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“big with child, and within a few days of her time”: Resistance and Grief through the Lens of Bett’s Winter Escape

By Raven Spiratos

In the modern-day province of Quebec, the institution of Transatlantic Slavery was practiced by both the French (New France) and British (Quebec) empires for approximately two centuries. After the capitulation of New France to the British in 1760, the technology of the printing press was brought to the colony in 1763 when the enterprising business partners, Thomas Gilmore and William Brown, moved north from Philadelphia to cofound the Quebec Gazette. Their newspaper, and the Montreal Gazette founded in 1778, have left tangible documentation of the enslaved populations of the region by way of the slave advertisements (auction, sale, and runaway) which became weekly staples. While slave auction and sale advertisements were defined by their brevity and a lack of detail, the fugitive or runaway notices were the opposite. Used to hunt, re-capture, and re-enslave people who resisted through flight, enslavers provided detailed descriptions of the people they held in bondage. Since Transatlantic Slavery was an institution that literally reduced human beings to legal chattel, the enslaved had little opportunity (time, knowledge, or materials), to document their own lives. Ironically then, these fugitive advertisements are today one of our best sources to learn about our enslaved ancestors.

In his important research on Quebec Slavery, Frank Mackey uncovered forty-five enslaved people of African descent who were the subject of fifty-one runaway notices published in the British-held province. Resistance to slavery took many forms. But for those who imagined liberty beyond the grasp of their enslavers, running away was often the most obvious pathway. Although resistance through flight was documented in every corner of the Americas, Europe, and in Africa (even before the enslaved were forced to board slave ships), the nature of white surveillance and the pervasiveness of corporal punishment made it complex and dangerous. As one might guess, enslaved females escaped far less frequently than their male counterparts, not because they were less resistant, but because the nature of their labour and childcare responsibilities severely diminished their opportunities for flight.

Out of eleven notices documenting Black female runaways in Quebec, only one female attempted a winter escape. Her name was Bett, or at least that is what the two white men who enslaved her – the West Indian trading partners James Johnston and John Purss – called her when they hunted her in a fugitive slave advertisement that they placed on 8 March 1787 in the Quebec Gazette. To put Bett’s winter escape in context, only two other Black people were ever documented in print as escaping in the Quebec winter: Joe and Ishmael.

Looking for Bett entails finding traces of her in a colonial archive which can only be described as violent when we consider how the documentation of Black people was intentionally designed to deny them their full humanity. While well-off white people routinely journaled their lives, leaving various traces of their choices, aspirations, and possessions, the enslaved were summarily blocked from documenting themselves, and when represented, were typically reduced to objects with an economic value.

Johnston and Purss (both of Scottish birth) published their notice for Bett in the Quebec Gazette only one day after her escape. While the timing of their advertisement indicates an urgency in their bid to recuperate her, combined with another detail, it also reveals the level of surveillance under which Bett lived. The pair not only described the day of Bett’s flight, but the time as, “between the hours of seven and eight o’clock yesterday evening.” Charmaine A. Nelson has astutely observed that their heightened surveillance of Bett may have stemmed from her previous resistance, but also from her pregnant state, since the matrilineal order of slavery made Bett particularly valuable as a female of proven fertility who would soon give birth to a child. Like the children of enslaved females across the Transatlantic world, Bett’s child (regardless of paternity) was to instantly become the property of the people who owned her, Johnston and Purss. Furthermore, like any enslaved person, Bett’s value was her labour as well as her trilingual fluency – her ability to speak English, French, and German described in the notice – something that was also likely exploited by her enslavers. What Johnston and Purss’ detailed account of Bett’s escape, down to the hour, also disclosed is the fact that she had outmanoeuvred them and was able to escape at a time that would afford her as much cover as possible.

Described as “big with child, and within a few days of her time,” Bett was clearly in the third trimester of her pregnancy. The advertisement capitalized on the shock value of a pregnant runaway and attempted to reinforce such behaviour as delinquent. But if we reclaim the escape as Bett’s narrative and not that of her white enslavers, what questions might we ask of her? Given the life-threatening nature of the freezing temperatures in a typical Quebec winter, to escape without a plan, which included suitable seasonal clothing and footwear, food, and shelter, was suicide. I therefore posit that the winter context of Bett’s escape could have been a central feature of a deliberate plan. But since Bett surely understood that most of her fellow enslaved people escaped in the summer, why would she have risked a winter flight? To understand the possibilities, we must contemplate not merely what Bett was running to, but what she may have been fleeing from.

