The Strange Fate Of The Black Loyalists

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IN THE EARLY summer of 1775 the rebeb of Virginia evicted their royalist governor, John Murray, Earl of Dunmore, from his capital at Williamsburg and drove him to refuge aboard a British warship. With only three hundred Royal Marines at his disposal, Dunmore lit upon a controversial recruiting stratagem. On November 7 he seized Norfolk, established his headquarters there, proclaimed martial law throughout Virginia—and went on to state: “I do hereby further declare all indentured servants [and] Negroes … free, that are able and willing to bear arms, they joining His Majesty’s Troops, as soon as may be. …” Within a week Dunmore had mustered three hundred runaway slaves into his “Ethiopian Regiment,” whose slogan, “Liberty to Slaves,” was presumed to represent British policy. Within a month the “Ethiopians” were sufficiently armed and drilled to put to rout militia under Col. William Woodford at Kemp’s Landing.

The colonists were horrified. “Hell itself,” wrote one, “could not have vomited anything more black than this design of emancipating our slaves. ” A flood of slave defections would deplete the rebels’ labor force, demoralize them with the prospect of imminent insurrection, and swell the British ranks with new recruits whose freedom, whose very lives, would rest upon the Crown’s fortunes. Ironically the British high command may have shared the sentiments that moved the colonists to outrage at Dunmore’s plan: in fact, the move had already been considered and rejected, and Dunmore himself appears to have slipped his offer quietly, even guiltily, into his proclamation of martial law.

Nonetheless, it had a profound effect. In early December Edward Rutledge of South Carolina wrote that it tended “more effectually to work an external separation between Great Britain and the Colonies, than any other expedient, which could possibly have been thought of.” George Washington branded Dunmore, his erstwhile friend, “the most formidable enemy America has.” Able-bodied slaves were withdrawn far from British lines, and threats of reprisal were published. Moreover, it was bruited that Dunmore intended to renege on his promise, and this, sadly, proved true. Far from representing a policy, his plan was only a temporary expedient. On December 9 Woodford’s militia avenged its defeat at Kemp’s Landing by beating Dunmore in a brief, sharp fight at Great Bridge. The earl razed Norfolk, retreated to his fleet, and harassed the coast for several months before retiring to New York and thence to London. He demonstrated his gratitude to the blacks who had fought for him by returning most of them to slavery in the West Indies.

The reluctance of the high command notwithstanding, younger officers along the coast became enthusiastic for the Dunmore stratagem; they issued more such offers, which were met with equally enthusiastic responses. A “Company of Negroes” fought for the Crown in the New England campaign, and General Howe evacuated them from Boston in March 1776, along with the other Loyalists. This established an important precedent; thereafter, the emancipation offer was taken to include an implicit guarantee of security. The high command finally carried practice into policy in 1779, when Sir Henry Clinton, the British commander-in-chief, issued the Philipsburg Proclamation. It pledged to “every Negro who shall desert the Rebel Standard … full security to follow within these lines, any Occupation which he shall think proper.” The runaway need no longer enlist in His Majesty’s forces but only in His Majesty’s cause to win freedom “under the Lion’s paw.”

The Americans could only underbid the Philipsburg Proclamation, reversing the interdiction against black enlistment and, in some states, bartering manumission for military service. (South Carolina, however, offered new white recruits a bounty in slaves: for privates, one grown Negro; for colonels, three grown blacks plus a child.) By war’s end at least five thousand blacks had served the rebellion in arms, but far more—as many as one hundred thousand, a fifth of the slave population of the Thirteen Colonies—had thrown in their lot with the British. Ambitious and daring, these runaways braved militia patrols to gain the British lines or swam out to British warships; some lived for years as fugitives before making their way to freedom. The black Loyalists were employed by the British as servants, military laborers, custodians of confiscated estates. Many followed their professions—shipwright, carpenter, coastal pilot—for in the days before the cotton economy demanded mindless field labor, slaves often received vocational training. Few actually bore arms, and numbers of them were simply left to fend for themselves. They did not expect to prosper at once and tolerated disappointment in the certainty of future reward.