Ikuko Asaka

“The Era of Emancipations and Revolutions: European Political Exiles and Self-Emancipated and Free Black Migrants in Canada”

This paper situates the identity formation of black migrants in Canada in a political context commonly deemed irrelevant to the black Canadian experience, namely, the European political revolutions of 1848. I show how formerly enslaved people and their legally free supporters equated trans-border flight to Canada with European revolutionaries’ political exile to Britain in their effort to narrate themselves into the Canadian settler polity, whose racial boundaries were rigorously policed by white British settlers. Against the background of Canada’s fierce anti-black climate, black migrants identified escape from the U.S. Slave Power with revolutionaries’ flight from political persecution, constructing themselves as a legitimate kind of refugees who deserved the same metropolitan sympathy and intervention enjoyed by the European exiles.

On a closer look, this complex identity politics raises one essential question: What cultural logic was at work when black migrants seeking inclusion into an empire identified with national groups who embraced the ideal of territorialized, independent sovereignty? This paper reveals the heterogeneous concepts of the nation operative in the Atlantic world that made this kind of identification politically and culturally sensible. I argue that some white Toronto newspapers posited a model of colonial belonging that rested on the Romantic system of differentiation, a system that classified people along the lines of nationality, not the black-white division, and that the prominence of such model in the Toronto press led black migrants to espouse the nation as an effective frame within which to demand colonial inclusion, leading to their identification with persecuted nationalist Europeans although their understanding of the nation reflected a much different ideal of political belonging.

This paper starts with a brief explanation of anti-black protests that gained momentum in the late 1840s in Western District in Canada West, a region with the largest concentration of formerly enslaved populations in the province. In response to an intensifying animosity among white British settlers, I show, Toronto journalists invoked a different system of classification than the black-white dichotomy through which frontier settlers reified the undesirability of black presence in Canada. The alternative approach painted a picture of Canada as a colony that had been welcoming “different nations”—nations of English, Irish, Scotch, and Welsh people as well as German and Dutch nationals. Urban journalism defended black migrants as another addition to the mixture of “different nations,” calling them “Africans” instead of “blacks.” While the term “African” itself had come to denote a racial category that glossed over the ethnic and national differences among Africans and had served to inscribe their collective enslavability and marginalization vis-a-vis European and American whites, Toronto papers’ use of “Africans” in this specific moment was to nullify the dichotomous symbolism of color.

Exposed to the competing racial systems in Canada and to the political turmoil in Europe, black newcomers quickly appropriated the trope of “the city of refuge,” a trope that evoked special meaning for the British metropolitan populace during the revolutionary fervor of 1848. When the wave of revolutions swept across Europe, Britain granted more asylum to European revolutionaries from Hungary, France, Poland, and Germany than did any other countries. Consequently, the metropolitan British began to perceive their imperial state as the city of refuge for the displaced Europeans and felt considerable pride from that stature. By counting themselves as one group that constituted Britain’s asylum of refugees alongside eastern and western European nationals, free and freed people in Canada demanded treatment as exiles from an oppressive regime, critiquing Canada’s discriminatory racial relations as falling short of the empire’s glorious benevolence.

Black migrants’ identification with European nationals, however, did not mean that they saw themselves as a nation of people in pursuit of territorialized independent sovereignty. The concept of the nation for free and freed people in this particular example emerged should be contextualized within a cultural milieu of colonial Canada that adhered to the Romantic system of classification. Situated at the crossroads of divergent notions of the nation, black migrants articulated a sense of collectivity and pressed forward a more inclusive model of colonial belonging when settler identity was becoming more and more a monopoly of white Canadians.


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