Hamilton author's new book tells the story of a woman enslaved in Canada

·3 min read
Hamilton author Andrew Hunter drew from an interview Sophia Burthen Pooley did with an abolitionist writer.  (Andrew Hunter - image credit)
Hamilton author Andrew Hunter drew from an interview Sophia Burthen Pooley did with an abolitionist writer. (Andrew Hunter - image credit)

When Andrew Hunter thinks about the main subject of his book, he recalls having her in mind since the early 1990s.

Through her story, he says, she has the ability to connect to people in Black communities grappling with the legacy of slavery. Of the stories in books and articles about people enslaved, her narrative offered a unique perspective.

"I was thinking about Sophia for a long time," he said.

Hunter is referring to Sophia Burthen Pooley, a enslaved woman once owned by Indigenous leader Joseph Brant, then sold to Samuel Hatt in Ancaster during the 1800s. Hunter's new book, It Was Dark There All The Time, revisits her account as an enslaved person in Canada.

It Was Dark There All The Time is based on an interview done by Benjamin Drew, a man from Boston who came to Canada in 1855 to interview "people who had experienced slavery." Drew interviewed Burthen Pooley in the Queen's Bush, a place that Hunter described as an all-Black settlement around the Guelph-Kitchener area.

The original interview, totalling five pages, unraveled the exposition of her time in slavery.

Andrew Hunter
Andrew Hunter

"What's unique about her story is she wasn't a fugitive, she wasn't a refugee," said Hunter, who lives in Hamilton. "She had actually been brought into Canada enslaved, and sold enslaved in Canada."

"Her interview is the only known first-person account from somebody who was enslaved in Canada."

A grim history

Hunter said he's always "been interested in the stories that don't get told, who gets left out of the dominant Canadian narrative."

He had similar reasoning last year when he put up signs about Burthen Pooley around Dundas. The city took them down, saying they violated the sign bylaw.

Many don't know about the ghastly chronicles of slavery in Canada, Hunter said. But it's not possible to discuss Hamilton and its local history, he said, without gazing upon the larger history of British colonialism.

The establishment of both Britain and Hamilton, Hunter said, relied heavily on slavery.

"The early development of Hamilton in the 19th century is totally tied into the wider development of the British Empire — which is founded on child slavery," he said. "That is the economic foundation."

An interview as a gift

When Hunter began developing the book, he spoke to a mentor and friend, Charmaine Nelson, who leads the Institute for the Study of Canadian Slavery at NSCAD University in Halifax. As a white man, he said, he suspected that people may be critical of his work. But a piece of advice from Nelson swayed him.

"She said, 'You have to remember that slavery is all of our history,'" he said.

"The key is to approach the book not as me as an outsider trying to write Black history, but to write the story absolutely owning where I write from."

The interview Burthen Pooley gave, Hunter said, is a "gift" that essentially stands "as a calling forward."

"So much isn't resolved. Abolition isn't over," he said. "There's work to be done as allies, but it's hard work."

A lasting legacy

Talibah Howard is the youth and program manager for the Afro Canadian Caribbean Association of Hamilton. On Saturday, she joined Hunter for a conversation during the book's launch event.

That launch, held virtually, included excerpt readings. Howard said that the book "poses certain questions of its readers, regardless of race."

"It's a great way to have us thinking about Canada's relationship with race," she told CBC Hamilton.

Howard said It Was Dark There All The Time is a book that should be of interest to everyone. "It's a really good book for people to get into because it tells of history, it tells of a woman's story who wasn't able to tell her own."

"It's a great way to start having important conversations with the people around us."