1. Welcome to the Bond Building

Some time last week, lawyers at the Legal Aid office on Spring Garden Road noticed that the signs in the building had been quietly changed.

Image from greenwoodlane.com

The building, which also houses the National Film Board and other businesses, was formerly named Cornwallis House.

Now, the property has been renamed the Bond Building.

Sherry Benteau, a legal assistant with Legal Aid, says the signs were changed without fanfare:

I’m pleased as a resident of the building. I didn’t feel as though it had any historical significance to have the building named Cornwallis House to begin with, so we’d been hoping for a while that it would happen, and had made mention of it a while to different people, like the maintenance people. 

And just one day, we came in lunch time, and all the signage was gone…they just did it.

The change is particularly significant for Legal Aid, as Mi’kmaq clients no longer have to be directed to offices in Cornwallis House. The over-incarceration of Indigenous people is one ongoing impact of colonization in Canada, so there was a particular indignity to Mi’kmaq clients being confronted with the name of Cornwallis.

Although Legal Aid didn’t choose the building name where they leased space, the unintended message sent to Mi’kmaq clients seeing the signs in the building with Cornwallis’ name starkly demonstrates the ways that commemoration of colonial history in street names and buildings is not simply a benign act. Cornwallis’ intent to “root the Micmac out of the peninsula decisively and forever” reverberates in the injustice experienced by Mi’kmaq people today. This is not simply a matter of dead and harmless history.

The Legal Aid office immediately contacted the Barrister’s Society and updated all their materials with the new building name.

I contacted the property owner for comment to ask why he decided to change the building name, but he was out of the office. I will update this story if he responds.

Photo: Halifax Examiner

Rebecca Moore, one of the organizers of the Removing Cornwallis event, found the change of building name “refreshing.”

While certainly there is a difference between public spaces and property owned by a private company, it is heartening to activists like Moore is that this quiet alteration in name demonstrates how easy these changes can be. The owners of the property don’t seem to have created a press release or made any public announcement about the change; they seem to have simply gone ahead and taken action.

Edward Cornwallis didn’t live at the Cornwallis House location as far as anyone knows or have any other connection to the property. The name did not reflect a historical marker or the need to preserve a significant historical moment. The name change suggests the ways that Mi’kmaq activists are transforming this city — despite those who oppose the protests against the statue of Cornwallis as “hotheads” or as otherwise disruptive or upsetting to the city, it is apparent that their raised voices are making a difference.

In March, The Cornwallis Street Baptist Church congregation voted to change the name of the church. Nzingha Millar reported:

Last April, the Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre asked Halifax regional council to change the name of Cornwallis Street. Council received a letter in May from church officials backing the centre’s request.

“I was totally in support of it,” says [licentiate minister Grace] Skeir. “I still am. We’re acting in solidarity with our Mi’kmaq connection.”

Cynthia Jordan, who leads the church’s current rebuilding project, says that municipal representatives were reluctant to consider the Mi’kmaq centre’s request because the church held the street’s name.

Image from tubman.info.yorku.ca

The church was originally named the African Chapel.

The action taken by the owners of the Bond Building shows how simple acts of reconciliation can be. While City Council and the mayor continue to resist calls for the statue’s removal, evidently “ordinary” people in Halifax are listening to Indigenous people.

As a friend of mine put it, “it’s impressive that some random capitalist is more progressive than the city!”

As protestors in Memphis have begun to dig up the body of KKK leader Nathan Forrest from his grave, and as Confederate statues are being pulled down overnight in Baltimore, the claims by city officials about the difficulty of statue removal and the need for lengthy processes seem less and less convincing and more and more inflammatory.

The statues honouring Confederate soldiers were largely erected not immediately after the Civil War, but in the early 1900s. “Towns erected them in the early 20th century, decades after the Civil War, because their Confederate mythologies helped to justify Jim Crow laws in the South that oppressed black citizens.” Similarly, as Tim Bousquet uncovered, the Cornwallis statue was unveiled in 1931, long after the life and death of Cornwallis:

As the global economy was collapsing into the deepest days of the Depression, “social unrest” and revolution were a real threat. In the minds of the wealthy and powerful assembled at the Natal Day luncheon, the best way to guard against “social unrest” was to “preserve for future generations … an outward and visible symbol” of empire — the statue of Cornwallis.

