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Jupiter Wise was a slave of African descent residing on what was once known as The Island of St. John. His own early biography is unrecorded, and so I am forced to begin his history with that of Captain George Burns, his owner.

Most (although certainly not all) slave-owners who settled in what is now Canada arrived after 1784 and the American War of Independence/American Revolution. Refugees from the former American colonies were a diverse group of migrants from different slices of society. Some were simply seeking land and opportunity in the North and had no special love for England, while others were former figures of the old establishment or members of disbanded regiments on the losing side. Some of what we now call Loyalists brought their servants, among other possessions, to the new land. An officer with the Royal Fencibles American Regiment, Captain Burns was residing on the Island earlier than 1784 -- I do not know if he was an early Loyalist or if he came from Nova Scotia. It is known that he possessed two slaves at that point: Jupiter Wise, and another man named Joe.

The known history of Jupiter Wise is exclusively recorded in court documents from The King v. Jupiter Wise, beginning with an affidavit on November 30, 1785. James Stevens, cited as a "A Free Black Man" (an indentured servant), accused his former friend of breaking into a house and returning with two gallons of rum. Whatever his motives (eg. it is a theory that he testified in exchange for liberty or a reduced sentence), the testimony of Stevens was transcribed (and filtered) by the court recorder.

According to the story, a group of slaves had been planning, since the summer, to escape to Boston with a sloop belonging to the Lieutenant-Governor. By 1784, five northern states(including Massachusetts) had abolished slavery and were a destination for runaways from the Maritimes. One man, a slave belonging to Captain Callbeck and named Mingo, had been complaining of beatings at the hands of his master, and had expressed his desire to run away. Within a week, Stevens and Mingo were preparing their escape along with other allies.

Meanwhile, a dance party was being planned by Jupiter Wise to celebrate the departure of his friends. This was the purpose of his original theft of rum. Boldly, he had secured many other provisions for a relatively handsome event. His master's son, Stukely Burns, actually wrote invitations on Jupiter's behalf, which in turn were disseminated to other servants in the community. He also obtained four fresh hens, flour, butter, beef, potatoes, and rum. The party itself was not described, and the activities of Wise remained secret until graver charges were laid against him.

On November 26, 1785 (according to testimony), a local politician, carpenter and tavern-keeper named John Clark found Wise with his own slave, Thomas Williams. Williams had suspiciously gone missing after a theft at another home, and so Clark had found the two men in the kitchen of Captain Burns. Allegedly, they had been playing cards while surrounded by the stolen goods.

Clark's story was supported by that of Silvester Petty, a white soldier and servant to the garrison doctor whose home had been robbed. Petty, himself, was afraid of being flogged by his employer if he returned empty-handed, and identified the stolen goods for Clark. Apparently, Wise cursed and assaulted Petty, provoking Clark to strike Wise down with his big stick.

Clark discussed the issue with another slave-owner, Tom Haszard, and Mrs Burns. When he left for home, she testified that "she was apprehensive that the black People (sic) had premeditated some design against him."

As Clark walked out, Petty was attacked by Wise, Williams and another man. Wise then allegedly struck Clark over the eye with a stick. Wise is also alleged to have armed himself with a cutlass in order to attack Clark (who, by now, had his own stick). The fight ended when Haszard shone a candlelight on the scene, and Clark declined Jupiter's suggestion that they settle the dispute in the darkness.

Wise was apprehended, to be convicted on February 23, 1786, for felonious assault upon John Clark. Although he could have received a death sentence, Wise became the first on the Island to successfully plead Benefit of Clergy. He was sentenced to be transported for seven years to "some one of his Majesty's Islands in the West Indies." Incidentally, Wise had stolen West Indies rum, although for unknown reasons he was acquitted on those charges. The greater irony is that, after all, leaving the Island was precisely what Jupiter and his acquaintances had wanted to do. Jupiter Wise escaped from the jailor's house (there being no formal prison) and fled to Pictou, Nova Scotia. Nothing more is known about his fate.

In the end, it is difficult to know who Jupiter Wise truly was. His voice, and those of others like him, is conspicuously absent. Even the spoken account of James Stevens was written down by a clerk who may have distorted the information. Instead, this sole glimpse into their lives comes down to us from the legal system of the day, which was essentially an elite, slave-owning hierarchy. While the story depicts the harsh elements of that society, it also reveals the sense of community, festivity, and hope for liberty.

As a side note, the anti-hero of this story has experienced reincarnation: the Parsons brothers, musically prolific descendants of PEI's historic black community, once had a band in town aptly titled "Jupiter Wise."

Source Hornby, Jim. Black Islanders: Prince Edward Island's Historical Black Community Charlottetown: Institute of Island Studies, 1991.

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