‘Discovery’ of New Found Land and Cape Breton: Who was Caboto and what was his claim on Canada? Plus:
• Why Canada Was Called a “Dominion”
• Letters Patent Issued to John Cabot and the Royal Prerogative
• The Royal Charter to the Hudson’s Bay Company
• The Royal Family
Mi’kmaq resistance carries on to the present. Above, they militantly defend their hereditary rights blocking a fracking operation near Rexton, New Brunswick, October 7, 2013.
By TONY SEED*
The Venetian navigator Giovanni Caboto (John Cabot), commissioned by Henry VII of England, landed in Newfoundland on June 24, 1497. Believing it to be an island off the coast of Asia, he named it New Found Land.
Under the commission of this king to “subdue, occupy, and possesse” the lands of “heathens and infidels,” Caboto reconnoitred the Newfoundland coast and also landed on the northern shore of Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia.
He returned to England on August 6, 1497 and took three Mi’kmaq with him thereby introducing the enslavement of human persons into North America. This may be responsible for his disappearance when he returned to Newfoundland with five ships in 1498. When his ships arrived in northern Cape Breton Island, the Mi’kmaq attacked. Only one ship arrived back in England, the other four, including the one with Caboto as captain, never returned. Caboto’s own family was enriched by the slave trade. His son Sebastian, while working for the Spanish king in 1529, apparently purchased “50 to 60 slaves … in Brazil, for … sale in Seville.”
The royal charter stipulated that King Henry VII would acquire “rule, title, and jurisdiction” over all lands “discovered” by Cabot. It is the foundation upon which the “Dominion of Canada,” as a supposed legal entity, is based. Caboto, sailing from Bristol, a strategic port in the Atlantic slave trade, represented the trading, commercial and shipping houses – such as Lloyds of London and Barclays Bank – who amassed fabulous wealth from the kidnapping of Africans and later financed the neo-colonial confederation of Canada, created in 1867, and its railroads from their booty.
Caboto had told stories of the sea teeming with fish on his return to England. European colonial fishing fleets began making trips to the Grand Banks every summer.
Initially the Mi’kmaq and Beothuk, however reluctantly at times, treated the visitors as political equals in most important respects and were willing to trade and allow the Europeans to briefly land and dry the cod.
In 1500, Gaspar Corte-Real, a slave trader financed by Portugal, captured several Mi’kmaq. He trolled the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador with three ships, kidnapping 57 “man slaves” (Beothuks) to be sold to finance the cost of the expedition, and claiming it on behalf of Portugal. His belief that Nitassinan was teeming with potential captives led to it being called Labrador, “the source of labour material.” While two of the ships returned to Portugal, Corte-Real and his ship were lost at sea.
By 1504 Bretons were fishing off the coast of Mi’kma’ki country. The fishermen dried their catch on shore and began trading fur with the Mi’kmaq, giving rise to a new commodity and European dreams of greater riches. In 1507 Norman fishermen took another seven Beothuk prisoners to France. This affected all future relations between the Beothuk, Mi’kmaq and the fishermen.
João Álvares Fagundes (1521-25), Giovanni da Verrazano (1524), and Estebán Gomez (1525) followed to Mi’kma’ki.
The French “Discovery” of Kanata
The French explorer Jacques Cartier dropped anchor in Baie des Chaleurs, New Brunswick in 1534. Alarmed by the hundreds of Mi’kmaq in canoes waving beaver skins, he fired cannon over their heads. The Mi’kmaq, who were willing to trade, had to retreat. Cartier began trading with them after being reassured that this was not a hostile attack. He then sent Indigenous prisoners to France. He subsequently landed July 24, 1534 at Baie de Gaspé on territory inhabited by the Haudenosaunee. The French erected a large cross and Cartier claimed possession of the land in the name of the French king François I. When confronted by the Haudenosaunee, Cartier said the cross was merely a navigational marker. Later, Cartier was guided to the village (Kanata) of Stadacona (present day Quebec City) by two Haudenosaunee youths. He designated the entire region north of the St. Lawrence River as “Canada” – a colonizer’s designation that came to encompass a massive swath of Turtle Island, where a nation state was later born on hundreds of nations already existing across the breadth of what is now called Canada.
