From Underground Railroad to Rebel Refuge

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It looks like your ticket was purchased the day you were born.

Your destination was unknown, and the journey took a lifetime, but a seat was reserved for you that no one could take away. And yet, you could change courses any time you wished for greener pastures or safer homes. In the new book “From Underground Railroad to Rebel Refuge” by Brian Martin, your fellow travelers are good with that.

Even in the earliest days, there were slaves.

In 1501, says Martin, a Portuguese explorer, came to the easternmost shores of what’s now Canada with at least one slave. An unnamed Black person, probably a slave, died in Port Royal in 1606; another fell in Acadia two years later. There weren’t a lot of slaves when those lands were controlled by the French, but after Great Britain took over in 1763, slavery surged, and the number of Black people grew. Numbers jumped again during the Revolutionary War when the Brits eagerly invited slaves to taste freedom by fleeing their American owners.

Immediately after the war, Britain realized how much its public disliked slavery, and they “inched” to abolish it with the Act on the Abolition of the Slave Trade in the British Empire of 1807. By then, runaway slaves from all over America had been seeking freedom in Canada. By the 1830s, running north had a name – the Underground Railroad – and it had several leaders to lead slaves away from bondage. 

But Canada wasn’t just a safe haven for former slaves or freedmen hoping for more tolerance or a better life. Bounty hunters came north across a border that was easy to ignore. Abolitionists crossed over, as did politicians and journalists eager to tell a tale or two. Canadians crossed south to fight mostly with the Union.

Our northern neighbor was always welcoming and willing to shelter anyone who needed it. Even if, says Martin, they were once plantation owners. 

Even if they were white supremacists and Klan leaders…

at this point in your life, you’ve probably heard your fair share of nineteenth-century American history. You know quite a bit about the Civil War and slave history, too, but “From Underground Railroad to Rebel Refuge” will open your eyes even wider.

Remember high school history class? It probably left you frustrated with vague information when it came to slavery in America and Canada’s role in it, but author Brian Martin gets specific here, regaling readers with exciting, surprising, astonishing stories of individuals whose lives and experiences made a mark on both countries’ attitudes and laws. These are tales you didn’t get in high school – and though this book can feel somewhat text-bookish sometimes, you won’t mind too much. The stories are the strength here.

This book will make a historian head for the easy chair tonight. “From Underground Railroad to Rebel Refuge” will introduce you to a new set of heroes and villains. And if your goal is to learn more about American history, this book about Canada will get you right on track.

“From Underground Railroad to Rebel Refuge: Canada and the Civil War” by Brian Martin

c.2022, ECW Press $19.95 352 pages

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