The story of the Black Loyalists of the American Revolution is the story of a people stolen into slavery who are given the chance to fight for their freedom, exact revenge on cruel masters, and establish one of the first free black settlements on the continent. It's also a story of broken promises, racial discord and the lengths to which people will go to find a better life. And it's a nearly forgotten chapter in North American history.
When the American Colonies declared independence in 1776, African slaves made up 20 percent of the colonial population. The population of South Carolina was 60 percent slaves, and Virginia was 40 percent, mostly toiling on large plantations. (Slavery was not just a Southern institution then — in some Northern cities like Boston, slaves made up 20 percent of the population.) Even before the War for Independence officially began, the British tried to recruit American slaves to rise up and fight against their "rebel" plantation owners. "Loyalist" was the term given to people in the American Colonies who supported Britain.
In 1775 the British royal governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, issued a stunning "emancipation proclamation" promising freedom and land to all slaves who would take up arms against their rebel masters. Dunmore was looking for manpower to put down an armed rebellion in Virginia, and he found it. Between 800 and 2,000 slaves and indentured servants fled their plantations and joined with the British, including a hard-fighting militia that would become known as Dunmore's Ethiopian Regiment. The Ethiopian Regiment marched to battle in uniforms inscribed with the insignia "Liberty to Slaves."
Dunmore's proclamation was the "first mass emancipation in American history," says Isaac Saney, a history professor at Saint Mary's University in Nova Scotia. It happened nearly 90 years before Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, ending slavery in areas not under the control of the United States government.
When the tides turned against the British in 1779, they issued a second emancipation called the Philipsburg Proclamation, which extended the promise of freedom and land to any slave who would cross the British lines without the requirement to fight. The move, says Saney, was a form of economic warfare against the colonies.
"Escaping Africans would weaken the rebel economy," says Saney. "You'd have this mass emancipation taking place, and the colonists would now have to expend resources to guard the plantations, instead of using them in battle."
An estimated 12,000 slaves of African descent fought for the British, but the war was lost. When the British surrendered in 1783, one of the central points of contention, Saney says, was "the return of what George Washington deems 'U.S. property,' which are the enslaved Africans."
After the Revolutionary War
The British commander-in-chief Guy Carleton kept his word and negotiated "certificates of freedom" for all so-called Black Loyalists who had joined the British ranks before the surrender, under one condition: They had to leave the country. Carleton's men carefully recorded the names of 3,000 newly freed men and women in what's known as the Book of Negroes, and then put them on ships heading to Nova Scotia, then a British-ruled Canadian province.
Nova Scotia in the late 18th century was known as "Nova Scarcity." When 40,000 white and black loyalists fled to Nova Scotia in 1783 — including 1,232 slaves of white loyalists — they tripled the native population and completely overwhelmed the province's meager resources. The newly freed Black Loyalists, far from receiving their just rewards in a new home, found themselves last in line for land, and exploited as cheap labor.
Widespread poverty and underemployment across Nova Scotia brewed distrust among whites, who blamed the cheap African labor for stealing their jobs. Racial tensions erupted into violence, says Saney, when a black preacher named David George baptized a white woman, sparking what many believe is one of the first race riots in North America. The 1784 violence raged for months, claiming many black homes and lives until troops were finally sent in from the capital Halifax.
The Black Loyalists repeatedly petitioned the Crown to keep its promises from the war, eventually sending the emissary Thomas Peters all the way to London to make the case in person. Peters got nowhere with royal officials, but did meet with a group of British abolitionists who were launching a social experiment in Sierra Leone, West Africa, a sanctuary for victims of the slave trade. They convinced Peters that the best place for the freed slaves was back in Africa.
In 1792, 15 ships sailed from Halifax harbor in Nova Scotia to Sierra Leone carrying 1,196 Black Loyalists who had "voted with their feet against broken promises of land and freedom," says Saney, who calls it the maiden voyage of the "Back to Africa" movement. Those who stayed behind in Nova Scotia largely settled in the village of Birchtown, named for Samuel Birch, one of the British generals who signed the original certificates of freedom.
Black Loyalists Today
Jason Farmer is a ninth-generation descendent of the Black Loyalists who first settled Birchtown. Farmer can trace his roots back to Jupiter Farmer — one of five Jupiters in the Book of Negroes, and an escaped slave from Brunswick, New Jersey. Jupiter married a woman named (yes) Venus and established a continuous line of the Farmer family that has remained in the Birchtown area for more than 230 years.
Farmer is an interpreter at the Black Loyalist Heritage Centre & Historical Site in Nova Scotia, where he's proud to share the remarkable story of his ancestors, who dared to escape the plantations and join with an occupying army to win their freedom, only to continue to fight for true freedom and equality in a new land.
"It's an unknown history right here in Nova Scotia," says Farmer, who particularly enjoys telling the story of Black Loyalists to fellow Nova Scotians of African descent. "They're amazed. It's powerful. Some of them can't even sit there and listen to it all. They have to take breaks. Some of them cry." Some 20,000 black people live in Nova Scotia today, most of whom are descended from the Black Loyalists.
Saney the historian says that the legacy of the Black Loyalists is of a persecuted people exercising black agency.
"These are people who took their fate and their destiny into their own hands," Saney says. "Just to get to the British side took a lot of courage, skill and ingenuity. The fact that so many of them chose to fight — and saw themselves as not only defending their freedom, but participating in the liberation of others — speaks the breadth and depth of their conception of agency, but also as part of a collective struggle for freedom."