An epidemic of an unknown illness struck the Maritimes in 1564-70, decimating the Mi’kmaq population.
The Gilbert Patent of “Discovery”– Newfoundland
On July 11, 1578, Sir Humphrey Gylberte (Sir Humphrey Gilbert) received a grant from Queen Elizabeth I to discover and occupy in the next six years a site for a colony not already in European hands. While he himself could hold land there and convey it to others, all would in turn be held by the Crown and his colony was to be governed by laws agreeable to those of England. He, along with his half-brother Sir Walter Raleigh, was already a colonizer through English colonial plantations in Gaelic Ireland (Ulster and Munster). In 1583, after an earlier failed attempt, Gilbert followed in the well-known track of the fishing fleet to the Grand Banks, where he attempted to settle a colony in Newfoundland.
Gilbert failed to withstand the cold and starvation due to the lack of resources, but he nonetheless laid formal claim to Newfoundland and the Maritimes on August 5, 1583. France, citing Jacques Cartier’s voyage and the doctrine of “discovery,” opposed the claim. Gilbert lost one ship off Sable Island on August 29,1583 – recorded as Canada’s first “marine disaster” – and subsequently drowned in a storm on September 9, 1583 near the Azores.
In 1584, Sir Walter Raleigh had Gilbert’s patent reissued in his favour, with Newfoundland excluded from its scope, and he made a series of unsuccessful attempts to establish plantation colonies on Roanoke Island. Although the island was located off the coast of North Carolina, he named it as part of the land called Virginia, in honour of Queen Elizabeth I of England, who was referred to as the Virgin Queen.
In 1586, typhus was spread amongst the already weakened Mi’kmaq population, and yet more lives were lost to a deadly disease brought by the Europeans.
Every monarch and their family from Elizabeth Tudor onwards were financiers and beneficiaries of this trade in human flesh. By the 18th century, having overcome the Dutch, Spanish and French colonial empires, Britain ruled the seas with a system of overseas naval-military bases such as Halifax, and emerged as the world’s leading human trafficker with a virtual monopoly over the cod trade. About half of all enslaved Africans were transported in British ships. Eighty per cent of Britain’s income was connected with these activities.
A century and a half later, in 1756 on order of King George II, Governor Lawrence of Nova Scotia expelled as many as 10,000 Acadians in the Great Upheaval (Le Grand Dérangement) for refusing to take an oath of loyalty to Britain. In parallel, unable to stop the Mi’kmaq resistance, bounties were paid by British governors such as Lord Cornwallis for scalps of both Mi’kmaq and Acadians. Many Acadians fled into the forests and fought a guerrilla war beside the Mi’kmaq, carrying out a series of military operations against the British. (Many others died at sea or settled here and there. Many became the modern day Cajuns in Louisiana.)
By 1758 over 400 fishing boats were gathering every summer off Newfoundland and the Maritimes. The development of the Atlantic fisheries, a seemingly inexhaustible source of cheap protein, is inextricably linked to the Atlantic slave trade, which fertilized the development of the capitalist system and the consolidation of national states in Europe. It later formed the basis of the wealth of leading families in colonial Nova Scotia and New England.
By this time, millions of Indigenous peoples had been slaughtered in South America and the Caribbean.
The 500th anniversary of Caboto’s landfall
In 1997, on the quincentennial of Caboto’s landfall, the sovereign of Canada, Queen Elizabeth II, toured the country sponsored by the Canadian and British governments. According to her, Caboto’s landfall “represented the geographical and intellectual beginning of modern North America ” – the Eurocentric Discovery Doctrine. As is well known, Newfoundland is where the genocide of the Beothuk Indians occurred. Queen Elizabeth was right – the pattern was set there. So far as the Indigenous peoples are concerned, of course, the pattern set was genocide. The Beothuk were exterminated by the 1830s. By 1867, the population of the Mi’kmak had been reduced to some 2,000. The Inuit dropped from approximately 500,000 before contact to some 102,000 by 1871.