Her daring and dangerous escape is not only a testament to Bett’s resilience and strength during what must have been an extremely terrifying situation, but it also reveals that she was running from violence that was endangering her and her baby – perhaps a child who had been fathered by either Johnston or Purss. White men frequently fathered enslaved mixed-race children through coercive sex with or the outright rape of enslaved Black females. Such sexual predation was a central facet of the “peculiar institution” of slavery. A very famous example is the white male, American president Thomas Jefferson and the enslaved Black woman Sally Hemings.

Very possibly, Bett could have been exploited as a concubine – or as such women were known in the Caribbean, a housekeeper – and forced to provide sexual and domestic labour to Johnston, Purss or one of their relatives or friends. On his many trips to the Caribbean, Purss would have witnessed the pervasive West Indian tradition of keeping “coloured” (mixed people of African and European descent) housekeepers rather than marrying white women; the latter for many white men in the Caribbean, considered costly and decorative. Such West Indian conventions likely influenced Johnston and Purss when purchasing Bett.

Personal turmoil in the Johnston household provides additional context for Bett around the time of her escape. The private correspondence of Johnston and Purss to family members at Stromness, Scotland, mentions the Johnston’s loss of their firstborn son, James. Born in 1784, a year after the couple’s wedding, the deceased child was mentioned in November 1787 in a letter from Johnston and Purss to Joshua Johnston in Stromness. The pair detailed the suffering of Mrs. Johnston who was mourning the loss to smallpox of the “promising” young son who she had been able to “suckle…at the breast”; a decidedly rare practice for upper class white women who typically forced such maternal duties upon a wetnurse, often an enslaved woman.

Johnston’s obvious concern for his wife’s grief proves relevant for Bett’s traumatic ordeals. Sadly, we know that Bett, who was recaptured shortly after her flight, was grieving the loss of her own infant at the same time. Although they anonymized the enslaved woman in their slave sale advertisement of 5 July 1787 describing her as “A STOUT, healthy, active NEGRO WOMAN,” and withheld their own names, Bett is identified as the woman being sold by Johnston and Purss due to the proximity of the two publications and their mention of her suitability for an English, French, or German family. Captured sometime between her March fugitive and July sale notices, at some point, likely during her escape, Bett’s baby had died, and she was put on trial for murder and found not guilty. It was after her acquittal that Johnston and Purss printed the notice to sell Bett.

While the archived letters of 1787 do not refer to the pregnant Bett’s escape, capture or infanticide trial (or Bett generally), they do however mention Mrs. Johnston’s pregnancy and suffering due to the loss of her son, James. Although Bett’s erasure from their correspondence may indicate several motives, we must not overlook their indifference to her pain as an enslaved person at a moment when whites pervasively stereotyped Black people as brutish and insentient. The proximity in which both women were mourning their respective children indicates that they were likely pregnant at the same time within the same or neighbouring households; Bett with her unknown child and Mrs. Johnston with James.

Against the odds, Bett decided to remove herself – while pregnant and in the winter – from the exploitative clutches of Johnston and Purss. Like many enslaved women, Bett’s narrative is steeped in sexual violence and the difficulties of enslaved maternity. When considering the differences between white motherhood and Black motherhood, it becomes clear that these seemingly universal conditions are in fact subject to racial, sexual, and gendered disparities and violence. We will likely never know what happened to Bett and her child during her flight. Did she slip and fall on an icy patch of road? Did she not have a warm place to sleep through the freezing cold nights? Was she deprived of food and water? Was she physically accosted by the person who returned her to Johnston and Purss or by the pair themselves? Whether Bett intentionally ended her child’s life or not is still unclear. What is unambiguous is that regardless of Bett’s action or inaction, it is not for us to ascribe a moral judgement upon her. The devastation of enslaved motherhood was condemnation enough.

Raven Spiratos Bio

Raven Spiratos holds a Master of Arts Degree in Art History from McGill University (Montreal), where she was supervised by Dr. Charmaine A. Nelson. Her thesis is entitled, Confronting Anti- Blackness in Canadian Art History through the Black “Mixed-Race” Subject from the Eighteenth-Century to the Present Day (2020). Spiratos’ research interests include Black Canadian art histories, Black diasporic art histories, and Canadian Slavery Studies. Her Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada-funded Master’s thesis analyzed the representations of Black Canadians of African, African European, and African-Indigenous heritage from the eighteenth century until the present. Spiratos is currently a Curator-in-residence at BAND Gallery, Toronto. Most recent speaking engagements include Black Portraitures VI, Black Community Resource Centre, Concordia University and, Montréal en Action. Publications include Exhibition review of Sandra Brewster’s Dense (Artexte), Reparation, and Visual Culture Glossary entry (Journal of Visual Culture), and Publication Review of Carnation Vol. II (C Mag).