Violin symbolizes brush with slavery
November 22nd, 2011
05:57 PM ET

Violin symbolizes brush with slavery

By Colleen McEdwards (CNN)

Atlanta (CNN) - My sister has a violin that was passed to her from my grandmother, to my mother, and on to her. To a musician today, the instrument would probably be written off as a ratty old fiddle. But to us it is not just a violin. It is the violin.

Six months ago my mother died from ovarian cancer after a courageous fight. Less than two years ago, her mother, Isabel Connell Wise, died in a nursing home at the age of 93. In fact, my mother’s cancer was diagnosed the same week her own mother died.

In the midst of the loss of these two family matriarchs, I learned that my grandmother’s family housed an indentured servant in the early 1920s.

Full stop here folks: An indentured servant. My own family history stained by slavery.

It wasn’t talked about much in the family. There is still a lot of confusion about the circumstances, the dates, even his full name although we believe it was Dan Irving.

He came to our family farm in farm in Southern Ontario as a young man, carrying nothing more than his violin. And it was Dan Irving’s violin that would eventually set him free.

Allen and Isabel Connell with Dan Irving about 1920.

Allen and Isabel Connell with Dan Irving about 1920.

From 1869 through the early 1930s, more than 100,000 poor or orphaned children were shipped from Britain and put to work on farms in commonwealth countries like Canada and Australia. Some were also sent to the United States.

They were called Home Children, kids as young as three sent to a hard, cold land and expected to live in sometimes desperate conditions.

The charitable agencies that were behind the program often failed to monitor placements and some of the children, once matched in Catholic or Protestant Canadian homes, faced the same abuse, neglect and loneliness that they left behind in Britain.

As early as 1874, there were signs of trouble. Andrew Doyle, an inspector experienced in child welfare issues, was sent by Britain to Canada to investigate. He wrote a sweeping report sympathetic to the philanthropic aim of the Home Child program, but scathing in its account of how poorly many of the children were treated.

Still, the practice continued for some 60 more years as the public debated whether these children were better off anyway. While some suffered at the hands of hard taskmasters, some did find loving homes.  A host of books, websites and social media groups have helped share their stories and guide family members tracing their roots.

Regardless of the conditions they found in Canada by luck or by fate, they were still kids, indentured servants moved around like livestock, sometimes separated from their siblings, after being quite literally shipped to an unknown land.

In 2010, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown made a formal apology to affected families. Australia has apologized to its Home Children; however, the Canadian government has not. Instead, Canada designated 2010 as the Year of the British Home Child in recognition of that lost generation.

We’ve not been able to find out what part of Britain Dan Irving left behind for the cold winters of Valens, Ontario, but we do know that Dan’s violin is a German-made Stradivarius copy, about 100 years old.

It is a “student model violin,” which means it is a good instrument for novice or non-professional players.

There is nothing valuable or extraordinary about it. It has a reddish brown, patchy oil finish. My sister says it has a bold and focused sound with a rich tone, earthy, neither sweet nor refined, as though it has seen too much to play that pretty.

I wonder how closely he held it, making the crossing from Britain to Canada on ships bearing names like the Samaritan, the Empress of France, filled with unwanted children.

I have a photograph of Dan holding the halter of my grandmother’s pet lamb in the early 1920s, tall and lanky with, as my sister points out, the posture of a player. And I have a later photograph of Dan and Grandma together when they both look to be in their sixties or early seventies.

They kept in touch long after Dan left the family and he apparently visited our family farm as an adult. So I’ve got to believe that Dan Irving was one of the lucky ones.

My mother told us that Dan was treated like a son, attended school, and considered my grandmother a sister.

But was he sad, did he find his lost family, did he also receive the treat of a ripe round orange in his stocking at Christmas, did he teach my grandmother how to play the violin?  The questions haunt.

As was the custom with British Home Children sent to Canada, once they reached 18 they were allowed to leave.

According to the stories told before my mother’s death, Dan decided to go west in search of opportunity as Canada’s frontiers opened to larger settlements. Dan needed a suitcase for the trip, and as the story goes, he traded his violin for Grandma Connell’s suitcase, and rode away.

Dan’s violin played on. My grandmother joined a string band and performed in churches and at local dances.

