The only known copies of a long-lost pre-Confederation abolitionist newspaper have been re-discovered after being hidden within Western Archives, and are now carefully restored to near-new condition.
The Voice of the Bondsman – a clarion call that citizens and churches to condemn slavery as a sin against God and humankind – published just two issues in 1856 and 1857.
All but one original of each issue has been lost to time. And that one original of each issue had, until now, been virtually forgotten – its pages folded and refolded, inserted into an envelope and tucked away into another author’s book.
“As far as we know, these are the only ones still in existence,” said Deborah Meert-Williston, Special Collections and Rare Books Librarian at Western Archives and Special Collections. “The closest thing historians had until we rediscovered this abolitionist newspaper was a facsimile of it. Having a real, physical copy is inspiring.”
Its publication, rediscovery, restoration and return to the library this month are a tribute to its editor’s fiery convictions, an unknown archivist’s decision to catalog it, a researcher’s dogged pursuit of its origins and a restorer’s painstaking work to bring it back to life.
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In the mid-1850s, a growing protest against slavery in the United States had made its way, along with escaped slaves, to Ontario, then called Canada West. In Chatham and Toronto, black abolitionists such as Mary Ann Shadd and Henry Bibb pioneered influential newspapers that decried slavery and racism in all its forms.
In Stratford, John James Linton – a firebrand with a record of battling against the political, educational and religious establishment in letters, leaflets and a column in Shadd’s newspaper – launched his own broadsheet, The Voice of the Bondsman. Linton was a Scottish Presbyterian, devout and vocal in his hatred for slavery and, by extension, the United States.
In his eyes, any church that supported slavery or remained silent about it was itself culpable of slavery. That culpability extended to local buying choices, as well. Anyone who bought books from American church publishers that failed to oppose slavery were themselves as guilty as slaveholders.
From that unwavering stance, he wrote, published and distributed 5,000 copies of his first edition. A month later he published 7,000 copies of the second and final Voice. His paper faded into oblivion, along with any collective memory of it.
English professor Alyssa MacLean, a specialist in countercultural political movements of the 19th Century, said the paper’s preservation and rediscovery is remarkable.
“Newspapers were intended to be ephemera – the next day after they read it, they would probably use it for kindling – and it’s really a miracle we have this one at all.”
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Careful detective work, and serendipity, brought the Voice back to the light of day, 160 years after its publication.
Scott Schofield, an English and Cultural Studies professor at Huron University College, had spent much of January and February pulling together abolitionist imprints from Western Archives for an upcoming rare-book workshop with professors and students from Huron and Bath Spa University in the U.K.
One of those books, My Bondage and My Freedom by abolitionist Frederick Douglass, found in the Western’s John Davis Barnett Collection, caught Schofield’s eye as a potential addition to the workshop. As he carefully leafed through the book, he found a lump of an envelope with the name J.J. Linton on it.
Inside were pencilled notes by Linton, evidently a previous owner of the Douglass book. Inside that note were two non-descript, folded newspaper pages whose title Schofield didn’t recognize.
Schofield typed Linton’s name into the library database and it referred him to a small Linton book about slavery and The Voice of the Bondsman title. A further search then led him to a barely legible microfilmed copy of a newspaper but it still didn’t tell him who Linton was.
Schofield searched some more and found an entry about Linton in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography and its small-print notation that Western Special Collections held “the only surviving copy” of Linton’s newspaper.
He had come full circle.
The folded newspaper he had found – and had thought was a reproduction – was in fact an original.
It had been buried so deeply that only a circuitous journey had led him to its pages. While library officials emphasize The Voice of the Bondsman was not a lost document, it hadn’t been crying out to be found, either.
“Someone at some point knew it was worth filming,” Schofield noted, “and the writer of the DCB article (American scholar Robin Winks) also spotted its rarity. But had anyone looked at the actual paper since it was micofilmed? I doubt it.”
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The discovery – rather the rediscovery – had Western Libraries, and various researchers, agog.
But the 160-year-old pages had seen better days. Heavily creased and badly yellowed, with ink visible from one side through to the other, they were barely legible in places. A succession of taped repairs had stained and degraded the paper.
That’s when conservator Jennifer Robertson of Book and Paper Conservation Services carefully carried them back to her studio and went to work.
“When they came in, they were dark and brittle, creased and torn,” she said. “They were in not-too-bad a condition – I’ve seen worse – but there were small tears and pressure sensitivities from tape that had been on it.”
The first step was to tweeze off tape remnants and use a solvent to remove adhesive residue. A light dry cleaning lifted much of the dirt and grime and an immersion wash and deacidification treatment restored strength and flexibility.
Robertson repaired the tears by using a paste made from the starch of Japanese Jin Shofu wheat. Then, once she had humidified the pages to flatten out the creases, she placed them in mylar sleeves inside acid-free folders.
“They look similar to maybe when they came off the press when they first were produced, although they do still show a little bit of signs of age, as you would expect them to. We don’t want them to look brand-new again, just in their best possible condition,” Robertson said.
The Voice returned home to Western late last week.
Meert-Williston expects the newly restored newspapers will become rich fodder for researchers and local historians, who can now gain access to them through Western Archives. She is also in the planning stages of making the paper, and emerging research and commentary about it, a focal point of the Archives of during Black History Month in February.
“There have been a lot of people waiting for it to come back,” Meert-Williston said.
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The Voice of the Bondsman, on its own and in the context of abolitionist history and journalism, has riches yet to be realized, said professor Nina Reid-Maroney, Chair of History at Huron. It was her rare-book workshop that had prompted Schofield’s search in the first place.
“It is like finding a potsherd and reading it closely with an eye to what it reveals about the larger story. Although The Voice of the Bondsman had a short run and limited circulation, it has a lot to tell us. It shows us the inner workings of a much wider network of antislavery print culture in Canada and its links to antislavery work across the Atlantic world,” Reid-Moroney said.
Linton’s alliance with Shadd – the first black woman to edit a newspaper in North America – also offers new perspectives into how interracial activism shaped the political culture of Canada West in the 1850s, she added.
“We suddenly see the Voice of the Bondsman not as an isolated or unimportant paper, but as part of a vast web of ideas and activism.”
So why did the paper have a run of only two editions? Linton never did say, although Winks speculated the abolitionist was too abrasive for the publication to gain traction.
But its brief life doesn’t mean the paper was or is any less significant.
“In any political movement, there are a lot of voices,” MacLean said. Knowing the range of advocacy helps understand who shaped the debate and how those ideas gained traction, even years later, she said.
“Was he a wingnut who was stuck in this swamp of people he hated? Maybe. I mean, he was pretty vindictive. But he was still part of the political debate at the time.”
She said Linton’s arguments also have resonance in today’s political culture, where many Canadians are trying to sort out how they can influence U.S. policy’s influence from this side of the border.
MacLean added Linton was mostly interested in challenging church-going Canadians who he saw as collaborating indirectly, with slaveholders by purchasing American sugar, indigo, cotton and religious tracts.
“He’s looking at the culture of religious ideology and he’s asking: if most religious literature in Canada is written by U.S. Methodists and U.S. Methodists have been silent about slavery or even supportive of slavery – and if Canadian Methodists buy U.S. Methodist publications – how are Canadians implicated in slavery and in that system?”
Linton’s views also brought him into direct conflict with Canada’s political and religious elite, including his direct attacks on Egerton Ryerson, editor of the Methodist Christian Guardian.
“This was his way to get into a fistfight with a male-dominated church organization that saw itself as a political force,” MacLean said. “He was not afraid to name names and I kind of admire him for that.”