While Indigenous languages rapidly disappear, and despite that entire nations and people were wiped out under colonization, there are some who insist that history, once written by white people, must be literally set in stone. “Erasing history” seems only to be evoked at the moment it is white historical narratives that face any public diminishment.  A meme going around in response to the removal of Confederate statues suggests: “wait until people complaining about erasing history realize that books exist!”

As the changing of the name of the Bond Building indicates, the city landscape is shaped by the people in it, and for many, including property owners, the name of Cornwallis is no longer something to honour.

2. The Society

One of the conditions of living in a society that regularly names things after colonizers and slave owners, is that you frequently find yourself asking, “did this public figure own slaves/support the slave trade?”

I was asked this question about Edward Cornwallis earlier this week.

Cornwallis was not a slave owner, but the context around that answer indicates the ways that genocide towards Indigenous people, enslavement of Africans, and European settlement are all intertwined.

Edward Cornwallis’ twin brother, Frederick Cornwallis, would become the Archbishop of Canterbury. During the period of Edward’s “founding” of Halifax, Frederick was president of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG), a missionary organization of the Church of England founded in 1701.

Missionaries for the SPG were included in Edward Cornwallis’ first fleet. These missionaries were requested to preach to the settlers and to start schools, but also to suppress Catholicism and to civilize the Indigenous people.

In a speech in 1756, Frederick Cornwallis argued that missionaries must “rescue [Indigenous people] out of the wilderness” before trying to impart the gospels to “Indians,” as they could not be considered capable of understanding the gospels. This “civilizing mission” under the guise of conversion and spreading the word of God justified the building of settlements, the removal of Indigenous peoples from their lands, and violence and military action towards Indigenous communities.

In other words, the mission of the SPG provides an ideological underpinning for Edward Cornwallis’ war against the Mi’kmaq. This is of course also the logic that leads to residential schools, many run by the Anglican church.

One major source of wealth for the SPG was the Codrington Plantation in Barbados (my ancestors were enslaved in Barbados). The plantation was left to the Society in 1710.

The Codrington Plantation was notoriously brutal. Four out of 10 Africans died within three years of their enslavement, a number higher than the average on the rest of the island. Adam Hochschild concludes that the plantation had a deliberate policy of working Africans to death, as it was cheaper to buy slaves in Africa than to bother to keep them alive.

The plantation constantly struggled with maintaining their “stock.” As J. Harry Bennett Jr.’s 1951 essay on “The Problem of Slave Labour Supply at the Codrington Plantations” indicates, the plantation had been gifted with the proviso that the labour force be maintained at a level of 300 slaves, a number they struggled to achieve due to frequent death. An except from the essay reads:

The Codrington plantations suffered to the fullest the common Barbadian failure to maintain the numbers of slave forces without constant recruitment. Their records illustrate various factors responsible for Negro decline: diseases, accidents, the high death rate among infants and newly imported Africans, and managerial unwillingness to buy female Negroes. The history of the Society’s estates indicates that management, in facing the diminution of the Negro population, had alternatives to simple reliance on the African slave trade: the use of jobbing gangs of hired Negroes, the purchase of seasoned slaves, the deliberate re-trenchment of production, the encouragement of breeding, and the redistribution of the components of the slave force — male and female, artisans and field workers, young and old — to keep up strength for essential work. 

This dispassionate accounting of the logistics of Africans as property is maintained throughout the entire essay and has a chilling effect. These words do not convey the horror of “recruitment”  — the kidnapping and shipping of Africans, many of whom died on the passage while crammed into the hold — or of the “breeding” (forced rape) of African women, the brutal punishments that led to death detailed in some of the essay’s tables related the causes of death, and the crushing labour that caused Africans to die within 10 years.

