Little has been written about the Nova Scotian cod industry and a Haligonian’s role in events partly responsible for the stark economic divide that sees most of Africans living on less than $2 a day and without electricity.
Between 1600 and 1850, more than 10 million Africans were shipped across the Atlantic. European demand for human chattel abetted violence across Africa, exacerbating ethnic fragmentation and undermining state formation with long-term economic impacts.
Nova Scotia propped up the transatlantic slave trade. Africans were held in bondage in the city for 200 years, and during the 1791-1804 Haitian revolution, Halifax was used as a venue to release pressure on Jamaican slaveholders with over 500 maroons and their families expelled to the city in 1796.
Much of Britain’s Halifax-based squadron was deployed to the West Indies in a bid to crush the Haitian slave rebellion before it swept the region. Concurrently, a dozen Nova Scotia privateers captured at least 57 enemy vessels in the West Indies between 1793 and 1805. Licensed by the state to seize enemy boats during wartime, the privateers were also trying to protect a market decimated by French privateers.
For decades, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland generated great wealth selling cod and other goods to the Caribbean slave colonies. Unwilling to devote valuable sugar planting space to food crops, the plantation owners bought high-protein, salty cod to keep hundreds of thousands of “enslaved people working 16 hours a day.”
After destabilizing large swaths of Africa for three centuries, in the late 1800s, Europeans colonized most of the continent. Over the next seven or eight decades, African politics and economics were directly organized in the interests of European powers.
A number of Nova Scotians participated in British campaigns to conquer various parts of the continent. Most significantly, Halifax’s William Grant Stairs played an important role in two controversial expeditions to expand European influence over Central Africa. In 1887, Stairs joined the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition, which was ostensibly designed to “rescue” the British-backed governor of Equatoria, the southern part of today’s South Sudan.
Read from a humanistic or internationalist perspective, the Royal Military College of Canada graduate’s diary of the three-year expedition is incredibly damning.
Stairs’ extensive diary makes it clear that locals regularly opposed the mission. He repeatedly admits to “ransacking the place” and Stairs led numerous raiding parties to gather “carriers,” which were slaves in all but name.
One diary entry notes: “It was most interesting, lying in the bush and watching the natives quietly at their day’s work; some women were pounding the bark of trees preparatory to making the coarse native cloth used all along this part of the river, others were making banana flower by pounding up dried bananas, men we could see building huts and engaged at other such work, boys and girls running about, singing, crying, others playing on a small instrument common all over Africa, a series of wooden strips, bent over a bridge and twanged with the thumb and forefinger. All was as it was every day until our discharge of bullets, when the usual uproar of screaming of women took place.”
Even with some criticizing the expedition in Britain, Stairs’ efforts were celebrated locally. An honouring committee established by the mayor of Halifax decided to give him a sword made in London of Nova Scotia steel and the city organized a reception attended by the lieutenant-governor with a military band playing “Here the Conquering Hero Comes.”
Within two years of the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition, Stairs helped Belgian King Leopold II conquer the resource-rich Katanga region of the Congo. He headed up a heavily armed mission that swelled to 2,000.
The goal of the expedition was to extend Leopold’s authority over the Katanga region and to get a piece of the copper, ivory and gold trade. Stairs’ specific objective was to get Msiri, the ruler of the region, “to submit to the authorities of the Congo Free State, either by persuasion or by force.”
The expedition accomplished its principal objective. Stairs had Msiri killed and threatened Msiri’s brothers with the same fate unless they accepted Leopold as sovereign.
While Stairs died during the expedition, his mission to Katanga added 150,000 square kilometres to Leopold’s massive Congo Free State. In a bid to extract rubber and other commodities from his personal colony, Leopold instituted a brutal system of forced labour that caused millions of deaths from direct violence, as well as starvation and disease, between 1891 in 1908.
While it may be discomforting to admit it, Halifax has contributed to African impoverishment.
This article first appeared in the Halifax Chronicle Herald.