Interested in donating to the Friends of Egerton Ryerson Group?

Slavery as a Political Issue

Introduction by Lynn McDonald

Colonial slavery and its abolition were prime issues for progressive people in the decades leading up to its final abolition in the British Empire in 1833, which took effect on 1 August, 1834. The first stage, the abolition of the slave trade, was legislated in 1807, effectively before Ryerson’s time. 

In 1833, he was in London, England, on unrelated business, when Edward Stanley, then the colonial secretary, presented petitions and spoke for abolition. Ryerson was in the House and sent these remarks back to the editor of the Christian Guardian for publication. Ryerson and Stanley would have many exchanges later, on the issue of the Clergy Reserves. 

The second item below is a report Ryerson sent from Boston, when he was en route for England again in 1850.  

Source: Egerton Ryerson, “Colonial Slavery,” Christian vol IV no. 33, 30 April 1833

Mr Stanley presented 15 petitions praying for the immediate abolition of slavery and then upon his motion the House resolved itself into a committee of the whole house upon the subject of Negro slavery. Mr Stanley then proceeded to address the committee, and after expressing his confidence that the committee would extend to him a large share of their kindness when they reflected that after the short time he had been in the office which he had the honour to fill [colonial secretary], it became his duty to bring forward this question of unparalleled importance, commenced by remarking on the difficulties which surrounded the question, and the clashing interests which it involved. “250,000 tons of shipping annually, and a revenue of between £5,000,000 and £6,000,00-…not only the interests of a vast body of proprietors resident in the colonies and this country, whose very existence depended upon the issue of the question, but also the temporal interests of between 700,000 and 800,000 [of] our fellow subjects, and of their descendants throughout generations yet unborn,” and observed that, 

The Government was placed between two conflicting parties—one having a deep pecuniary interest in the question, intimately acquainted with the subject, connected with the colonies by social ties, and at present laboring under embarrassments which rendered them doubly jealous of any measure which might affect their interests. On the other hand, a universal and extended expression of feeling pervaded the country, and there never was a time when the determination of the people was more absolutely or more irresistibly expressed, because it was founded on that deep religious feeling, on that common conviction of principle, which admitted of no palliative or compromise, and which pronounced itself in a voice to which no minister could be deaf. The time had gone by when Parliament could decide the question whether slavery should or should not be perpetual; the question now to be decided was, what was the safest, the speediest, the most effectual mode procuring its final and entire abolition.”  

            [col 2] He then traced the history of the question since its first agitation in 1792 by Mr Burke, down to the present time, and quoted the opinions of those great statesmen who at different times had advocated the abolition of Negro slavery throughout the British dominions, and the plans of the different ministers to accomplish that object, or ameliorate the condition of the slave, which had been proposed to the colonies.” 

“In the official circular of Lord Bathurst in 1823 it was particularly stated that it was expected that immediate steps could be taken by the local authorities towards the abolition of the Sunday market, and the better observance of the Sabbath, for the admission of the evidence of slaves– for their manumission–for sanctioning slave marriages–for preventing slaves from being separated from their families—for the abolition of corporal punishment at the hands of the master or overseer—and for the establishment of slaves’ savings-banks. The resolution of 1823 was followed up by an order in council 1824, which, in addition to these intentions of the legislature added the establishment of a protector of slaves, specified the right of the Negroes to possess property under certain conditions, and his manumission under certain terms, pecuniary and of police, even against the will of his master. Not a colony, without a single exception, but scornfully rejected them (hear hear); some of them had gone through the form of carrying the outline of the shadow of some of the bills into effect; but all studiously avoided the substance.” 

After remarking at great length on the despatch of 1823, and the orders in council of 1824, he turned to the distress in which West India property was now placed, not by the agitation of the question concerning the abolition of slavery, for “strong evidence had been given before the committee of the House of Commons, proving that the West India property had always been liable to sudden and extreme fluctuations; speculations had been embarked in with the utmost recklessness; which had been the cause of the greatest embarrassment to the planters, who, acting upon the notion of the necessity of continuing slavery, had only increased their distress by the means they adopted for their own relief.  

