Josian Henson was a fascinating character who provided the inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1852 influential novel Uncle Tom's cabin. He was born into slavery in Maryland, U.S.A., but later escaped into Canada. He wrote an autibiography The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself. He founded a settlement and school for fugitive slaves in Dawn, Kent County, Ontario where he worked as an abolitionist and minister.
I carved a wooden portrait of Reverand henson from cedar as an homage to his work and life. My aunt, Jean Boulby, clothed him in period appropriate attire including knickers, suspenders, button down shirt, pants, felt boots and suit jacket. The doll as exhibited in the Encampment installation curated by Jenny-Anne McCowan and Thom Sokoloski as part of the 2012 Luminato festival in Toronto.
There is a crucial link between the, 1793 Act of the Upper Canada Legislative Assembly, which made trading in slaves illegal in Upper Canada, Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe, the War of 1812 and Josiah Henson. The 1793 Act provided also for an end of slavery in Upper Canada. The victory of the British and Canadians with the support of the First Nations over the Americans in 1812 ensured the continuity of the laws of Upper Canada. This provided a powerful incentive for running the Underground Railroad by which Josiah Henson, a slave himself, escaped to Canada in 1830. The abolition of slavery in every state of the United States was not completed until the 13th Amendment to the Constitution became law in 1865.
John Graves Simcoe, an eighteenth century gentleman, educated at Oxford and the Inns of Court, served as a professional army officer during the American War of Independence. Simcoe took up his appointment as Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada in 1791. Simcoe deserves much credit for his determined support for anti slavery legislation, apparently the first to be enacted in British territory. The legislation was modified as six members of the Legislative Assembly of Upper Canada were slave owners. In 1790 Simcoe was elected to the British House of Commons where he may have supported antislavery legislation and certainly would have been exposed to the public discussion. Simcoe by many accounts, had a lively and creative approach to his task of setting up a new government in Upper Canada. He drew on his previous experience as an officer in the Rangers, a military unit which recruited disaffected Americans who were known as Loyalists, opposed to the war of Independence. From his knowledge of these men he judged that they would make good settlers in Upper Canada. Apart from his stand on the slavery issue, in some other respects his policies were not so enlightened, for instance he planned to establish a landed aristocracy in Upper Canada. There was to be no encouragement of ideas of independence. The threats to authority presented by the American War of Independence in 1776 and the French Revolution in 1789 were too recent an experience for the British government to make any concessions to democracy.
Josiah Henson was born into slavery in Maryland in the United States in 1789. He tells his own story in his autobiography, entitled “the Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself”, published in 1849. In 1807, at the age of 18 he was allowed to attend a service and heard his first sermon. This revealed to him that black people who were slaves were just as entitled to salvation, and were the equal of any person, and inspired Josiah for the rest of his life. He describes the hardships and deprivation of a slave’s life. In his position as an overseer he did his work faithfully and honestly. In 1828 he was admitted as a Methodist preacher and managed to improve his income with preaching. Friends in Cinncinatti encouraged him to escape to Canada. But when he was cheated out of the cash he had put together to buy his freedom, and discovered that his owner planned to sell him anyway he resolved to escape to Canada. Josiah travelled by himself first and was overjoyed to reach freedom ashore in Canada. He then returned for his wife and four children.
Josiah found work on a farm along with other escaped slaves. Always enterprising, Josiah encouraged them to market their produce and to combine their resources to rent land, which they did in 1834 . His children could now go to school, a great opportunity for an ex slave family. Josiah gives a moving description of overcoming the embarrassment of being taught to read by his son. In 1842 Josiah bought his own farm at Dawn, near Dresden, Ontario.
Josiah realized that the black people and the First Nations were always going to be at a disadvantage until they acquired the mechanical skills required for employment in Canada. He also realized this was something they would have to organize for themselves. Josiah organized the school at Dawn, with a related forestry business to provide training and produce income. Josiah actively supported the Underground Railroad, risking his own life by leading escaping slaves along the secret route. Josiah continued to write and preach, always working for the Abolition Movement. Josiah records in his own words his hopes and ambitions ”We look to the school and the possession of landed property by individuals as the two great means of the elevation of our oppressed and degraded (people) to participate in the blessings as they have been hitherto been permitted to share only the miseries and vices of civilization”.
Josiah ended his days a respected member of a free community. Josiah shares with Simcoe a respect for the value of property ownership. In 1837 Josiah Henson gave his support to the Upper Canada government at the time of the Rebellion, perhaps because he felt some loyalty to the Upper Canada government which had given him his freedom. John Graves Simcoe, born in 1752 died in 1806 and so did not live to experience the War of 1812. Josiah Henson born in 1789, lived until 1883. A very dignified 1877 portrait of him shows a highly respected minister who achieved his liberty and his dignity because of the work of John Graves Simcoe on the Act of 1797,the victory over the Americans in 1812 and the work of the Underground Railroad.