Blood-Soaked Commodities: Nova Scotia Taxes and Caribbean Slavery, 1789-1824

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Nova Scotia history often includes some discussion of trade with the West Indies (the Caribbean). And our historians of slavery show that enslaved people in Nova Scotia were bought and sold by white, locally-connected traders who were in business with Caribbean counterparts. But merchants trading in Caribbean commodities were only one strand in the fabric of social, economic, and environmental connections that wove Nova Scotia into a region of interest and affinity with the greater Caribbean during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Family, finance, war, and religion, among other pursuits, fostered connections along well-travelled sailing, and later steamship, routes that linked the British northeast (including the St. Lawrence River and Gulf) with places such as Jamaica, Berbice, and Trinidad.1 Another connection was tax.

The tax connection is hinted at in Paula Hastings’ Dominion over Palm and Pine. In her story of attempts to make parts of the Caribbean into parts of Canada, it is Nova Scotians who suggest that adding those territories to the nation would put some of Canada’s trade tax revenue at risk.2 That concern reflects an old truism in Nova Scotia: that taxes on imported Caribbean commodities were essential to Nova Scotia’s public revenue, the foundation for the province’s institutions and economic infrastructure. In a recent essay in the Journal of the Royal Nova Scotia Historical Society, I argue that tariff revenues on the imported commodities produced by enslaved plantation workers gave all Nova Scotians, and not just the merchants who made personal profits, an intimate if indirect interest in allowing the brutality of West Indian slavery to persist. And if culture follows interest, as it often does, then the white supremacist values of the plantation were imported along with the sugar, coffee, molasses, and rum.3

I came to this analysis as a contributor to two studies about the historical connections to slavery of my two home universities, Dalhousie and King’s. It quickly became apparent to us that the circulation of commodities and people in the British colonial northeast and Caribbean meant that our universities were nodes of a transnational network. Just as Halifax was the winter harbour of the British fleet, so King’s would become (some hoped) an educational destination for the white sons of Bermuda. And King’s’ Anglican founder, Bishop Inglis, was active in the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, a missionary organization that was an absentee slave-owner in Barbados.4 Moreover, Inglis’s professional circle in Nova Scotia included several Anglican clergymen who had enslaved people in their households.5

Unlike King’s, Dalhousie’s connections to Caribbean plantation society at the time of the college’s founding were not obvious at first. That its founder held white supremacist beliefs was something we could show, and Afua Cooper pointed out that, like many British colonial governors, Lord Dalhousie had been part of the military defense of the sugar islands.6 What other connections might there be? We decided to look more closely at the college’s famous founding fund, the Castine fund. Did any of it come from the trade in enslaved people’s produce? Yes, it did, but by an unexpected channel.

It turned out that the Castine fund was tax money: specifically, the duties collected on goods imported into the port of Castine during the winter of 1814-1815. Following a tip from the work of Joshua Smith, I was able to find the Castine customs house reports in the Colonial Office records.7 In these reports, I saw that 30 percent of the funds that flowed to Lieutenant-Governor Dalhousie’s pet project came from taxes on rum, molasses, and sugar.8 Later, I examined a series of sixteen custom house reports from the Port of Halifax to see if my finding for the Castine fund about the contribution of slave-made goods would be true for Nova Scotia’s own custom house revenue over a longer period (1789-1824). During that period, about two-thirds of the province’s budget came from trade taxes collected mostly at the Halifax. That provincial budget paid for roads, bridges, bounties applied to economic pursuits, many office-holder salaries, and subsidies to churches and schools. I found that either a substantial share or (in some years) most of those trade taxes were collected on imports of Caribbean plantation commodities, specifically rum, sugar, molasses, and coffee: goods produced (at an enormous cost in human suffering) by enslaved Africans and their descendants.9

Chart showing the percentage of trade taxes from Slave-made goods entering Halifax from the Caribbean in 1798, 1810, 1814, and 1824.
Source: Tillotson, “Importing the Plantation,” 6.
Chart showing the share of total taxable cargoes from the top 11 Caribbean source colonies, entering Halifax in the years 1798, 1810, 1814, and 1824.
Source: Tillotson, “Importing the Plantation,” 5.

These imports followed the contours of British colonial power, with the plantations of Jamaica being the largest and most consistent provider of these blood-soaked commodities. Other imports were taxed, too, but the slave-made goods were widely used and slightly addictive: governments love that kind of revenue source (broad-based, reliable). Politically, this indirect tax was more popular in Nova Scotia than were poll taxes or property taxes.10

Trade taxes played a big part in the founding of Dalhousie College, and not just via the Castine fund. Allocations from the province paid for more than half of the cost of the College’s first building.11 Halifax merchants did not line up to donate to Dalhousie College; unlike their more prosperous peers in New England, they largely left the funding of higher education to the state.12

Chart showing the amount of money in today's dollars of funding to Dalhousie from the province, Castine, and Total amounts between 1818 and 1823.
Source: Tillotson, “Importing the Plantation,” 12.

Compared with the Dalhousie University project, the archival records available for the early history of the University of King’s College made it easier to track the relative role of different revenue streams. Unlike privately funded colleges elsewhere, donations from merchants were absent at the founding of King’s. Instead, the College initially depended on a grant from the province, and that grant came entirely from the sugar duties. The chart below gives an idea of the channels that brought into King’s coffers funds that were derived from the Caribbean trade.13 We have no data on quantity of student fees, so the proportion of student fees is based on records that show how many fee-paying students were linked by family ties to Caribbean trade.