It was thought important to continue the exportation of sugar, and the consequence was that the quantity exported, which in 1803 was 1,430,600 cwt., was in 1831 raised to 3,787,000 cwt. One cause of the distress of West India planters was that, possessing the monopoly of the English market, they had gone beyond its wants; and they now could no longer obtain such a price as would repay them for the cultivation of their estates. The amount of sugar imported at present exceeded the amount of consumption by 1,000,000 cwt. annually.” 

On the ground of humanity he called upon the committee to abolish slavery; for as the distress of the planters had increased they had recourse to raising a greater quantity of sugar, which was attended by a frightful sacrifice of human life, by over-working the Negroes; and he entered into a comparative statement with reference to six West India colonies, showing the decrease of the slave population according to the increase of the quantity of sugar raised. “Thus, in the island of Demerara, “the quantity of sugar exported during the three periods was, respectively, 652,336 cwts, 662,655 cwts., and 806,120 cwts. While the same population had constantly decreased during the same period. In the first the number was 72,722; in the second, 71,005; and in the third, only 67,741 (hear hear). Thus in the last period 67,741 slaves produced 806,120 cwts. Of sugar, while in the first 72,722 slaves were required to produce 652,336 cwts. (hear hear).

Ryerson’s Boston Trip, 1850 

Ryerson happened to be in Boston, en route to England again, just after the American Congress adopted the Fugitive Slave Act, on 18 September. This law gave slave owners the right to the return of their runaway slaves, even if they reached a free state. Previously, a runaway slave only had to reach a free state, now they had to get to Canada. Slave owners offered “bounties,” or rewards, to slave catchers. The new law meant that the “underground railroad,” a system of safe houses to assist slaves to escape, had to be extended up to the Canadian border.  

Ryerson concluded his observations in this report with comparisons between Canadians and Americans. The report was signed, not by his name, but an “esteemed friend.” 

Source: Egerton Ryerson, “Notes of a Traveller in Europe,” Christian Guardian, vol XXII no. 8, 4 December 1850 

While I was in Boston, a great public meeting of some 4 or 5,000 persons was held in the famous Fanuel Hall. It was presided over by Mr Adams—son and grandson of an ex-president of the United States, whose portraits were placed on the wall, just over where he sat. I attended from curiosity–never having witnessed the proceedings of a public meeting in the U. States. The proceedings were conducted in a very orderly manner, and were commenced with prayer. The subject was the Fugitive Slave law, which was lately passed by Congress. The principles involved were the rights of man and the authority of Congress. The determination was to trample under  foot the latter and maintain the former. Some of the speakers were able and made mention of the many coloured persons who had years ago escaped from slavery and had long lived as peaceable citizens in Free States, but who were now fleeing to CANADA for personal security and liberty. It appeared strange and almost incredible to me, that in the city of Boston, the cradle of American liberty, and in sight of Bunker Hill monument, either human liberty must be sacrificed, or treason avowed against the supreme law of the land! A very long question was voted for by the Representatives of the city of Boston in Congress! It appeared remarkable also, as an historical fact, that the British Provinces are the only portion of North America where the liberty of man is secured without respect to colour or ace. Canada must thus be a great annoyance to the slave holders and slave advocates of the United States; and may prompt them, with the co-operation of certain newspapers and parties in Canada, to renewed efforts for Canadian annexation, that the people of Canada, like the citizens of the Northern States, emancipated from the oppression of British freedom, may be enfranchised into a general and effective police of Negro hunters and slave catchers.  

I am far from regarding slavery as peculiar to any one form of Government, and I do most sincerely condole with the many thousands of intelligent and noble advocates of constitutional liberty in the United States; but I have been surprised to find that while such prodigious practical individual development is evinced amongst our American neighbours, the developments of a truly free constitutional government are so very imperfect, and the practical application of its principles so imperfectly and partially understood. Certain principles they do understand, and carry them out nobly, especially in respect to the diffusion of education and general knowledge; but in regard to the true principles of civil government and political economy generally, I am persuaded, Americans can learn more from Canadians, than can the latter from the former. But this is not a subject on which I am disposed to enlarge. I rejoice that a more intelligent and liberal feeling is growing up between the two countries, in the cultivation of which each will borrow from the other what shall be deemed most useful, and perfect that which it adopts.