John Beverley Robinson and the Abolition of Slavery in Upper Canada

February 9, 2007

He died on this day over a century ago and his obituary appeared again in the weekend Globe and Mail in 2007 reminding all Canadians that Attorney General John Beverley Robinson was part of our shared heritage. He was the attorney general of Upper Canada and a staunch defender of the the power elite called the Family Compact (Globe and Mail 2007: S8). But more importantly for me he was the Attorney General of Upper Canada in 1819 who declared that Blacks residing in Canada were free and protected by British law. (See Act Against Slavery) and (“Black History Canada.” In the southern United States slavery was not legally abolished until 1865 with the end of the Civil War.

I spent a lot of time walking slowly through the National Gallery of Canada notepad in hand examining details in each painting and its label looking for clues that would unravel parallel histories hidden by our desire to honour our Victorian heritage as Anglo-Canadians. I’m not sure when it was not enough for me. Perhaps it happened before I began to work here in this privileged place, the physical repository of our material culture, a shared communal archives, shared communal memory. It was a slow and difficult shift from thinking from a place of cognitive certitude to one of critical revisiting distorted histories. It wasn’t popular with docents or staff. But I had no choice. Perhaps I was already in a process of undermining my own job at the gallery from the moment I began asking inconvenient questions.

It’s why I stood for a long time in front of this small, well-crafted painting of John Beverley Robinson1 (1791-1863) in Room 104 of the Canadian collection.

This c. 1846 portrait of Attorney General John Beverley Robinson by George T. Berthon hung in the National Gallery of Canada’s Room A104. When I was researching for the Positive Presence of Absence: a History of the African Canadian Community through Works in the Permanent Collection of the National Gallery of Canada, I included this painting. In 1819 Attorney General John Beverley Robinson in Upper Canada declared:

“Since freedom of the person (is) the most important civil right protected by the law of England … the negroes (are) entitled to freedom through residence in (Canada) and any attempt to infringe their right (will) be resisted in the courts.”

It loosely covered the early 1800s with paintings by Robert Whale’s View of Hamilton and St. Thomas Railway, , the unattributed painting entitled View of Halifax, Paul Peel’s oil paintings based on his cross country tour with Governor Simpson and his painting of Amherstberg. There is also the Croscup room, a painting of a ship in a storm, a folk artist’s detailed painting of Miq’maq, portraits of Lt. Prevost Wallace, and of course the portrait of Robinson.

I was offered the possibility in 1997 of writing a 1500 word brochure touching on highlights of my research. The project was never realized and in a way I am glad for the power of the research was in its sources and the nonlinearity of its telling. Fifteen hundred words were never enough to make an ocean-liner-institution change its course. Web 2.0 is not limited by time and space.

So when I saw this obituary almost ten years later it reminded me of my memory palace, the NGC and of Black History Month. To be continued . . .

A selected webliography and bibliography

2007. “John Beverley Robinson.” Obituaries. Died this day. Globe and Mail. January 31. S8.

Berthon, George T. c.1846. “Sir John Beverley Robinson.” Gallery A104. National Gallery of Canada. cybermuse.

Flynn-Burhoe, Maureen. 1995-2007. “Sir John Beverley Robinson.” Positive Presence of Absence: a History of the African Canadian Community through Works of the National Gallery of Canada.

Flynn-Burhoe, Maureen. 2007. My personalized cybermuse.

The Ontario Black History Society. 1981. Black History in Early Ontario. The Book Society of Canada. 1981:20.

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