This former Toronto mayor once owned slaves
Thank goodness the city of Toronto never named anything in his honor!
This week, a staff report will come to the city’s executive committee with details on how Toronto could rename Dundas Street. The idea gained momentum last year after Henry Dundas, the British politician of two centuries ago whose name adorns places across the province, became a figure that slowed the end of the slave trade.
The timeline for selecting a new name for the city’s thoroughfare now appears to stretch into 2023, according to city staff, in part to conduct more research into potential choices. Doing some homework now could pay off in avoiding future embarrassment lest you choose to honor someone with an unsavory past – for example, Toronto’s 18th mayor, Samuel Bickerton Harman.
Few in town now know that Harman was a plantation and slave owner and was part of a family legacy of slaves that spanned five generations, from the 1690s to the 1840s, on the tiny Caribbean island. from Antigua. However, the Griot Institute for Africana Studies, in conjunction with the Museum of Antigua and Barbuda, has publicly documented 14 decades of Harman slave ownership on their online database.
Although he was born in 1819 in Brompton (London) in England, the future municipal leader of Toronto had spent his youth in the West Indies where his father, the Hon. Samuel Harman IV, served as Chief Baron of the Court of the Exchequer and owned Harman’s, a 118-acre family plantation in St. Philip’s Parish in northeast Antigua.
In 1832, just two years before the new city of Toronto was created, records show that 142 slaves were forced into hot, grinding, backbreaking manual labor at Harman’s, all tied to the production of sugar cane.
In the book “Plantations of Antigua,” famous slavery historian Agnes Meeker wrote of the “enormous economic, social, political, and even military upheaval” caused by sugar production. The island of Antigua, first settled by the British in the 1600s, was particularly hard hit, due to its enriched plantation soil, unlimited sunshine and excellent ports.
As Meeker notes, Antigua became a major source of the world’s sugar cane, “a predominant crop upon which economies have passed or failed, societies have grown, and money has flowed.” As the demand for sugar soared, Harmans and the other white plantation owners who ruled the island became some of the wealthiest merchants of their time.
Bucknell University, a small liberal arts college in central Pennsylvania, details in its Antigua Sugar Mills project the legacy of “slavery, oppression, exploitation and murder of Africans and people of African descent” in Antigua. According to the project, the plantation and the sugar mill were “primary symbols of slavery, machines that created and sustained European colonization, empire and economic prosperity for generations.”
This was not reflected in the working conditions of those who worked there. Slaves, including those on the Harman plantation, worked under a master’s whip and in the tropical sun, 10 to 12 hours a day, six days a week.
The existence of the plantations was made up of overwork, unsanitary conditions, malnutrition, brutality, disease, scorching heat and hard, back-breaking, back-breaking work. Slaves worked even when sick and were punished for not working fast enough, or hard enough, or for defying authority. Punishment could include imprisonment, whipping, or even torture and maiming.
In 1833, the British Parliament finally abolished slavery in the British West Indies, Canada and the Cape of Good Hope (Southern Africa), meaning it was now illegal to buy or own a person. As the Center at University College notes, “The slave trade had been abolished in 1807, but it took another 26 years to emancipate the slaves.” Even then, this emancipation would then become an apprenticeship system that tied the newly freed slaves to another form of unfree labor, albeit for a fixed term.
With the 1833 legislation also came a fund that compensated plantation owners for slaves who were to be freed. Official records kept by University College London show that in February 1837 Harman’s plantation failed to claim £2,038 to compensate for the 146 enslaved on the family estate.
Growing up in Antigua, the future mayor of Toronto returned to Britain as a youth to attend King’s College School in London. In 1840 he returned to the Caribbean to begin his career as a clerk in the Colonial Bank of Barbados. That same year, his father made a will bequeathing Harman’s, the family plantation estate, to his son, on the condition that he pay £1,000 to each of his brothers.
Harman arrived in Toronto with his wife and family in 1848 to take care of a family investment in Canada. Although now living in Toronto, The Antigua Almanac of 1851 showed Samuel Bickerton Harman as the owner of Harman’s, the 118-acre plantation where 146 to 148 slaves had been forced to work.
Meanwhile, first elected to the Toronto council in 1866, Harman became the city’s mayor in 1869 and 1870, serving two one-year terms. Today, a Harman family cemetery still exists in St. Philip Parish, Antigua, along with the ruins of the now abandoned Harman Sugar Mill.