Black Then: Blacks and Montreal, 1780s–1880s


225 pages
Contains Photos, Illustrations, Maps, Bibliography
ISBN 0-7735-2735-4
DDC 971.4'2800496




Reviewed by Bruce Grainger

Bruce Grainger is head of the Public Services Department, Macdonald
Library, McGill University.


In this book, journalist Frank Mackey profiles 30 black people who lived
in Montreal during a century-long period ending in the 1880s. In
virtually all of the stories, there exists only one or two surviving
documents upon which the author weaves an inventive story with humour,
whimsy, and irony. We learn about the enslavement of black and Native
peoples in Canada during the French regime and after. The last
advertisement offering a slave woman for sale appeared in the Montreal
Gazette on January 18, 1798.

It is, therefore, especially ironic that the first story describes how
after years of litigation in St. Louis, Missouri, the daughter of a
Canadian slave obtained her freedom on the grounds that slavery had
never existed in Canada! By the late 1790s, judges in Montreal began to
free slaves who appeared in their courts, much to the consternation of
the slaveowners. Petitions by slavemasters presented to the House of
Assembly in 1799 and 1800 were unsuccessful in having legislation
enacted that would have specifically confirmed their legal right to own
slaves in Lower Canada. One of the most astonishing stories is that of a
French-Canadian seigneur, a member of the Legislative Council, who
punished his slave for conduct he disapproved of by setting him free.

The individuals portrayed range from sober, hardworking, honest men and
women to prostitute, thief, or fraud artist, from very well off to
poverty-stricken. In addition to documents relevant to the issue of
slavery, the book includes drawings, photographs, and lists of
illustrations, sources, and further readings.


Mackey, Frank., “Black Then: Blacks and Montreal, 1780s–1880s,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 21, 2024,