No doubt because of the brutal conditions leading slaves to attempt escape, slaves on the Codrington Plantation were branded with the word “Society.” This was to mark them as “slaves of the Lord.”

The SPG provided a large force of missionaries to Canada and the United States. Following their introduction into Nova Scotia by Cornwallis, perhaps one site where the SPG was to have their greatest impact was at King’s College.

Image of King’s College at Windsor from cbc.ca

King’s College was founded in the aftermath of the U.S. revolutionary war by Loyalist faculty breaking away from the institution that is now Columbia University in New York City. The SPG supported many of the fleeing academics, who suddenly found themselves impoverished in Nova Scotia.

An essay by Henry Youle Hind, “The University of King’s College, Windsor, Nova Scotia: 1790-1890,” written for the centennial celebration of the College, indicates the extent to which the SPG was instrumental both in the founding of the college and in its survival.

Along with Bishop Charles Inglis, a former SPG missionary, by my count at least seven of the founding members of King’s were members of the SPG. This alliance with the SPG would impact the direction of King’s College, as it was largely due to the influence of the Society that King’s maintained its policy that only Anglicans could enter the college and that all members of the college must sign the 39 articles, which among other things forbid students to set foot in another religious establishment.

King’s College and the SPG had a mutual relationship, where the college educated the majority of the clergy active in the province, and in turn the SPG contributed a significant portion of the college expenses. In 1808. John Inglis, the son of Charles, successfully obtained scholarships from the SPG to support students. This financial support — including $50 towards the president’s salary for chaplaincy duties, endowing faculty, student scholarships, and other grants — continued throughout the college’s tenure in Windsor. Faculty at the college were also granted missions for the SPG and drew salaries for those responsibilities while teaching at the college.

An indication of the scale and importance of the contributions of the SPG to the college can be seen, for example, in this table recounting revenues in 1826:=

While the grants from the SPG varied from year to year, their contributions far exceeded those given by the provincial government to support the college.

Throughout its first century of operation, the college struggled to stay afloat, in part because of their restrictive admissions policies. Following the founding of Dalhousie University in Halifax in 1818, the college came under increased pressure to merge with the new university.

Funding from the SPG was instrumental in allowing the college to remain independent, and the essay by Hind details numerous contributions granted to the college by the Society. Excess funds from scholarships were also able to be converted into general funds, allowing the college to survive.

King’s College educated the majority of clergy who served with the SPG in Nova Scotia. For the college, there was a clear association between allegiance to the Church of England and obedience to the crown. The restriction on admitting students who were not Anglican reflected this devotion to suppressing dissenters, and to associating the church with order and discipline of society.

While the SPG and the Anglican church played a role in educating Black people, African people in Nova Scotia were blatantly second-class citizens in Anglican churches. Black Anglicans were segregated during services and in Anglican-run schools, and many churches held separate services for Black worshippers. Bishop Charles Inglis supported rudimentary education for African Nova Scotians, but refused to ordinate Black preachers. It is for this reason the free Black population in Nova Scotia turned to non-conformist churches like the Methodists and Baptists.

Image of Charles Inglis painted by Robert Field from Wikipedia.

The Society did not relinquish ownership of the Codrington Plantation until 1833, when it was forced to emancipate the slaves under the Slavery Abolition Act. There are those who argue that slavery was simply normal and accepted at the time, but that argument is clearly countered by Bishop Beilby Porteus, who used the Society’s annual anniversary service in 1783 to call for the church to end its connection with the slave trade. Porteus’ sermon addressed the hypocrisy of the church that attempted to use the argument that slavery was necessary to Christianize the Africans.

While it would therefore be perhaps stretching it to say that King’s College was founded and maintained off the backs of slaves, what can be clearly seen is that the SPG was instrumental in the history of the college, and that revenues for the SPG included money directly made from slavery and the slave trade. In turn, the generous grants made by the Society to King’s College implicate the college in profiting from the enslavement of Africans.

For at least part of King’s history, grants made by the SPG came from an organization who received significant revenue from their ownership of a slave plantation.

