“Henry Dundas? A historical figure
to be placed in the context he lived”

di corriere canadese del July 27, 2021

TORONTO – A Corriere Canadese’s reader, Robert Nelly, wrote a letter in which he defends the name “Dundas” of many historical places in Toronto. “I have been a Toronto citizen all my life – he explains – and I like concerts in Dundas Square, I walk around Dundas Street and travel using Dundas station”. Here is his letter.

Dear Corriere Canadese, have you been following the recent City of Toronto decision to rename Dundas Square, Dundas Street, and Dundas Subway Station?

Historical figures should not necessarily be judged according to the standards of our time, but to the standards of their time. They are not living now, they are living then. Whereas now, it is easy to be anti-slavery, it was much more difficult to do so 200 years ago. However, one article claims that “Dundas played an active role in delaying the abolition of slavery”, in the National Post.

The claim is that the slave trade in the British empire ended in 1807, but if it were not for Dundas’ obstruction, it would have ended in 1792. Apparently, by delaying the abolition of slavery, Dundas caused 630,000 people to wait more than a decade for their relative freedom, or so the article claims.

However, an descendant of Dundas now claims that the slave trade would have been abolished decades later had it not been for his ancestor. Bobby Dundas says that “any attempt to… [give] people the idea he was in favour of slavery would be a profound injustice”.

He said that after a failed attempt by politicians to get the abolition of slavery through parliament, “the only way to get it abolished and a majority vote through parliament was to insert the word ‘gradual’ into the legislation”. He adds that had it not been for this amendment – made by Henry Dundas – the slave trade “could have been about for decades to come”. Bobby Dundas added that his ancestor was a “politician of vision and integrity” who had “no personal involvement in the slave trade”. 

Prof Brian Young, of Oxford University, has also written about Henry Dundas. He described him as “a lawyer with a sense of the possible”, who “saw that the immediate abolition of slavery was impossible: there were simply too many established interests”. Prof Young added that Henry Dundas inserted the word “gradual” into the legislative proposals to ensure it made it to the statute book and that slavery would ultimately be abolished. “Anything other than this would have been a provocation that would have put back the cause of abolition by decades”, he added.

Dear Corriere Canadese, Henry Dundas is just one example of a historical figure who should be looked at through this more nuanced historical lens, which takes into account the pressures of the time and the social constructs of the world he is living in.

Corriere Canadese, let’s say to Canadians, support our historical figures and the landmarks, statues, streets and school that are named after them. I say to Canadians, Support Dundas! Ontario must introduce provincial legislation to take ownership of and protect historical figures and their landmarks, streets, and statues. 

Robert Nelly

In the pic, Yonge-Dundas Square in Toronto (by cisko66, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57047370)

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