Chart showing percentage of funding for King's College derived from provincial government grant between 1789 and 1833, merchant and non-merchant student fees between 1789 and 1854, merchant and non-merchant donations between 1846 and 1854, and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts between 1789 and 1854.
Source: Tillotson, “How (and how much) King’s College benefited from slavery in the West Indies, 1789-1854”

Absent the rich revenue from trade taxes on slave-made goods (and imported British manufactures), the colony of Nova Scotia would have been hard pressed to pay for the infrastructure essential to economic development.14 Hence, I argue that colonial Nova Scotians (and all who have since enjoyed the institutions and infrastructure that those taxes built) depended on the public revenue derived from the slave labour of plantation economies in the Caribbean. Imports of slave-made goods filled Nova Scotia’s state coffers. In short, the public revenue that built the colony was systemically connected to the white supremacist Caribbean plantation economy. Not just merchants profiting from the trade in enslaved humans or the goods they made, but Nova Scotia as a whole, by multiple indirect channels, benefited from slavery.


1. Harvey Amani Whitfield provides the most current account of slavery in Nova Scotia and his footnotes are an excellent guide to the literature to 2016:  North to Bondage: Loyalist Slavery in the Maritimes (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2016). A 2021 bibliography in Acadiensis records additional work: Suzanne Morton and Donald Wright, “Black History in Atlantic Canada,” Acadiensis 50, no. 1 (2021): 223-75. On Nova Scotia’s economic ties to the Caribbean, a detailed and appropriately sceptical account is provided in Julian Gwyn, Excessive Expectations: Maritime Commerce and the Economic Development of Nova Scotia, 1740 – 1870 (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1998). I discuss family, professional, and financial (non-mercantile) ties to Bermuda and Jamaica of some selected figures in Shirley Tillotson, “Importing the Plantation: The Greater Caribbean and Loyalist Nova Scotia’s Public Revenue,” Journal of the Royal Nova Scotia Historical Society 25 (2022), 10-11, 13-15. The biographies of prominent Nova Scotians in the eighteenth and nineteenth century in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography give a range of types of connections; see, for example, Judith Tulloch, “TONGE, WILLIAM COTTNAM,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed November 19, 2023,; B. C. Cuthbertson, “UNIACKE, RICHARD JOHN (1753-1830),” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed November 19, 2023,; Catherine Pross, “BARSS, JOSEPH,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed November 19, 2023,; D. M. Young, “McLEAN, ARCHIBALD (d. 1830),” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed November 19, 2023,; Lois K. Kernaghan, “HOWE, ALEXANDER,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed November 19, 2023,

2. Paula Hastings, Dominion over Palm and Pine: A History of Canadian Aspirations in the British Caribbean (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2022), 29.

3. Tillotson, “Importing the Plantation.” 

4. Tillotson, “Importing the Plantation,” 10-11; Shirley Tillotson, “How (and how much) King’s College benefited from slavery in the West Indies, 1789 to 1854,” Scholarly panel on King’s and Slavery, University of King’s College (2019), 15-16; Karolyn Smardz Frost and David W. States, “King’s College, Nova Scotia: Direct Connections with Slavery,” Scholarly panel on King’s and Slavery, University of King’s College (2021), 185-223.

5. Smardz Frost and States, “King’s College, Nova Scotia: Direct Connections with Slavery,” 30, 44-47, 60ff, 71ff, 77ff.

6. Afua Cooper, et al., Report on Lord Dalhousie’s History on Slavery and Race, Dalhousie University (2020 [September 2019]), 10, 29, 46-58.

7. I was new to the records of the Colonial Office when I began this research: it was therefore very helpful that Joshua Smith gave me a precise archival citation to the quarterly reports of the Port of Castine.

8. Cooper, et al., Report on Lord Dalhousie’s History on Slavery and Race, 40.

9. Tillotson, “Importing the plantation,” 5-810. Tillotson, “Importing the plantation,” 4-5

11. Cooper, et al., Report On Lord Dalhousie’s History on Slavery and Race, 63.

12. For merchant donors to colleges in the Thirteen Colonies, see, for example Eric Foner, Columbia and Slavery: a Preliminary report, 7-16 and Sven Beckert, et al. Harvard and Slavery: Seeking a Forgotten History (2011),16-17. The Harvard report can be found at a website that includes links to other U.S. universities’ reports on their institutions’ history in relation to slavery.

13. Tillotson, “How (and how much) King’s College benefited from slavery in the West Indies, 1789 to 1854,” 5-17.

14. Tillotson, “Importing the Plantation,” 3-4, 7-10.

Feature image: “Custom House Negroes,” Slavery Images: A Visual Record of the African Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Early African Diaspora, accessed November 16, 2023.
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Shirley Tillotson

Shirley Tillotson is professor emeritus in History at Dalhousie University and Inglis Professor at the University of King’s College. Primarily a historian of twentieth century Canada, her research interests over the years have concerned changes in relations between state and society. In retirement, she has been active in producing Canadian history content on social media, particularly Twitter and Bluesky. She has also participated in two projects concerning the relationship of two Nova Scotia universities to slavery and race in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century.

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