9 February 2018

RICHARD PIERPOINT: UNSUNG DEFENDER OF CANADA

WALK OF FAME

BY: SERENA YPELAAR

Welcome back to Walk of Fame, where we look at biographies in the context of museums and heritage! For this edition, I'd like to highlight Richard Pierpoint, a Black Loyalist and an important player in the War of 1812.

But why am I writing about him now, and not any other time of the year? In some ways, my reasons for doing so mirror that of the well-intentioned museums and historic sites in Ontario who routinely commemorate him every February, taking cues from the designation of Black History Month. I find this dynamic interesting at the least; while we should of course commemorate Black individuals and recognize their contributions throughout history, I can't help but wonder if the designation of Black History Month ultimately relegates these important narratives to one month of the year.

Richard Pierpoint. Photo courtesy of the Canadian War Museum 1.E.2.4-CGR2.
I wasn't overly familiar with Richard Pierpoint until I noticed on one of my (many) visits to Fort York National Historic Site that there is a small panel upstairs in one of the blockhouses about his role in the War of 1812. I learned that Pierpoint was born c. 1744 in Senegal and as a teenager was sold into slavery and given the name "Pierpoint". He fought as a private in Butler's Rangers during the American Revolution, after which he settled in the Niagara region in Upper Canada. He is known for petitioning for an all-Black military unit in the War of 1812, aged 68. Though initially rejected, he ended up fighting in the "Coloured Corps", as it was named at the time (the racist legacy of such a term renders it inappropriate today). 

Upon researching Pierpoint, I noted that the majority of events commemorating him were specifically organized for Black History Month programming. Why is Pierpoint only commemorated within this restrictive framework? Why not integrate his story into the widely shared narratives about the war?

Pierpoint isn't overtly celebrated within the commemorative view of the War of 1812. If you saw the Conservative government's commemoration of the Bicentennial of the War of 1812 between 2012 and 2014, you may have noticed the strategic choices made in featuring leaders from various groups involved in the war: 

On another note, Brock didn't really look like that, did he? 
  • Major-General Sir Isaac Brock represents the British military
  • Tecumseh represents Indigenous peoples (though as a Shawnee Chief he was from one of many distinct Indigenous nations) 
  • Charles de Salaberry is depicted on behalf of French Canadians 
  • Laura Secord is included as the only woman, recognized for warning the British of an impending American attack 
Using each of these figures as representative of a whole demographic is somewhat irresponsible. You may also notice that one face/voice is missing from this campaign: Pierpoint petitioned for the all-Black military corps to help repel the Americans, yet he (or any of the Black soldiers in his unit) is nowhere to be seen. The campaign oversimplifies the various cultural communities and their relationships for the sake of nationalism, but the absence of a Black presence is startling. Black Loyalists made up at least 10% of the Loyalist emigration from America after the Revolutionary War, with many defending Canada against invasion. Hence, this reductive depiction of the war minimizes Pierpoint's contribution. 

When Pierpoint is commemorated, he is mythologized as a Black hero, suggesting that he accurately represents a portrait of Black life in early nineteenth century Upper Canada. However, this is another oversimplification which demonstrates the dangers of using an individual to foster an understanding of a varied and complex experience. Our veneration of Pierpoint (no matter how understated) as a Black hero of Upper Canada can lead to oversight in the way we learn about the Black experience as a whole. 

The interesting element of his involvement in an all-Black corps as early as 1812 may also result in the common complacency we often feel when comparing Canadian history to that of our southern neighbours in the United States. Pierpoint is portrayed as an exceptional leader, but his petitioning to defend Canada was rejected and he faced numerous obstacles. The same can be said for his appeal in 1821 for passage back to Senegal, when he was "old and without property; ... he finds it difficult to obtain a livelihood by his labour; that he is above all things desirous to return to his native Country..." This request was also denied, with Pierpoint instead receiving a land grant outside present-day Fergus, Ontario. Pierpoint died there in 1838.

I'll leave you with this Heritage Minute from 2015 describing Pierpoint's significance. 

So what can we learn from the way Pierpoint's life is commemorated? For one thing, in engaging with his story we can gain an understanding of the nuances of interpreting Black history, and what is left out tells us just as much as what's included. We know that Pierpoint is celebrated as a Black hero, but there is still much to be done to illustrate Black life in Upper Canada before, during, and after the War of 1812. The question, I think, isn't when we should remember Pierpoint and his contributions (ideally every time we examine the War of 1812), but rather, how will we remember him going forward?

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