Enslaved in Nova Scotia: The Case of Rose Welch

By Robyn Brown

There once was a young woman gave birth to a baby while living in a small outport of Nova Scotia. Unmarried, she delivered alone in a bedroom of the house where she lived; no one in the household knew she was pregnant. Her child was stillborn and she wrapped the body of the baby in a cloth before placing it in the river which flowed close to her home. Her story is one which could be placed in any time period; while not common, the situation of this young woman was by no means unheard of. What complicates this story, at least within the context of Nova Scotia, is that the child’s mother, Rose Welch, was the enslaved property of a wealthy merchant. Rose was charged with murdering her child but thanks to local magistrate Simeon Perkins interceding on her behalf, she was able to give evidence in her defense and was ultimately found not guilty of the charges brought against her. The trial of Rose Welch brings to light the experiences of an enslaved woman and her words, something unique in the discussion of slavery, and adds to the complicated history of enslaved people in Nova Scotia.

The date and location of Rose Welch’s birth is unknown. She is described as being a “black girl”, called either Rose or Pol. and was either a slave or a servant in the household of Benajah Collins, a wealthy Liverpool merchant; the courts were either unwilling or unable to ascertain her legal status. There is no mention of Rose having a family, something which was quite common in the context of slavery in Nova Scotia.[1] It is unclear as to when Rose came into the Collins household but given the time period, she likely worked as a domestic and lived in Collins’ house, as was the custom of the day.[2] When Perkins began recording his interactions with Rose Welch, she was already in jail, arrested for the suspected murder of her newborn child. There are no details on how she became a suspect or how long she had been incarcerated. Perkins notes that,

…she confessed  that  She  was the  mother of the  Child found that she  was delivered alone, in her  Chamber, about Sunset, & that  the Same night she laid the Child in the Tide’s way; that she did not do  anything to kill it, nor did she ever perceive any life in it; that she  had the Child Near a fortnight before she was taken up and that when she was examined before, she was  afraid, & ashamed to Own it, but Now she was Neither afraid, Nor ashamed to Own the truth.[3]

While this is a second hand account of her testimony, Perkins was, as a rule, meticulous in how he recorded legal proceedings in his diary. His diary represents the only record of certain judicial proceedings in Liverpool and Perkins took his role as legal records keeper quite seriously; there is no reason to believe that this is not an accurate record of her words. It is after this statement that things begin to change for Rose Welch, though it is unclear if she knew it.

Perkins had a keen sense of fairness and he believed that Rose was facing injustice and so he took steps to intercede on her behalf. After hearing her statement, Perkins, in his capacity as magistrate, sought the advice of Samson Salter Blowers, the well-known Halifax barrister and politician. He concluded that Rose Welch would indeed need to face trial and this made Perkins anxious.[4] He wrote that he was “…very sorry, as I do not think we are competent to compose a proper Court.”[5] This is a curious statement as Perkins was supposed to serve as Chief Justice in this three-man tribunal; however, Benajah Collins, Rose’s owner, was one of the others who would decide her fate. Ultimately, Perkins was one of the justices who heard her case and evidence suggests that Perkins believed it was Collins that was not competent to hear the case. All evidence in the Perkins diary suggests that Collins and Perkins were friendly enough with one and other and circulated in the same social circles, so why did Perkins question Collins’ ability to hear the case?

The nature of the relationship between Rose Welch and Benajah Collins is open to speculation. In its most benign form, she was a slave in his household and the death of her illegitimate child represented a potential loss of income. While there is no concrete evidence to suggest anything more sinister, there is the possibility that Collins was the father of Rose’s child. The baby in question was described as a “bastard child” and had the father been someone Rose could have formed a socially respectable relationship with, her pregnancy would likely not have been a secret.[6] Rose claimed that no one in the household knew she was pregnant, which suggests that she felt she could not disclose the identity of the father, be either because he was an unsuitable or because she had been raped. The man who impregnated Rose had to have access to her, meaning it had to be someone with access to Collins’ home. It is reasonable to assume that Perkins thought Collins was involved in some capacity, and feared that Rose would not get a fair trial if he was involved.