When Queen Elizabeth II visited Sheshatshiu in Labrador, the reception was “mixed,” as “protestors waved placards denouncing her visit.”
Innu women demonstrate in the mid-1980s against NATO overflights and for self-determination for their homeland which they call Nitassinan.
The Canadian Press reported: “Aboriginals have said it’s insulting to celebrate explorer John Cabot’s arrival in North America because of the devastating impact colonization has had on them. The Queen’s visit to this riverside community (Bonavista) of 1,200 stood out on other levels. Dogs meandered about her sand-covered route and there was not a Union Jack or Maple Leaf in sight. There was none of the gushing witnessed at previous events this week …”
In Sheshatshiu, Innu community leaders presented her a letter on June 26, 1997 that read in part:
“The history of colonization here has been lamentable and has severely demoralized our People. They turn now to drink and self-destruction. We have the highest rate of suicide in North America. Children as young as 12 have taken their own life recently. We feel powerless to prevent the massive mining projects now planned and many of us are driven into discussing mere financial compensation, even though we know that the mines and hydroelectric dams will destroy our land and our culture and that money will not save us.
“The Labrador part of Nitassinan was claimed as British soil until very recently (1949), when without consulting us, your government ceded it to Canada. We have never, however, signed any treaty with either Great Britain or Canada. Nor have we ever given up our right to self-determination.
“The fact that we have become financially dependent on the state which violates our rights is a reflection of our desperate circumstances. It does not mean that we acquiesce in those violations.
“We have been treated as non-People, with no more rights than the caribou on which we depend and which are now themselves being threatened by NATO war exercises and other so-called development. In spite of this, we remain a People in the fullest sense of the word. We have not given up, and we are now looking to rebuild our pride and self esteem.”
On June 30, 2004 the late Keptin Saqamow Reginald Maloney opened the Halifax International Symposium on the Media and Disinformation held at Dalhousie University by delivering the fraternal welcome of his people to the participants from North America, Europe and Asia. “The greatest disinformation we have faced is that of the ‘discovery doctrine’ of the Spanish, Portuguese and British colonial powers, which still ravages us today,” he declared in his welcoming address.
On October 12, 2013 the Mi’kmaq Warriors Society and Elsipogtog First Nation in New Brunswick, who were blockading a Texas monopoly’s fracking operation demanded, as was their right, that the government “produce documents proving Cabot’s Doctrine of Discovery.”
The important question is not the Queen, but why the political power does not represent all human beings. The resistance of the First Nations and different collectives of the Canadian people to the new arrangements of the mid-19th century creating the Confederation of Canada, in defence of their rights, is outstanding and second-to-none. The just demands of the Indigenous peoples for the recognition of their rights is not a matter of a “special interest” but an issue facing the entire polity, which can only be resolved through modern arrangements that uphold rights on the basis that they are inviolable and belong to people by virtue of their being.
1. The main source for this article is “Mi’kmaq & First Nations Timeline (75,000 BC – 2000 AD): Eclipse & Enlightenment,” Tony Seed and the editors of Shunpiking Magazine, Halifax, 2000. With a file from Richard Sanders.
Contrary to all traditional European accounts of the “discovery” of America, which put the Vikings in first place followed by Columbus, overwhelming anthropological evidence places Africans in the Americas since the 9th century. Long before Europeans arrived on the shores of the Americas, evidence indicates that Africans have already travelled to the Americas, including Quebec, and that the Mi’kmaq from the Maritimes had reached Europe and Africa.