When slavery was abolished, it was the owners who were compensated for the loss of their property. The SPG received reparations for the loss of its slaves at the Codrington plantation.

The Church of England apologized in 2006, recognizing the “damage done to those enslaved by the church.” The church also acknowledged the need for reparations.

Demonstrating the importance of West Indian slavery to the city of Halifax, an essay by T. Watson Smith read before the Halifax Historical Society in 1898 — an essay cited before by Tim — Smith explains how with the 1833 Abolition Act pending, Halifax merchants made submissions to parliament to support the financial interests of the slave owners:

As has been recently shown in one of a series of interesting historical reminiscences in the Acadian Recorder of this city, the West India islands, the only portion of the empire really affected by that Act, were in close commerical relations with the Maritime Provinces. The fish and lumber sent by these provinces to the West Indies formed an important, if not the larger, part of their export trade — a trade that, directly and indirectly, gave employment to an immense number of industrious men. On the sucess of this trade Halifax had in a large measure depended for her prosperity, if not for her existence; and the agricultural sections of the provinces for their imports and circulating medium. With their interests thus interwoven, the merchants of the Lower Provinces, in spite of their general belief in the right to emancipation of slaves of any color or origin, had not a little sympathy with West India planters and exporters in their alarm at the probable consequences, as seen from a business standpoint, of the success of the English abolitionists. In that alarm the West Indies, about 1824, appealed to the Northern colonies for moral aid in their resistance to the onward march of the already triumphing emancipation crusade in the mother country, by petitions to his majesty’s government in their favor. Under these circumstances the merchants of Halifax, while giving expression to their sympathy with any measure for the freedom of West Indian bondmen, felt themselves also called upon to assure the British authorities of their belief that the real moral reform aimed at could only be attempted with safety when preceded and attended by education and by a gradual improvement in the laws under which slavery had for generations existed.

In carrying out, nearly ten years later, the policy of emancipation — an experiment fraught with great difficulty from the unwillingness of the planters to adopt it, and with great danger, as they alleged, to their lives and property, from the numbers and temper of the slaves — the Colonial secretary, Lord Stanley, acted in partial harmony with the representations of prominent Halifax merchants. This he did when on introducing a ministerial measure into the British House of Commons on April 23, 1833, he proposed to combine with freedom to every slave in the British colonies an apprenticeship of twelve years, and the payment out of the earnings of the slaves to their masters of the sum of fifteen millions of pounds. The friends of emancipation having remonstrated against these features of the plan, it was finally modified by a reduction of the term of apprenticeship to six years and a provision to pay the masters twenty millions of pounds sterling out of the national treasury. The bill passed the House of Commons August 7, the House of Lords August 20, and received the royal assent August 28, 1833. The day fixed for emancipation was August 1, 1834, and it was left optional with the local legislatures respectively to adopt or reject the system of apprenticeship. Antigua and Bermuda rejected that system, while the other West India islands adopted it.

It is notable that the same arguments used for “gradual” change and the need to “safely” address the abolition of slavery are echoed in the current arguments by council for the need for “process” in the removal of Cornwallis.

Smith’s essay, as Tim noted, makes clear the extent of slave owning in Halifax. Among the prominent slave owners in the city was Malachy Salter, after whom Salter Street is named.

In passing, Smith mentions at one point that another slave owner, “Jacob Hurd, whose name is still attached to a lane in Halifax, offered a reward of five pounds, with the payment of all necessary charges, for the apprehension of his runaway Negro — Cromwell — described as a “short, thick-set, strong fellow,” badly marked by smallpox, “especially on the nose,” and having on when he went away as a part of his grotesque apparel a green cloth jacket and a cocked hat. ”

As this post from Historic Halifax, NS – Then & Now indicates, Hurd Lane no longer exists, razed in 1967 for the Scotia Square Mall and the Cogswell Interchange.

Photo from Historic Halifax NS – Then & Now

It’s interesting to think that should Hurd Lane have been identified as being named for a slaveowner and the African community wished to rename it, there would be an outcry about erasing history and the importance of maintaining the street, but since it was removed to make room for a mall, the city was fine with its disappearance.

