JOE, black slave and pressman; b. c. 1760 in Africa; fl. 1771–89.
Joe is first mentioned in Canadian records in August 1771 as a slave belonging to William Brown and Thomas Gilmore, publishers of the Quebec Gazette; the partners were paying the sum required to get him out of prison. It is not known when Joe had become their property, but they seem to have owned black slaves since at least 1769. In a letter dated 29 April 1768 Brown had complained to his former employer in Philadelphia, William Dunlop, about the difficulties that the young Canadians hired for the printing shop were causing him: it was impossible to keep them long, for as soon as they acquired some experience, they demanded higher wages and became insolent. Consequently the two partners had decided to buy a black slave, 15 or 20 years of age, who was honest and had already had smallpox. They asked Dunlop to buy one for them – they were ready to pay a good price – and to send him by ship, taking care to have him insured. Dunlop may have sent several blacks in this way to his two former employees, and perhaps Joe came to Canada through his agency. After Gilmore’s death in February 1773 and the dissolution of the partnership in January 1774, Brown remained owner of the black slaves then working in the printing shop.
Brown had Joe imprisoned in August 1774 for a theft of over £4. After his stay in prison, which cost his master nearly £3, the slave returned to the shop, and there practised the craft of printer’s pressman. He must have liked this work quite well, for there is no mention of him until April 1777 when he ran away. Brown had to pay 17s. 9d. to get him back. In November Joe repeated his action, and this time Brown put him back in prison, again incurring some expense. On the following 25 January Joe ran away again, and Brown paid 10s. reward to the people who caught him. A few days before Christmas, another flight. This time Brown was not satisfied with putting Joe in prison; he had him flogged by the hangman, thus adding to his costs. In April 1779 Joe absconded after stealing a small sum from his master, who once more had to pay to get him back. When in September Joe ran off again, he was found on board a ship about to sail. Brown, who probably had had enough, made an unsuccessful attempt to sell his slave; however, Joe now had a reputation for his name had appeared regularly in the Gazette as a thief or runaway. At the end of 1785, there was another flight by Joe, and fresh expenses for Brown. On 18 February of the following year, the slave, who was then in prison, escaped along with John Peters, a criminal. The sheriff offered a reward of £5 for each of the fugitives; Brown promised three guineas to anyone who found his pressman, described by the Quebec Gazette of 4 May as “twenty-six years of age, about five feet seven inches high, a little pitted with the smallpox, has several scars on his legs, speaks English and French fluently.” Joe returned to Brown’s shop in June and seemed to settle down. In 1788, however, he stole some liquor for which his owner had to pay. To encourage him in the right path Brown gave him weekly pocket money.
Brown’s persistency in retrieving Joe should occasion no surprise; “ebony wood” (as black slaves were called at the time) was costly, £40 to £50 each on the average, or twice the price of an Indian slave. Since no slave ships came to supply Canada, black slaves were rare. They had to be bought at second hand, either in the American states or through merchants trading with the West Indies or sometimes with Guinea. Blacks may also have been considered more useful, since several of them learned a trade, whereas the Indians were content to be servants or canoemen.
In the context of the times Joe was not so badly off in Brown’s shop. The printer’s disbursement books reveal that he was not stingy with food or clothing for his slave. Shoes in particular cost him a great deal – little wonder in view of Joe’s numerous flights. In addition the slave always received money as a New Year’s gift. During the American siege of Quebec in the winter of 1775–76 Brown, who was enrolled in the militia, sometimes had Joe replace him during his tour of guard duty and rewarded him with a shilling. But the slave’s greatest luck was that his master took it upon himself to punish him for his crimes by making him have a taste of prison or the hangman’s lash. Had he handed him over to the law, Joe could have been hanged for his first theft. Such a crime meant the gallows, for the free man as well as for the slave. Both were equal in the eyes of Canadian justice, and in fact appeared before the same judges, had the right to appeal to a superior court, and suffered the same punishments.
On Brown’s death at the end of March 1789, Joe became by the terms of his will the property of Samuel Neilson. In the month of August he ran away once more. Profiting from his uncle’s experience, Neilson did not persist; although his masters treated him humanely, Joe evidently preferred freedom. No further trace of him has been discovered.
[Volumes 47, 57, 59, 101–3 of the Neilson collection at the PAC (MG 24, B1) contain several references to the expenditures made for the slave Joe by the printers Thomas Gilmore and, in particular, William Brown. From 1777 to 1789 the Quebec Gazette, then owned by Brown, printed many notices, often repeated in the Montreal Gazette, concerning the sale of Joe and his flights. t.p.l.]
M. Trudel, L’esclavage au Canada français. Hubert Neilson, “Slavery in old Canada before and after the conquest,” Literary and Hist. Soc. of Quebec, Trans., [new ser.], 26 (1905), 19–45.