A City of Toronto staff report recommending the city rename Dundas Street will be considered by the mayor’s executive committee next week. But Mayor Tory has already indicated he supports the recommendation.
The report says renaming the street would honour commitments council has made to equity, reconciliation and inclusion.
The role Henry Dundas is alleged to have played in the abolition of slavery is contradictory.
It is well documented that he proposed amendments to a bill in Parliament to Abolish Slavery in 1792, that called for “gradual” abolition. The fact is that Dundas was personally opposed to slavery. In 1776 he had acted as legal counsel for Joseph Knight, a slave, who launched a lawsuit to secure his freedom.
Before Scotland’s highest court, Dundas said “human nature, my Lords, spurns at the thought of slavery among any part of our species.” His pleading was successful, and the Court ruled: “the dominion assumed over this Negro, under the law of Jamaica, being unjust, could not be supported in this country to any extent”. In winning the case for Knight’s emancipation, Dundas achieved a landmark decision in which the Court declared that no person could be a slave on Scottish soil. Any slaves then abiding in Scotland could thus claim their freedom. Michael Fry said that Dundas’s success in the case was “instrumental in prohibiting not only negro slavery but also native serfdom in Scotland.”
On 2 April 1792, abolitionist William Wilberforce sponsored a motion in the House of Commons “that the trade carried on by British subjects, for the purpose of obtaining slaves on the coast of Africa, ought to be abolished.” He had introduced a similar motion in 1791, which was soundly defeated by MPs, with a vote of 163 opposed, 88 in favour. Dundas was not present for that vote, but when it was again before MPs in 1792, Dundas tabled a petition from Edinburgh residents who supported abolition. He then went on to affirm his agreement in principle with Wilberforce’s motion: “My opinion has been always against the Slave Trade.” He argued, however, that a vote for immediate abolition would be ineffective, as it would drive the slave trade underground. He stated: “this trade must be ultimately abolished, but by moderate measures”. He suggested that eventually slavery and the slave trade should be abolished but that this should not apply to the current generation of enslaved people who, he claimed would not benefit from immediate emancipation. In the end the measure died and was not revived until 1807 with the adoption of the Slave Trade Act which prohibited the trade in slaves in the British Empire. Ownership of slaves, however, was grandfathered in most of the British Empire until passage of the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833.
Historians of the slave trade and the abolitionist movement, including David Brion Davis, Roger Anstey, Robin Blackburn, and Stephen Tomkins argue that Dundas’s actions were a tactic designed to delay rather than facilitate abolition
Some historians have publicly disagreed. In late 2020, Professor Sir Tom Devine, said that blaming Dundas for delay in the abolition of the slave trade is “bad history”, and instead emphasized wider political and economic factors, including the fact there was no majority in favour of abolition. The most recent and thorough study of the issue, by Dr Stephen Mullin of Glasgow University, concludes that Dundas was “‘a great delayer’ of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade.”
As for the Canadian connection, the name Dundas would have been unknown here, but for the fact that Dundas was a friend of Sir. John Graves Simcoe, Canada’s governor. It was Simcoe who named streets and the Valley Town for Dundas, who never set foot in Canada. At the time of his death Dundas was being hounded by creditors.