It Was Dark There All The Time: Sophia Burthen and the Legacy of Slavery in Canada by Andrew Hunter

While I have known for some time that the rose-coloured glasses through which we as Canadians view slavery in this country have been removed by the truths that have come to light through the black lives matter movement, it wasn’t until I discovered this book by Andrew Hunter that the extent of the injustices, particularly among United Empire Loyalists in the Niagara region of Canada have been put under a crystal-clear lens.

Little is known about Sophia Burthen or her family, but an interview she had with Benjamin Drew back in 1855 is the nugget of her recorded history that Andrew Hunter has taken and thoroughly examined in this book, following in her footsteps from the moment she and her sister were abducted from outside their home in New York State, blindfolded and put in the hold of a ship (where “it was dark there all the time”) that took them into what was a British territory until her last known whereabouts in Ontario (Canada West).

A blurb on the cover of the book by Lawrence Hill (The Book of Negroes) states that It Was Dark There All the Time is “thoroughly researched, self-reflexive, and soulful.” And indeed it is as the entire book takes a very holistic approach to the telling of Ms. Burthen’s story. Mr. Hunter follows every lead, researching the lives of any person, Black, White or Indigenous, that comes into contact with Sophie at any point in her life. Prominent is Joseph Brant/Thayendenegea in whose household she was once employed. Poignant too, are the frequent ‘letters’ that Mr. Hunter writes to Sophia, asking the unasked questions that Benjamin Drew didn’t ask, or left out of his interview (which is included). This book is a labour of love, written for Sophia and so many others that had no voice at the time. “I wrote this book to honour you and to trouble whiteness,” the author writes in his final letter to Sophie in the Acknowledgement at the end of the text.

Before he delves into the research he has unearthed, Mr. Hunter makes this statement in Chapter Two, “On Whiteness”:

I am a white man. I realize that many BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) readers do not need to hear another white man’s words, particularly words shaped by the life of a Black woman who lived enslaved in Canada that draw on the writings and cultural expressions of BIPOC voices. I know that there will also be white people who don’t want to hear the critique of whiteness that runs throughout this story. To BIPOC individuals and communities: I hope that you will take up this narrative and come to see it as a valuable contribution. To white people, particularly Canadians: you need to read this or any book that discomforts us in trying to get beyond feel-good narratives of our histories; we are implicated; we cannot continue in innocence or feigned ignorance of a damning legacy that we continue to benefit from and defines our place in the world. We need to accept a past that has shaped, and that we continue to reshape in, the present. As writer James Baldwin cautions, “An invented past can never be used; it cracks and crumbles under the pressures of life like clay in a season of drought.”

Mr. Hunter is correct: “you need to read this book”. As you can see, he doesn’t say this out of hubris, but from the viewpoint of a white colonist who is trying to grapple with the sordid past of his ancestors, and shine a light for those who wish to travel with him on a mission of enlightenment and reparations. A fantastic book, so well-researched and executed perfectly. A must-read for those wanting to know more about the history of Blacks in Canada.

(Note: this review was originally published at Atlantic Books Today. It is reproduced here in co-operation with them.)

About the Author

Andrew Hunter is a freelance curator, artist, writer, and educator. Hunter was previously the Frederik S. Eaton Curator of Canadian Art at the Art Gallery of Ontario, where he produced major exhibitions and publications including Every Now Then: Reframing NationhoodIn the Ward: Lawren Harris, Toronto & the Idea of North, and Colville. Born in Hamilton and a graduate of the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design, Hunter has held curatorial positions across Canada, including at the Vancouver Art Gallery and the Art Gallery of Hamilton. He has taught at the Ontario College of Art and Design University and the University of Waterloo and lectured on curatorial practice across Canada, the United States, England, China, and Croatia. He is a member of the advisory board for the Institute for the Study of Canadian Slavery at NSCAD.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Goose Lane Editions (Jan. 25 2022)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 328 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1773102192
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1773102191

James M. Fisher is the owner and editor-in-chief of The Miramichi Reader. He began TMR in 2015, realizing that there was a genuine need for more book reviews of Canadian literature. It has since become Canada’s best-regarded source for the finest in new literary releases. James has been interviewed about TMR on CBC Radio and other media sites. James works as a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) Technologist and lives in Miramichi, New Brunswick with his wife Diane and their tabby cat Eddie.