In one account predating the official “discovery” of America, in 1398, Prince Henry Sinclair, a Scotsman, reputedly landed in Cape Caruso, Guysborough, travelled to Pictou and Stellarton, stayed with the Mí’kmaq for a year, built a ship and sailed back home. The story is disputed but, according to Kerry Prosper of Afton, Mi’kmaq motifs from that time are clearly evident today at the Sinclair estate in Scotland, which he has visited. [Personal communication]
The following excerpt from “Looking Forward, Looking Back,” the first volume of the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, published in October 1996 reflects the traditional European account of discovery:
“First contacts between Aboriginal peoples and Europeans were sporadic and apparently occurred about a thousand years ago when Norsemen proceeding from Iceland and Greenland are believed to have voyaged to the coast of North America. There is archaeological evidence of a settlement having been established at L’Anse aux Meadows on the northern peninsula of what is now Newfoundland. Accounts of these early voyages and of visits to the coast of Labrador are found in many of the Norse sagas. They mention contact with the indigenous inhabitants who, on the island of Newfoundland, were likely to have been the Beothuk people, and on the Labrador coast, the Innu.
“These early Norse voyages are believed to have continued until the 1340s, and to have included visits to Arctic areas such as Ellesmere and Baffin Island where the Norse would have encountered Inuit. Inuit legends appear to support Norse sagas on this score. The people who established the L’Anse aux Meadows settlement were agriculturalists, although their initial economic base is thought to have centred on the export of wood to Greenland as well as trade in furs. Conflict with Aboriginal people likely occurred relatively soon after the colony was established. Thus, within a few years of their arrival, the Norse appear to have abandoned the settlement and with it the first European colonial experiment in North America.
“Further intermittent commercial contacts ensued with other Europeans, as sailors of Basque, English, French and other nationalities came in search of natural resources such as timber, fish, furs, whale, walrus and polar bear.”
2. Caboto came armed with assumptions similar to those of the Spanish colonialists further south. Thus, the letters patent issued to John Cabot by King Henry VII gave the explorer instructions to seize the lands and population centres of the territories “newely founde” in order to prevent other, competing European nations from doing the same:
“And that the aforesaid Iohn and his sonnes…may subdue, occupie, and possesse, all such townes, cities, castles, and yles, of them founde, which they can subdue, occupie and possesse, as our vassailes and lieutenantes, getting vnto vs the rule, title, and iurisdiction of the same villages, townes, castles and firme lands so founde…. ”
Historian Hans Koning points out:
“From the beginning, the Spaniards saw the Native Americans as natural slaves, beasts of burden, part of the loot. When working them to death was more economical than treating them somewhat humanely, they worked them to death.
“The English, on the other hand, had no use for the Native peoples. They saw them as devil worshippers, savages who were beyond salvation by the church, and exterminating them increasingly became accepted policy.”
From The Conquest of America: How the Indian Nations Lost Their Continent (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1993), p. 46.
4. While the King gave Cabot the “full and free authority, faculty and power” to “find, discover and investigate whatsoever islands, countries, regions or provinces of heathens and infidels,” there was an important caveat, as Richard Sanders points out. Cabot’s licence only applied to lands that “were unknown to all Christians.”
With this imperial licence to wage an unending, plunderous war against non-Christians, Cabot and “his sons or their heirs and deputies” gained the exclusive right to rule as the King’s “vassals and governors, lieutenants and deputies.” In exchange, they were “bounden and under obligation” to pay King Henry “either in goods or money, the fifth part [20 per cent] of the whole capital gained.” The “capital” was defined as “all the fruits, profits, emoluments [earnings], commodities, gains and revenues.”
“John Cabot and Britain’s Fictitious Claim on Canada: Finding our National Origins in a Royal Licence to Conquer,” by Richard Sanders, Press for Conversion!, Magazine of the Coalition to Oppose the Arms Trade, No. 69. (PDF)
5. Hoping Against Hope? The Struggle Against Colonialism in Canada. A three-part audio documentary series, Praxis Media Productions and the Nova Scotia Public Interest Research Group, 2007. Audio files for the series are available here.