There is precious little information on the trial of Rose Welch; there was no local newspaper in Liverpool in 1793 and the story was not reported in the Halifax Gazette, Journal, and Chronicle.[7] The most detailed account of the trial which exists is located in the diary of Simeon Perkins. From a series of diary entries recorded between May and July of 1793, readers are able to piece together a picture of Rose’s trial. Rose was brought before the bar between 8 July and 10 July 1793. Perkins had been successful in obtaining a chief justice from Halifax, one James Brenton who was a judge of the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia who sat as Chief Justice for the trial. Perkins and a man called William Johnston filled the other two positions as Associate Justices.[8] The jury was comprised of ten men whom Perkins lists. However, he does not list evidence brought forward, instead stating that there was no evidence which suggested the death was a murder. There was, however, a discrepancy noted between the statements given by Rose during her initial questioning and her statement during the trial.

Perkins records that Rose first said that she delivered the baby in her chamber but in the record of the trial, she records that she delivered in her master’s chamber. It is highly unlikely that Rose would have been able to deliver the baby around sunset, as she claimed, and be recovered enough to clean herself up, tidy the bedchamber, and dispose of the body and the rest of the physical evidence without drawing attention to herself before Benajah Collins retired for the evening. Perhaps the people of Liverpool saw this inconsistency and questionable timeline.[9] As Perkins noted,

The people in general are not much pleased with the proceedings of the Court, particularly that [s]ome evidences were omitted, and not examined in Court, which were before the Grand Jury, and [s]ome that were examined were not questioned [s]o critically as they Expected.[10]

But mob mentality had no place in the Simeon Perkins’ courtroom. He accomplished what he set out to achieve; Benajah Collins was not involved in the trial and Rose was found not guilty. Had Perkins not interceded on her behalf, she would have likely been executed for her alleged crimes.

Rose Welch had a stroke of luck the day she spoke to Simeon Perkins. Most women, let alone an enslaved women, would have never had such a champion and never have had the chance to speak in their own defense. She suffered any number of injustices in her life and through her experiences, we see that while the scale and location of violence against enslaved women was different than other regions in the Atlantic world, it was still, nevertheless, present in Nova Scotia.


Robyn Brown is a recent MA graduate from Dalhousie University and specializes in 18th and 19th century Nova Scotia. She currently works as a high school teacher in Halifax, Nova Scotia.


Notes:

[1] Harvey Amani Whitfield, North to Bondage: Loyalist Slavery in the Maritime (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2016) 36- 46.

[2] Simeon Perkins, The Diary of Simeon Perkins, vol. 3, ed. C. Bruce Fergusson (Toronto: The Champlain Society, 1961) 237; Whitfield, North to Bondage, 36- 46.

[3] Perkins, The Diary of Simeon Perkins, vol. 3. 228.

[4] Phyllis R. Blakeley, “Blowers, Samson Salter,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 13, 2019, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/blowers_sampson_salter_7E.html. ; Perkins, The Diary of Simeon Perkins, Vol. 3, 229.

[5] Perkins, The Diary of Simeon Perkins, Vol. 3, 229.

[6] It was quite common for young women who found themselves pregnant to marry before the baby was born without facing significant comment by society. Perkins records literally dozens of instances where couples married and had children soon after, including his own step-daughter, Ruth. See Perkins, The Diary of Simeon Perkins, vol. 2, 248; 259.

[7] Halifax Gazette, Journal, and Chronicle. Halifax, Halifax County.1791- 1795. PANS, MFM reel 8165.

[8] Allan C. Dunlop, “BRENTON, JAMES,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 13, 2019, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/brenton_james_5E.html.

[9]  Perkins, The Diary of Simeon Perkins, Vol. 3, 238.

[10] Perkins, The Diary of Simeon Perkins, Vol. 3, 228; 238.

 

About The Acadiensis Blog

The Acadiensis Blog is a place for Atlantic Canadian historians to share their research with both a scholarly and general audience. We welcome submissions on all topics Atlantic Canadian. If you are interested in contributing to the blog, please contact Acadiensis Digital Communications Editor Corey Slumkoski at corey.slumkoski@msvu.ca.
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