It strikes me that beyond the insult to African people, the maintenance of streets, etc. named for colonizers and slave owners does a disservice to those in our history who actually demonstrated moral courage and who stood on the “right side” of history. The pretence that “everybody back then” supported Indigenous genocide or slavery performs an actual historical erasure of the many voices who recognized injustice and fought to end it.

Take, for example, the contrasting cases of Nova Scotia Chief Justice Sampson Salter Blowers (after whom Blowers street is named) and his counterpart in New Brunswick, George Duncan Ludlow, for whom the town of Ludlow, New Brunswick is named.

Ludlow was vehement supporter of slavery. “Our Chief Justice,” wrote another judge, “is very strenuous in support of the master’s rights [as slave owner] as being founded on immemorial usuages and customs in all parts of America ever since its discovery. He contends that customs in all countries are the foundation of law, and from them the law acquires its force.”

Chief Justice Blowers, however, used his position on the bench to force slave owners to prove their right to their “property” — a standard of proof that would inevitably end with him declaring the African free. “Because in part of Blowers’s demands for the proof of its legality, slavery died out in Nova Scotia relatively soon in the 19th century, in contrast to New Brunswick, where Chief Justice George Duncan Ludlow held that slavery was legal,” explains the Dictionary of Canadian Biography.

To say that there should be no difference in how we recognize slave owner Malachy Salter and how we recognize Justice Blowers is to flatten history. Just as those people made choices in the face of arguments for abolition, as to whether they would stand with oppression or stand for freedom, we make choices today in how we choose to structure our common spaces.

Pretending that we have no choice, and that those in history had no choice either, is to remove the very responsibility and agency that led so many in the fight against enslavement, against genocide, and against violence and injustice. If we maintain the names of slaveowners and colonizers in our city today, it is not by accident or because we are helpless before history, it is because choosing to maintain those names serves as an indication of power in a city where African people are still street checked at three times the rate of white people.

Of course we can’t walk safely on streets named for people who massacred Africans, or where our Public Gardens display a plaque for Clonard Keating, who abducted and massacred Nigerians.

White people who ask “where does it stop?” are really indicating their discomfort with unacceptable levels of humanity by African people. Somehow it was easy enough to name streets for slave owners, install plaques and statues, and hoist lettering onto buildings, but the labour of renaming a street is beyond the capacities of the white public. That one can confront the scope of public memorials for slave owners and colonizers and think the problem is the addressing of that history and not the ubiquity of that history in this city shows how little Black and Indigenous lives and bodies still matter.

And the reality that the slave owners were compensated for slavery while the descendants of the enslaved or the colonized still fight for concessions like removing a statue or renaming a street demonstrates how far we truly are from acknowledging any equality.

El Jones is a poet, journalist, professor, community advocate, and activist. Her work focuses on social justice issues such as feminism, prison abolition, anti-racism, and decolonization.

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  1. Another absolutely brilliant and insightful piece by El Jones!
    I have to echo the sentiments – yes this is one of the reasons why I pay for my subscription to the Halifax Examiner!
    Has anyone sent a copy of this article in paper form to the Halifax mayor and council?

  2. The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts connected a lot of dots for me in this really great history lesson. Wow.

  3. Wonderfully researched, compassionately argued, compelling advocacy. Your works and words are so important.

  4. Thank you for this, El Jones. Your solid research and articulate essays never fail to inform and persuade. I wish your essays were more widely published. On the topic of municipal public spaces honouring the likes of Edward Cornwallis, I have been trying to persuade my city councillor, Steve Adams, to take a more progressive path than he has so far followed. Is it possible the Halifax Examiner might share your essay with him? Again, thank you.

  5. well researched, well written, an excellent article! I did not know so many of the details, including who half these people were who our streets etc, were named for and what they stood for too. Thank you El, I always look forward to your column on Saturday. Keep being awesome!

    1. Same here. El Jones is my only weekly must read. Feel quite discombobulated when she´s not in the Saturday edition.