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Enslaved Black Woman Chloe Cooley honoured by Canada Post and Heritage Minutes

A vibrant subfield of Transatlantic Slavery Studies, in Canada and elsewhere, is the study of slave resistance. As our fearless leader, Dr. Charmaine A. Nelson has articulated across many of her publications for the lay public and academic audiences, enslaved people resisted in various often clandestine ways in order to preserve life and limb, culture, family, spirituality, and sanity. What resistance looked like for enslaved people of African ancestry in Canada often varied from that of their fellow bondspeople in more tropical climates where the enslaved outnumbered the white enslavers and typically lived on large plantations within so-called slave quarters or Negro villages. But what about the temperate climate, urban slavery that characterized Canada? How did one resist the physical brutality, social surveillance, cultural prohibitions, and pervasive terror of a slave minority site when you were one of a few or the only enslaved person living on the property or in the home of your white enslaver in towns like Halifax or Quebec City?

While such answers are hard to come by due the colonial nature of imperial archiving – processes designed to reduce the enslaved to partial biographical entries, objects, and possessions under the law – we can thankfully learn more from the histories of people like Chloe Cooley whose resistance (and at least one part of her life) were, for an enslaved person, documented far beyond the historical norms.

In late eighteenth-century Upper Canada (now Ontario), Chloe’s story of resistance and objectification was brought to the attention of the most powerful white men in the province – Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe, Chief Justice William Osgoode, and Peter Russell, by a free black man named Peter Martin. Martin was no ordinary free man! A veteran of the Revolutionary War, he had fought against the Americans on the side of the British, earning him credentials that would have placed him in the position of a natural leader in the black community. Martin appeared before the trio in Government House to alert them to a grave injustice that he had witnessed; the violent abduction of a black enslaved woman named Chloe Cooley from the house of her white enslaver William Vrooman of Upper Canada across international boundaries to New York state. Cleary understanding the embedded racist devaluation of black intelligence and integrity, Martin arrived with another witness in tow; a white man named William Grisley. Grisley testified that Chloe was bound with a rope, forced onto a boat, and taken across the river where she was delivered to another man. But what Grisley and Martin also made clear was that Chloe resisted her abductors, fighting them physically and screaming loudly and violently signalling to all within earshot that she was being taken against her will.

Based on Martin’s and Grisley’s actions, Vrooman was prosecuted, not for selling Chloe, but for “disturbing the peace”. But since enslaved people were considered chattel (moveable personal property) under the law, Vrooman’s actions were not illegal. Although next to nothing could be done to prosecute Vrooman, Simcoe took immediate action in another way. Not only was Simcoe a British war veteran and politician familiar with the growing anti-slavery tide in Britain and its colonies, but he had directly overseen enslaved black soldiers who had fought valiantly for Britain in the Revolutionary War. Following Chloe’s abduction, Simcoe ordered the Chief Justice to draft a bill prohibiting the importation of enslaved people into the colony. After several amendments, on 9 July 1793, the bill entitled “An Act to Prevent the Further Introduction of Slaves and to Limit the Terms of Contract for Servitude Within this Province,” was made into law. As news of this act spread, enslaved blacks living in the USA understood that escape to Upper Canada meant legally sanctioned freedom; something that was largely unattainable in most other parts of North America. Therefore, Chloe’s valiant resistance led directly to the emancipation and liberation of thousands of other enslaved blacks across the region. Tragically, scholars have yet to uncover what became of Chloe after she was forcibly removed to New York. Heritage Minutes and Canada Post honoured Chloe Cooley – in 2022 and 2023 respectively – for her valiant resistance, acknowledging her vital importance to Canadian history.