Josiah Henson – February 2002 for CBC syndication, National Radio News

In Culture, Education, Media Writing, Writing (all kinds) on July 28, 2016 at 3:00 AM

“When my feet first touched the Canada shore, I threw my self on the ground, rolled in the sand, seized handfulls of it and kissed them and danced around, till, in the eyes of several who were present, I passed for a madman.”

Those are the words of Josiah Henson, an American slave who found freedom in Upper Canada. Josiah is the most famous and controversial slave to come to Canada. It is rumoured that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin was based on Josiah. But no one knows for sure.

Josiah was born on a plantation in Maryland on June 15, 1789. He learned about the cruelty of slavery early when his brothers and sisters were sold. His father also tried to defend his mother from the insults of an overseer. For that, Josiah’s father received 100 lashes and his ear was cut off. His father was also sold into the deeper south of Alabama and the Henson family never heard from him again.

Josiah ended up growing up alone with his mother. When he was old enough he was sold to another plantation owner. At the age of 21, he married. He and his wife had 12 children, 8 of them survived.

Because Josiah worked hard and was loyal to his master, he was put in charge of the master’s farm. Later, Josiah’s master got into debt and had to sell his farm. So Josiah went to work for the master’s brother in Kentucky.

Josiah, his family, and 28 other slaves travelled by foot to reach the Kentucky plantation. While in Cincinnati, the other slaves encouraged Josiah to follow them to freedom in Canada. But because Josiah was loyal to his former master, he refused and turned the other slaves in.

Josiah stayed with his new owner for three years. In that time, he moved from field-hand to manager to unofficial overseer. He was also given more spare time. He used this time to become a Methodist Episcopal preacher. He saved his earnings so he could buy his freedom.

They agreed on a price 4-hundred and 50 dollars. But Josiah was illiterate, and his new owner cheated on the documents. When Josiah found out about the betrayal, he planned his escape.

Choosing a day in September of 1830 when his owner was away, Josiah fled with his family, hiding by day and travelling by night.

For three years after, Josiah worked as a farmer in Upper Canada near Fort Erie and Niagara. The family lived in a small house, owned a horse, a cow and a pig. He enjoyed his freedom.

His 12-year old son taught Josiah how to read and he became the local preacher. Josiah would encourage blacks to save their money, buy land collectively and farm.

Josiah began having the idea of developing a self-supporting black community. He wanted the refugees from the States to have a chance to be self-employed and receive an education. He formed the Dawn Settlement in southern Ontario.

Josiah had strong convictions that he preached about on his widespeard travels. They were the importance of farming, owning land, and British patriotism. He even met Queen Victoria, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the British Prime Minister.

Josiah Henson’s last words were on May 5, 1883.

I’m Donna Kakonge

Extro: To find out more about Josiah Henson and the history of blacks in Canada, read The Freedom-Seekers: Blacks in Early Canada by Daniel G. Hill. It’s published by The Book Society of Canada Limited.

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