Refurbished now, the violin sits in my sister’s music parlor where she plays it from time to time. If only it could talk. Why did my family even take the violin when it was time for Dan to go? Couldn’t they just have given him the suitcase, for all he’d been through?

Projecting modern-day values on an earlier time doesn’t really settle the discomfort.  I suspect that a deal was a deal, and a suitcase was every bit as precious as a musical instrument back then.

It’s hard to describe how the knowledge that my own family’s prosperity is linked to a program that was, in its time, a version of modern day slavery.

Justifications for the trafficking of children are as old as time: They’ll be better off, they’ll have a better life, nobody wants them anyway.

The facts of my family’s story don’t stack up neatly like journalistic facts, for these are based on family lore spun over and over like fiddle music at a barn dance. The details change depending on who is doing the telling, and sadly, those who could tell our story most accurately– are gone.

We may never know the circumstances under which Dan came to a frozen farm in Southern Ontario. We know that he eventually married and returned to Britain.

My sister says she thinks of his violin as a precious child, not just an instrument.

It’s a piece of history, and it is a symbol of the many forms of the mistreatment of children that still burden us.

It’s life - not unlike the mystery of an abandoned child, a voyage across the ocean, and a destiny that was fortunate - reminds us of the work that still must be done.

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Topics: Domestic Servitude • Uncategorized

soundoff (29 Responses)
  1. Rebecca t. Gyang

    You have always inspaired me with the quality of your news and other stories. I know you can find the link to Dan's family if you want. It will be very interesting to know his present day family members. Who knows, Colleen, you could be one!

    November 22, 2011 at 8:17 pm | Reply
  2. Rebecca t. Gyang

    This is my corrected e-mail address please. Thankyou.

    November 22, 2011 at 8:21 pm | Reply
  3. Joe

    Very interesting story!
    I don't know. Times were very tough at that time in Britain and if he was an orphan it was likely just a scary adventure to go to Canada. His life in England wouldn't have been easy. If he was treated as a family member I don't see the issue. I think it's a stretch to consider him a slave – slavery was banned in Britain and Canada long before the USA. He's no more of a slave then a foster kid now days expected to help with chores and around the house just like any member of a family – especially a farm family. Back then I'm sure a suitcase was a luxury, as was a violin. We've got things so easy now days we don't often remember the tough times our grandparents often endured.
    And much of Canada and the northern states are not frozen wastelands just because it's winter sometimes. After all, your farm didn't grow snow now did it? :-) The kid wasn't sent to a Siberian work camp, he was sent to a family that likely treated him very well.

    November 23, 2011 at 2:10 pm | Reply
  4. Gary Winnipeg

    It might be a bit harsh to describe it as slavery, in some cases. There are also similarities to present day foster parents and foster children programs.

    November 23, 2011 at 2:19 pm | Reply
  5. Lisa

    Wow, I've never heard of that program before. I would love to read more about it. And I hope you can find some answers Colleen, and maybe find out where he went and became.

    November 23, 2011 at 2:40 pm | Reply
  6. barb

    Newt Gingrich wants to reintroduce child slavery if he is elected president

    November 23, 2011 at 3:01 pm | Reply
  7. hope

    I read this lastnight and wasn't sure how I felt about it as I tried to come to grips with my feelings. Its nice that your comments sum up my feelings so elequently... this is not slavery; simply, one family helping another through a rough time in history as a nation was economically depressed and at war.

    November 23, 2011 at 3:57 pm | Reply
    • jez

      No – this is slavery. Only the lucky ones were treated as children.

      June 6, 2012 at 5:41 pm | Reply
      • Sam

        mosan mosan...same same as you can seepeople in grnaeel have a hard time understanding our own politics so don't expect them to understand others'this is Kuwait so set your expectations low

        July 1, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
  8. Kevin Dew

    The author and the editor should check facts. Indentured servitude is NOTHING like slavery. It was an agreement entered into by each party...the servant working off a debt for something the 'master' did...such as pay passage from the 'servant's' country of origin. It is in NO way the same as owning another human. Shame on you for printing such bullcrap.