6. “[Gilbert’s] vision of a transplanted English gentry exploiting vast new American lands in a feudal setting was not wholly unrealistic (it was to be realized later, to some extent, in Maryland) but his plans were far too wide-ranging for his resources and there was some lack of scruple in his easy disposal in bulk of lands which he had never seen.”
“(1) the belief in the inherent superiority of one’s own group and culture accompanied by a feeling of contempt for other groups and cultures; (2) a tendency to view alien groups or cultures in terms of one’s own.”
The Eurocentric worldview looks down on all persons of African or other descent as subhuman, peoples without history or thought, destined for servitude. Before the European slave trade emerged, no uniform or universal racist ideology existed.
For Your Information
Why Canada was called a “Dominion”
The following explanation of the word Dominion as used in the name given Canada when it was constituted in 1867 was given by Tonya Gonnella Frichner. Tonya was a professor from upstate New York as well as a lawyer and highly respected activist whose academic and professional life was devoted to the pursuit of human rights for Indigenous peoples. This excerpt is from “Impact on Indigenous Peoples of the International Legal construct known as the Doctrine of Discovery, which has served as the Foundation of the Violation of their Human Rights,” UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, February 4, 2010. She explained:
The Old World idea of property was well expressed by the Latin word dominium: from dominus, … and the Sanskrit domanus (he who subdues). Dominus carries the same principal meaning (one who has subdued), extending naturally to signify ”master, possessor, lord, proprietor, owner.“
Dominium takes from dominus the sense of ”absolute ownership“ with a special legal meaning of “property right of ownership“ (Lewis and Short, A Latin Dictionary, 1969).
Dominatio extends the word into ”rule, dominium, and … with an odious secondary meaning, unrestricted power, absolute dominium, lordship, tyranny, despotism. Political power grown from property — dominium — was, in effect, domination.“ (William Brandon, New Worlds for Old, 1986, p.121).
State claims and assertions of “dominion” and “sovereignty” over “Indigenous peoples and their lands, territories and resources” trace to these dire meanings, handed down from the days of the Roman Empire, and to a history of dehumanization of Indigenous peoples. This is at the root of Indigenous peoples’ human rights issues today.
An excerpt follows from ”The Letters Patents of King Henry the Seventh Granted unto Iohn Cabot and his Three Sonnes, Lewis, Sebastian and Sancius for the Discouerie of New and Unknowen Lands,“ of March 5, 1498. Letters Patent and other instructions given to voyagers to the ”new world,“ illustrate how Great Britain and France initially had far-reaching plans for imperialist adventures in North America that took little account of the rights of the Aboriginal inhabitants:
”Henry, by the grace of God, king of England and France, and lord of Ireland, to all to whom these presents shall come, Greeting. Be it knowen that we haue giuen and granted, and by these presents do giue and grant for vs and our heiress to our welbeloued Iohn Cabot citizen of Venice, to Lewis, Sebastian, and Santius, sonnes of the sayd Iohn, and to the heires of them, and euery of them, and their deputies, full and free authority, leaue, and power to saile to all parts, countreys, and seas of the East, of the West, and of the North, vnder our banners and ensignes, with fine ships of what burthen or quantity soeuer they be, and as many mariners or men as they will haue with them in the sayd ships, vpon their owne proper costs and charges, to seeke out, discouer, and finde whatsoever isles, countreys, regions or prouinces of the heathen and infidels whatsoeuer they be, and in what part of the world soeuer they be, which before this time haue bene vnknowen to all Christians; we haue granted to them, and also to euery of them, the heires of them, and euery of them, and their deputies, and haue giuen them licence to set vp our banners and ensignes in euery village, towns, castle, isle, or maine land of them newly found. And that the aforesayd Iohn and his sonnes, or their heires and assignee may subdue, occupy and possesse all such townes, cities, castles and isles of them found, which they can subdue, occupy and possesse, as our vassals, and lieutenants, getting vnto vs the rule, title, and jurisdiction of the same villages, townes, castles, & firme land so found…. Witnesse our selfe at Westminister, the fifth day of March, In the eleventh yeere of our reigne.“
In the European context, all the rights pertained to the king by divine right and he ruled in conjunction with the church. In 1215, Magna Carta was signed by which the feudal nobility forced the king to hand some of his rights over to them. The King or Queen issued royal Charters by the authority of the Royal Prerogative, which continues to date in the unrepresentative Westminster parliamentary system imposed on Canada in 1867 and the royal prerogative. Charters are legal documents that decreed grants, particularly land grants, by the sovereign to his or her subjects.
