Broken Shackles: Old Man Henson from Slavery to Freedom


221 pages
Contains Photos, Illustrations, Maps, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 1-896219-57-8
DDC 973.7'115'092




Reviewed by Terry A. Crowley

Terry A. Crowley is a professor of history at the University of Guelph,
and the former editor of the journal, Ontario History. He is the author
of Agnes Macphail and the Politics of Equality and Canadian History to
1967, and the co-author of The College o


History has long since abandoned efforts to record the achievements only
of victors, but recapturing the lives of ordinary people is much more
difficult, particularly if they are small minorities such as African
Canadians. Black Loyalists settled particularly in Nova Scotia, Ontario
was the terminus for the Underground Railway, and Alberta served as a
refuge from vigilantism for African Americans. By the early 1860s,
Ontario’s population of African descent might have been as high as
30,000, but it diminished rapidly with the end of the American Civil War
in 1865. Since very few records have survived that are not related to
the abolition of slavery, it is difficult to reconstruct a larger
portrait of this period in African-Canadian history.

In 1889, Toronto publisher William Briggs produced a book entitled
Broken Shackles. The author was wealthy Owen Sound bachelor John Frost
Jr., but the book appeared under the pseudonym Glenelg. The volume
purported to be a biography of a former American slave, Charlie Chance,
who had himself adopted the name of Jim Henson. The account assumed the
general form of anti-slavery narratives in denouncing the evil of trade
in bodies and the cruelties inherent in a system allowing humans to own
other humans, but with mild Canadian anti-Americanism. The narrator’s
voice was double: the direct revelations of the supposed person being
written about, including his encounter with famed abolitionist John
Brown, and the more ample reflections of the author himself.

This duality makes Broken Shackles a very problematic source for
African-Canadian history. Not a shred of evidence is provided to
establish that anyone named Charlie Chance or Jim Henson ever existed.
He may have been solely a figment of John Frost’s imagination, or he
may perhaps have been modeled on someone with a different name. Those
people associated with preserving the Old Durham Road Pioneer Cemetery
in Grey County and the editor of this reissue presume the book was
indeed biography, but the case remains to be made. Even if it were a
life history, Broken Shackles remains of dubious value as a result of
the narrative’s duality.


Meyler, Peter., “Broken Shackles: Old Man Henson from Slavery to Freedom,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed May 20, 2024,