This evening I read the Charter of the City of Saint John (1785; reprint 1811) for the first time. Its author, Thomas Carleton, was the first Lieutenant Governor of New Brunswick, and he oversaw the arrival/invasion of the Loyalists in the final decades of the eighteenth century. If you live in New Brunswick, you’ve seen his name everywhere — on school buildings, towns, and counties. The tallest mountain in the province is named after him.

But until tonight, I don’t think I’d ever actually read something that he authored. Two sections of this document jumped out at me. The first, from the preamble, articulates Carleton’s desire to unite “the inhabitants of the Town or District of Parr, lying on the east side of the River Saint John” with those “of Carleton on the west side thereof, at the entrance of the River Saint John aforesaid, both which Districts are in our Province of New Brunswick, in America.” He describes a people who “have, by their exertions, conquered many of the difficulties attending the settlement of a new country” and who are now “anxious to remove the remaining evils they at present labor under.” Those who know me will understand why I find this combination of language — America, evil, conquest — very compelling; but also, this does not strike me as Loyalist sentiment.

And then, much later, there’s this:

. . . for us, our heirs and successors, we do will and hereby declare, that although the people of colour are black persons now residing in our said City, and hereafter to come and reside therein, are by these presents excluded the privilege of being or becoming free citizens thereof, yet it is not our pleasure that those who should be found good, discreet and honest persons of that description, should be wholly deprived of the means of getting and having a comfortable support for themselves and their families; and therefore we do will and grant, that the Mayor of the said City, for the time being, may from time to time, as he shall think proper, by warrant under his hand and seal, license any of the said people of colour to reside in the said City, and to carry on any business or occupation which he shall think fit, and express in such license; and the same license and licenses at his pleasure to suppress, any thing herein contained to the contrary notwithstanding.

Some might argue that this kind of language and policy in a document from this era isn’t surprising — since, around the same time, U.S. officials drafted a Constitution that ascribed a value of “3/5 a person” to each black slave within its borders. But I can’t recall having read anything in the historiography of this region about municipal governments using licence systems to control the presence, movements, and actions of black people within or around major settlements, and I could not find similar sections in the town charters for Shelburne or Halifax. I have read work on “black codes” in both southern and northern states in the nineteenth century but nothing on similar laws in British America in the eighteenth century. I’d be happy to hear from any of my colleagues on this point.

An Act in further amendment to the Charter of the City of Saint John, passed in 1849, contains a section titled “Coloured persons may be made free.” That amendment reads, “Notwithstanding any thing in the said Charter to the contrary contained, any black person or person of colour may become a free citizen of, and be admitted to the freedom of the said City.”

Update: Zoe Jackson wrote a fabulous blog post on this topic last year that contains much more context and information. She writes, “the 1785 document can be considered one of earliest acts of institutional discrimination against Black individuals in Atlantic Canada. The Saint John Charter was based upon the 1686 Dongan Charter of the Province of New York, which officially incorporated New York as a city.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s