The power and authority of the King and Queen are almost absolute, as the following commentary on the laws of England by William Blackstone shows:
“And, first, the law ascribes to the king the attribute of sovereignty, or pre-eminence…. He is said to have imperial dignity, and in charters before the conquest is frequently styled basileus and imperator, the titles respectively assumed by the emperors of the east and west. His realm is declared to be an empire, and his crown imperial, by many acts of parliament, particularly the statutes 24 Hen. VIII. c. 12. and 25 Hen. VIII. c. 28; which at the same time declare the king to be the supreme head of the realm in matters both civil and ecclesiastical, and of consequence inferior to no man upon earth, dependent on no man, accountable to no man.”
In Canada, between 1754 and 1763 British generals monopolized power in their own hands through conquest on behalf of the Crown.
In a series of acts, the British modified the Royal Prerogative to include a new basis legitimizing the subjugation of the Indigenous peoples and to include men of propertied means in the political power whose power was absolute. The Royal Proclamation of 1763, one of the most significant colonial decrees issued after the ceding by France of Canada to the British (Treaty of Paris, deciding the Seven Years War), explicitly forbade grants ”upon any Pretence whatever“ of any land ”not having been ceded to or purchased by us“ from the Indigenous peoples:
”And whereas it is just and reasonable, and essential to our interest and the security of our colonies, that several Nations or Tribes of Indians with whom we are connected, or who live under our protection, should not be molested or disturbed in the possession of such parts of our dominions and territories as not having been ceded to or purchased by us are reserved to them or any of them as their hunting grounds.“
It goes on to forbid any more private purchases and prescribes the procedure by which the Crown would acquire land so reserved and when it was needed for settlement.
Hardial Bains wrote in A Future to Face, a book published at the time of the successful campaign to defeat the 1992 Charlottetown Accord:
“The Royal Proclamation of October 7, 1763 placed the political power in the hands of an Executive consisting of a Governor and Council appointed by the ruling authority, the Colonial Office in London. It was a direct rule under the sovereign authority of the British King as advised by the 18th century Parliament. The proclamation included a provision for a popular assembly ‘as soon as… circumstances admit.’”
In 1767 the whole of Prince Edward Island was granted in one day by royal decree to a few dozen “absentee proprietors.”
The Quebec Act, 1774, followed by the Constitutional Act, 1791, marked the use of noblesse in order to preserve and extend the power established in 1763. The latter act, along with the division of Quebec into Upper and Lower Canada, vested legislative authority in the Governor or Lieutenant-Governor acting with the advice of a legislative council and assembly in each of the two colonies. “A bill passed in both the Legislative Assembly and the appointed Legislative Council could be accepted or rejected by the Governor or he could reserve it for the pleasure of the Crown. Any bill assented by the Governor could be over-ruled by the British government any time within two years. The Governor and Executive Council were constituted into the Court of Appeal, with the right to appeal to the British Privy Council in London as final arbiter.”
In 1867, the Confederation as it emerged did not provide a modern conception of democracy which eradicates enslavement. Confederation was not negotiated on the basis of a free and voluntary union with the Indigenous peoples, nor was it put to the population of the Canadas for approval or rejection in any democratic vote in any of the colonies, with the exception of New Brunswick where it was defeated. Put into effect in 1867, the British North America Act – in modern terms referred to as Constitution Act, 1867 – formulated a central government that preserves the sovereignty of the Queen. The concentration of executive power, through conquest, becomes perpetuated through to the 21st century in the form of executive federalism and the Westminster parliamentary democracy. The Dominion of Canada was the name commonly used until around World War II. Invoking the providence of the Biblical God of the Israelites, the neo-colonial state drew upon the Old Testament and the eighth verse of King Solomon’s 72d Psalm for its name: “And He shall have dominion also from sea to sea, And from the River unto the ends of the earth.”
