Prof. Charmaine Nelson of McGill University says many Canadians are unaware that Africans were shipped from the Caribbean to become slaves in what is now Canada.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Charmaine Nelson

Painting speaks of black slavery in Canada:historian


A rare portrait of an African woman hanging in a Montreal museum speaks volumes about slavery in Canada, says McGill University art historian Charmaine Nelson. In school, many Canadians are taught about the Underground Railroad but know little about the slavery that existed in the 200 years before that. Originally named “The Negress,” the portrait hangs in the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and is on Loan from the McCord Museum. Because the painting’s name was deemed politically incorrect it was renamed “Portrait of a Haitian Woman.”

The Underground Railroad was not an actual train service, but a network of routes and safe houses by which slaves could escape plantations in the southern U.S. and come north to the British colony that is now Canada. The network was set up in 1834 when Britain abolished slavery and forced the colony to end it too, and it endured until the end of the U.S. civil war in 1861.

Canadians “heroized themselves”

“(Canadian students have)…all been trained in a recitation of the narrative of the Underground Railroad, which is basically a way Canadians have heroized themselves as the liberators of African-American slaves,” says Nelson, adding that before that, both the French and the British colonists had black and aboriginal slaves. Historians believe New France, which later became the province of Quebec, had 4,000 slaves from 1628 to 1800.

The portrait was created in Saint-Domingue, a French colony in the Caribbean in 1786 and may have depicted one of them. Nelson thinks she may have been Marie-Thérèse Zémire, one of two slaves owned by the wife of the artist, François Malépart de Beaucourt who is known to have lived in Saint-Domingue at that time. She wears a colourful headscarf, of a type worn by West African women, and brought with them to nations of the Caribbean.

Slaves forced onto cargo ships

Zémire may have been one of many slaves who were transported from the Caribbean to what is now Canada, says Nelson. “A large population of them would have been forced onto cargo ships, merchant ships, that were headed to ports like Halifax (in what is now the eastern province of Nova Scotia) and Montreal (now in Quebec) along with rum, sugar, molasses, along with five, ten, 15 slaves.”

Slaves sexually exploited

One breast peeks out of the slave’s blouse in the portrait. Nelson says a white woman would not have been portrayed that way and that it speaks to the practice white slave owners had of raping slave women and owning the children that were subsequently born.

Slavery is everyone’s history

Many Canadians are unaware of the practice of slavery in Canada. Nelson says discussion of the topic should not be restricted to Black History Month. Slave-masters were white and some whites were abolitionists she notes, concluding that slavery is everyone’s history.

Categories: Arts and Entertainment, International, Society

Do you want to report an error or a typo? Click here!

@*@ Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

 characters available

Note: By submitting your comments, you acknowledge that Radio Canada International has the right to reproduce, broadcast and publicize those comments or any part thereof in any manner whatsoever. Radio Canada International does not endorse any of the views posted. Your comments will be pre-moderated and published if they meet netiquette guidelines.

Netiquette »

When you express your personal opinion in an online forum, you must be as courteous as if you were speaking with someone face-to-face. Insults and personal attacks will not be tolerated. To disagree with an opinion, an idea or an event is one thing, but to show disrespect for other people is quite another. Great minds don’t always think alike—and that’s precisely what makes online dialogue so interesting and valuable.

Netiquette is the set of rules of conduct governing how you should behave when communicating via the Internet. Before you post a message to a blog or forum, it’s important to read and understand these rules. Otherwise, you may be banned from posting.

  1.’s online forums are not anonymous. Users must register, and give their full name and place of residence, which are displayed alongside each of their comments. reserves the right not to publish comments if there is any doubt as to the identity of their author.
  2. Assuming the identity of another person with intent to mislead or cause harm is a serious infraction that may result in the offender being banned.
  3.’s online forums are open to everyone, without regard to age, ethnic origin, religion, gender or sexual orientation.
  4. Comments that are defamatory, hateful, racist, xenophobic, sexist, or that disparage an ethnic origin, religious affiliation or age group will not be published.
  5. In online speak, writing in ALL CAPS is considered yelling, and may be interpreted as aggressive behaviour, which is unpleasant for the people reading. Any message containing one or more words in all caps (except for initialisms and acronyms) will be rejected, as will any message containing one or more words in bold, italic or underlined characters.
  6. Use of vulgar, obscene or objectionable language is prohibited. Forums are public places and your comments could offend some users. People who use inappropriate language will be banned.
  7. Mutual respect is essential among users. Insulting, threatening or harassing another user is prohibited. You can express your disagreement with an idea without attacking anyone.
  8. Exchanging arguments and opposing views is a key component of healthy debate, but it should not turn into a dialogue or private discussion between two users who address each other without regard for the other participants. Messages of this type will not be posted.
  9. Radio Canada International publishes contents in five languages. The language used in the forums has to be the same as the contents we publish. The usage of other languages, with the exception of some words, is forbidden. Messages that are off-topic will not be published.
  10. Making repetitive posts disrupts the flow of discussions and will not be tolerated.
  11. Adding images or any other type of file to comments is forbidden. Including hyperlinks to other websites is allowed, as long as they comply with netiquette. Radio Canada International  is in no way responsible for the content of such sites, however.
  12. Copying and pasting text written by someone else, even if you credit the author, is unacceptable if that text makes up the majority of your comment.
  13. Posting any type of advertising or call to action, in any form, to Radio Canada International  forums is prohibited.
  14. All comments and other types of content are moderated before publication. Radio Canada International  reserves the right to refuse any comment for publication.
  15. Radio Canada International  reserves the right to close a forum at any time, without notice.
  16. Radio Canada International  reserves the right to amend this code of conduct (netiquette) at any time, without notice.
  17. By participating in its online forums, you allow Radio Canada International to publish your comments on the web for an indefinite time. This also implies that these messages will be indexed by Internet search engines.
  18. Radio Canada International has no obligation to remove your messages from the web if one day you request it. We invite you to carefully consider your comments and the consequences of their posting.


2 comments on “Painting speaks of black slavery in Canada:historian
  1. Some corrections need to be brought here. The painting belongs to the McCord Museum. It is currently on loan to the MMFA. The orignal owner’s title was “The Negress”, which is politically incorrect. For this reason, a new title was given: “Portrait of a Haitian woman”. As historians, we are subject to the limits of the knowledge, and we must be transparent about it. The work has been painted in Saint-Domingue in 1786. We have scientific evidences that Beaucourt lived there from 1785 to 1788. There is no doubt it represents a slave, but we don’t know her identity, hence the factual title. Also, the reproduction rights never been granted to RCI, neither to Dr Nelson. Your article is blatant violoation of copyrights.

  2. Avatar Brenda Orser says:


    On Wed, Feb-5-14, 2:00am RCI broadcast of CBC’s, Radio One, “The World”, a segment was of a (CA? ) singer of South Indian Classical music, specifically her blend of the Raga with American Blues; the piece played was an acoustic guitarist (from Georgia) who played on her recent production of a raga for ” the fear of death”, ie seperation from one’s (her) lover. That blend was very unique and exceptionally-, also musically-engaging — the specific raga & the Blues.
    Would you refer me to the Singer, music played on the program as broadcast, please?