries.

When Lovejoy and his student, Yacine Daddi Addoun, examined the documents closely, they discovered they consisted of a pamphlet containing two books on praying, written about 1820 by a Muslim slave named Muhammad Kaba Saghanughu. Saghanughu, who was born in West Africa, ended up on a coffee plantation in Jamaica. There, Lovejoy believes, he became the Imam of a secret and previously unknown community of about 1,000 Muslim slaves. Without the Canadian professor's research, Saghanughu's story—and many others like it—would likely have stayed lost, and a vital part of African history would have been lost along with it.

The Harriet Tubman Resource Centre hopes to find more original material of this type to post on its biographical database. The Centre, housed at York University, is a digital library and research facility that collects the stories of slaves like Saghanughu. It also preserves the history of the free communities that sprang up in Canada when escaped or free blacks arrived at their final destinations on the Underground Railroad. Named after Harriet Tubman, the famed conductor on that railroad, Lovejoy hopes the Centre will eventually make it possible for the descendants of slaves to trace their geneology.

Using state-of-the-art equipment—including digital cameras, microfiche readers, and scanners-provided with support from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Centre is linking researchers around the world and giving them access to documents and records gathered from across the globe. The documents are in dozens of languages and have been found in the archives, public records offices, and libraries of countries from Nigeria to Haiti, from France to Brazil.

Lovejoy says there's no shortage of material to digitize. Because the slave trade was both profitable and widespread, by 1800 more than six million Africans had been forcibly taken from the Old World to the New. More than 20,000 descendants of Africans arrived in Upper Canada. "We're discovering that rather than there being a lack of information, there is a ton of information in every country," he says. "It's helping us to understand the complete dimension of the movement of Africans through slavery and throughout the world. It's really amazing."


Canada's involvement in the abolition of transatlantic slavery is an early example of its strong humanitarian tradition—something Canadians should be aware of and celebrate, says Paul Lovejoy, Director of the Harriet Tubman Resource Centre on the African Diaspora.

In fact, Lovejoy traces the roots of Canada's current refugee policy to the way escaped slaves and free blacks were welcomed into what was then Upper Canada in the years prior to, and during, the U.S. Civil War.

As early as 1841, the Upper Canada government received a report on immigration that anticipated an influx of black slaves from the United States. "The government of the day was sensitive to the issue, and the arrival of the refugees was not a problem," says Lovejoy. "The refugees often came destitute, but they were really against begging in any way. They were looked after in a variety of ways, and the government found jobs for everyone."

Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman

The subsequent integration of freed blacks and escaped slaves into Canadian society, in villages like today's Buxton near Chatham, Ontario, is an early experiment in multiculturalism. It's also an important part of Canadian history that the Harriet Tubman Resource Centre is working to document. "It's a success story, and how it happened is relevant to Canadian foreign policy," says Lovejoy. "We're a country of immigrants. So how any particular group of immigrants was treated, and what their experience is, is something we should know about."

Tracing the movement of slaves around the globe has also turned up evidence of the strong and early ties between Canada and the Caribbean, and demonstrated the extraordinary mobility of freed blacks who travelled between the regions.

Lovejoy hopes the research he's doing, along with his students and colleagues, will also document the critical contributions that Africans have made to the modern world. To help accomplish this, the Centre is already developing software, creating new educational materials, and helping to bolster tourism to Underground Railroad sites and museums devoted to black history in Canada. In addition to highlighting the contributions that Africans have made to Canada, Lovejoy believes the Centre's work will demonstrate that Canada took a leadership role on the slavery issue.


More than 10 years before the U.S. Civil War began, Fanny Rouse brought her children from South Carolina to Ontario to settle on the 9,000-acre Elgin Settlement founded for fugitive American slaves.

Rouse—whose children were given the last name "Prince," after their former master and father—joined the Buxton Mission, at the heart of the Elgin Settlement, which sheltered more than 2,000 former slaves and free blacks between 1849 and 1865.

Today, Rouse's great-great-great-grandson, Bryan Prince, a farmer, writer, and lecturer, sits on the board of the Buxton National Historical Site and Museum. The museum is located in North Buxton, Ontario, near the site where Fanny first found freedom and acceptance.

With the help of Paul Lovejoy and the Harriet Tubman Resource Centre on the African Diaspora, and with financial assistance from Human Resources Development Canada, the Buxton National Historical Site and Museum has hired and trained a team of dedicated workers. The team is preserving and digitizing the history of the community—where about 100 descendants of the original black families still live near Chatham, Ontario.

That means files that used to lie in binders and boxes—containing census records, township tax rolls, family bibles, wills, and land-transfer documents—have been scanned, digitized, and archived for future reference. Using the digital records, the research team is trying to identify the many fugitive slaves and free blacks who came to Canada. By doing so, they hope to make that period of history come alive for generations of descendants, historians, and researchers.

It also means that, when descendants of former slaves arrive at the museum to trace their family history, they are able to share their stories, photographs, and documents in a way that preserves them and builds a global body of knowledge.