The Royal Charter to the Hudson’s Bay Company
On May 2, 1670, Charles II granted a Royal Charter to the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) headed by his cousin Prince Rupert of the Rhine and his Company of Adventurers of England – “Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudson’s Bay” – delivering proprietary rights, exclusive trading privileges, and limited governmental power covering:
“…all the Landes and Territoryes upon the Countryes Coastes and confynes of the Seas Bayes Lakes Rivers Creekes and Soundes aforesaid [that is, “that lye within the entrance of the Streights commonly called Hudsons Streights”] that are not already actually possessed by or granted to any of our Subjectes or possessed by the Subjectes of any other Christian Prince or State…”
The charter granted one company a monopoly of trade in the Bay and ownership of all lands drained by rivers flowing into the Bay. The HBC established an English colonial presence in the Northwest and a competitive route with France to the fur trade. Numerous unsuccessful challenges emerged concerning the legitimacy and accuracy of the land grant.
The Hudson Bay Company, Canadian Land Company and British American Land Company all included British slave owners on their boards of directors. Much of the profits of Barings, a London bank which enriched itself from slavery and the 1833 Abolition of Slavery Act, were re-exported to finance the neo-colonial confederation of Canada created in 1867 and the railway and territorial expansion of the U.S. and Canadian colonial states in the 1800s. The slave trade formed the basis of wealth for many leading families of the gentry, among them the “father of Confederation” Sir John A. Macdonald, who had a direct personal family link to slavery. Most importantly, Macdonald was himself an ardent architect of genocide.
The wealth of the Bank of Nova Scotia and the Royal Bank – both of which were founded in Halifax, Nova Scotia – was originally generated from the significant mercantile trade from the Atlantic fisheries to provide protein to the slave plantations (the triangular trade) in the Caribbean, along with the building of slave ships – euphemistically described by historians as the “West Indies trade“ – and later in the sugar, rum, and coffee trade, exploitation of railways, shipping, electrical power, bauxite and other mining resources, and military adventures. London-based slave owners played a significant role in the settlement, exploitation, and expansion of Canada through to the 1800s.
The Royal Family
Henry VII, Giovanni Caboto’s royal benefactor, in 1497 – the year of Cabot’s first expedition – smashed the Second Cornish Rebellion, killing 2,000 and selling thousands of captured rebels into slavery.
Later, from the enslavement and deportation of the Irish to British colonies in the West Indies to the kidnapping of Africans, the British Crown made much of their vast personal wealth from the human slave trade.
In The Open Veins of Latin America, Eduardo Galeano describes how in 1562 Queen Elizabeth I of England (1558-1603) became a business partner of the English pirate Captain John Hawkins, “the English father of the slave trade.” Official English participation in the African Slave Trade began that year and Blacks were expelled from England by law in 1596, by a proclamation issued by Elizabeth I:
“[T]here are of late divers blackmoores brought into this realme, of which kinde of people there are allready here to manie … Her Majesty’s pleasure therefore ys that those kinde of people should be sent forth of the lande.”
Accordingly, a group of slaves were rounded up and given to a German slave trader, Caspar van Senden, in “payment” for duties he had performed.
In 1632, King Charles I granted a licence to transport slaves from Guinea, from which is derived the name of the coin of the realm – guinea. Charles II was a shareholder in the Royal African Company, which made vast profits from the slave trade, paying 300 per cent in dividends, although only 46,000 of the 70,000 slaves it shipped between 1680 and 1688 survived the crossing. Its Governor and largest shareholder, was James, Duke of York who branded the initials “DY” on the left buttock or breast of each of the 3,000 Blacks that his concern annually took to the ”sugar islands.“ Princess Henrietta (Minette), the King’s sister, also had a share. The shareholders of its predecessor, Royal Adventurers into Africa (1660-1672), included four members of the royal family, two dukes, a marquess, five earls, four barons, seven knights and the “philosopher of liberty” John Locke.
