As bicentennial commemorations for the War of 1812 continue, as Black History Month winds down and as the UN International Decade for People of African Descent commences, it is shocking, surprising and curious that the black Canadian perspective and the African contribution to this conflict are largely ignored.
It is shocking because even John Graves Simcoe, the first lieutenant-governor of Ontario (then Upper Canada), noted that he would not discriminate by "dishonest policy between the natives of Africa, America or Europe." It is surprising because even Wellington County has a good exhibit on this. And it is curious because a rich visual snippet by way of a new Heritage Minute from The Historica-Dominion Institute focuses on the dramatic historical narrative of Richard Pierpoint.
Pierpoint's story offers an excellent example of the black military contribution. It also speaks to an essential narrative in black Canadian history that belongs among the lessons of the War of 1812 bicentennial.
Pierpoint was born around 1744 in Bondu, West Africa (now Senegal). He was captured at 16 and, like so many young, strong Africans, enslaved. Upon his arrival in the Americas, he became property of a British military officer.
With the outbreak of the American War of Independence, Pierpoint accepted military duty to achieve his freedom. Following his service in Butler's Rangers, he, like thousands of other Black Loyalists, was granted land in Canada. In Ontario, these veterans helped to settle Niagara Falls and Niagara-on-the-Lake; they also settled parts of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Pierpoint worked 200 acres near Twelve Mile Creek in Ontario.
The threat of re-enslavement in 1812 thrust African-Canadians into action. As Pierpoint says to a British officer in the Heritage Minute: "Your officers fight for land and money. I fight for my freedom." He petitioned the government to form and lead a "corps of men of colour." The unit was eventually formed under the direction of a retired white officer as Captain Runchey's Company of Coloured Men. It was the first all-black unit in Upper Canada.
The Coloured Corps, as it was also known, fought key battles, including Fort George, Stoney Creek, St. Davids and Lundy's Lane. They were among the first reinforcements at Queenston to help take back the Heights. As many as 20 per cent of combatants in the war were black, many in the naval forces.
After the war, black defenders were granted land in the remote Oro area. The land was difficult to clear and cultivate; many left.
In 1821, Pierpoint again petitioned the government, this time for passage back to Senegal. Instead, at 77, he was granted 100 acres near present-day Fergus, Ont. He died, impoverished, about 1838. But his story – from free-born in Africa to enslaved in the New World, from soldier to settler – provides a rare personal narrative that helps us understand the experiences of Black Loyalists and how this period led to Canada's identification as a land of freedom.
The War of 1812 showed that Canada was a place where black people were effectively free under the law; where black settlements – the highest mark of freedom – created community. Living free "under the lion's paw" was possible even as slavery continued to the south. As black War of 1812 veterans sought to reunite with family in the United States, their stories about stirred the imaginations of thousands more. In this way, the promise of the Underground Railroad was born of the War of 1812.
Rosemary Sadlier is president of the Ontario Black History Society, a doctoral candidate and author of several highly acclaimed books.