    November 25, 2011 at 11:51 am | Reply
    • jez

      Indentured servitude was a horrible position to be in. An "indentured" could be raped, beaten, etc. As the British conquered Scotland and Ireland, they would ship the leftover "rabble", robbed of their possessions and unable to make a living, off to the Americas as "indentured servants" – it was become an "indentured" or starve to death. Unlike a slave, an "indentured" could work their way out eventually, whether by age or contracted work time. Slavery (black Americans) was worse of course because there was no way out for you or your children, but "indentureds" had it bad.

      June 6, 2012 at 5:46 pm | Reply
  9. ma & pa

    comment Joe and Gary Winnipeg perspectives are good. The British governments shlpping off of children (Research It) was terrifying and often deceitful to parents. The Connells and families like them were a blessing to despairing children. Kevin Dew, the confiscated and shipped children were too often treated badly or like little better than animals at the hands of cruel bigoted people. The children were not to blame for anything, and their lives and labor should not have been used as a commodity. A child cannot enter into an agreement of servitude, and as for travel expenses to be paid, bullcrap back at you. That's like a kidnapper demanding payment from his victim for transportation to the kidnappers lair. Australia has recognized that and tried to make amends. Thank God for those among us who believe every child is a blessing, no matter where the child came from, and care for and love that child. That's the family of mankind at work. Many parents of these shipped children did not know where they were and lived looking for them and died years later with the thought of their children in their hearts....

    November 25, 2011 at 10:53 pm | Reply
  10. Dawn

    Touching story. An eye opener. Thank you, Ms. McEdwards for writing this article.

    November 26, 2011 at 12:11 am | Reply
  11. F. Daniel Gray

    Slavery can sometimes be a tricky word to pin down universally. With the advent of industrialization in the 19th century, came the issue of people also being considered a commodity. Especially if poor, or "abandoned," and a child or a woman. Such people were forced to "work" for their "upkeep." And, like sharecropping, usually "owed" more than the "pay" due for their "labor." Which is why child labor laws were enacted. And, don't forget the Shirtwaist fire in New York in the early 20th century. I'm always reminded of the comment by the famous singer, Billie Holiday, "you can be up to your boobies in lovely sweet smelling flowers, and see no cotton for miles around, but still be on the plantation." Or, how about the situation surrounding the manufacture of Nike shoes. The workers, illiterate women, in Indonesia, make $2 a 12 hour day.UNESCO estimates it is not enough to survive on. The cost is $1.49 a pair. And is sold for $150 at Nike's outlet stores. A lot of people, me included, see that as, albeit "paid" for, slavery. And, that's today.

    November 27, 2011 at 11:45 pm | Reply
  12. last nerv

    I liked this story. There is still too much abuse in this world, but stories like this help bring people together and make a difference.
    A very sincere thank you.

    November 29, 2011 at 11:22 am | Reply
  13. WJK

    Sorry, I do not buy the ENTIRE story. Slavery indentured... period. Indentured only means that the person agreed to work for a period of time to pay for something they wanted. If they wanted to come to America they could sell their services for an agreed amount of time and the buyer would pay for their transport. There is no bargain for a slave, they were captured or sold by others into permanent slavery. Author has it totally wrong. Oh the breast beating, oh the shame. Get real.

    November 30, 2011 at 8:53 am | Reply
    • Kelly

      This design is iecdnrible! You definitely know how to keep a reader entertained. Between your wit and your videos, I was almost moved to start my own blog (well, almost HaHa!) Great job. I really enjoyed what you had to say, and more than that, how you presented it. Too cool!

      June 30, 2012 at 11:11 pm | Reply
  14. Bill

    On the other hand he could have starved to death in a child work factory or froze to death one winter back in merry ole England.. Indentured is not slavery. Not a desirable state of affairs but better than letting unwanted children starve. Many times the indentured person when on to learn the trade of the person they where indentured with in addition to gaining food and shelter. And I am certain there where abuses. Point still is that indentured is not even close to slavery. More historical fact less hand wringing. But its your guilt trip, enjoy.

    November 30, 2011 at 4:30 pm | Reply
  15. SJE

    Use the internet fo find him. Ouline the basic facts which you know are facts and the suppostions and publish them. Facts ie your mothers and grandmothers birth date and date of passing. His name. Ask reletives, especeally the older ones ! You dont know when they are going to pass ! Ask neighbors and check governmet archives. Churches my have some answers. Dont rely on just the receptionist or church cleark. Look yourself.

    December 6, 2011 at 12:07 am | Reply
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