For its part, the Royal Family has never apologized for its intimate role in the Atlantic Slave Trade and the genocide of the Indigenous peoples nor been forced to pay a single cent in reparations.
2. Barings, a stronghold of British finance capital, was financial agent for Canada in London. Barings Bank was behind the forced union of the Canadas in 1841. R.T. Naylor remarked that Baring Brothers were the true Fathers of Confederation. It acted as the exclusive financial agents for Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, as well as Upper Canada along with George Carr Glyn, a big investor in the colonies. By the last quarter of the 19th century, Baring Brothers was financing one-quarter of all U.S. railroad construction, along with the Intercolonial, Grand Trunk and Canadian Pacific railways in Canada. A railroad town in British Columbia was renamed Revelstoke, in honour of the leading partner of the bank, Edward Baring, 1st Baron Revelstoke, commemorating his role in securing the financing necessary for completion of the CPR.
Some of the information on Barings and the land companies is drawn from Dr. Laurence Brown, “The slavery connections of Northington Grange,” University of Manchester, 2010; Peter Austin, Baring Brothers and the birth of Modern Finance, London: Pickering & Chatto, 2007, p. 63; and Nicholas Draper et al, Legacies of British Slave-ownership: Colonial Slavery and the Formation of Victorian Britain, Cambridge University Press, 2014. Professor Draper and others have developed a research centre at University College London for the study of the legacies of British slave-ownership. More information about their work and links to a database of compensation paid at abolition to former slave-owners can be found at https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/project/project.
3. Macdonald’s father-in-law, Thomas James Bernard, owned a sugar plantation near Montego Bay, Jamaica and 96 enslaved Africans. He received £1,723 “compensation” from the British government under the Abolition of Slavery Act of March 1833, a vast sum considering the annual salary for a skilled worker in Britain at the time was around £60.
Macdonald married Bernard’s daughter, Agnes, 1st Baroness Macdonald of Earnscliffe, in 1867. Macdonald had to resign in 1873 when the Pacific Scandal exposed his receipt of campaign donations from the owner of the Canadian Pacific Railway. See also “Sir John A. MacDonald’s Reign of Terror,” Tony Seed, TML Weekly, October 3, 2017.
4. Hawkins’ first slave expedition in 1562 was made with a fleet of three ships and 100 men. He smuggled 300 Blacks out of Portuguese Guinea “partly by the sworde, and partly by other meanes.” A year after leaving England, Hawkins returned to England “with properous successe and much gaine to himself and the aforesayde adventurers.” Queen Elizabeth was furious: “It was detestable and would call down vengeance from heaven upon the undertakers,” she cried. But Hawkins told her that in exchange for the slaves he had a cargo of sugar, hides, pearls, and ginger in the Caribbean, and “she forgave the pirate, and became his business partner.”
Elizabeth I supported him by lending him for a second expedition, The Jesus of Lubeck, a 700-ton vessel purchased by Henry VIII for the Royal Navy.
Eduardo Galeano, Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent, Translated by Cedric Belfrage. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1997. p. 80; James Walvin, Black Ivory: Slavery in the British Empire, London: HarperCollins, 1992, p. 25.
5. The idea of the innate inferiority of non-Europeans is prominent in the John Locke’s “Essay Concerning Human Understanding” (1690).
Originally published in TML Weekly Information Project, No. 24 • July 4, 2020. Slightly revised for this edition.
An earlier version of this article, titled “This Day. ‘Discovery’ of New Found Land and Cape Breton: Who was Caboto and what was his claim on Canada?“, was published on June 24, 2020 on this blog and on Robert Devet’s Nova Scotia Advocate on June 26, 2020.
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