The Strange Fate Of The Black Loyalists

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CORNWALLIS FAILED AT Yorktown on October 17, 1781; in July of the next year the British evacuated Savannah; and by November, Gen. Alexander Leslie was preparing to withdraw from Charleston. White Loyalists urged him to return all the blacks to their former masters lest the Americans retaliate for the loss of their slaves by refusing compensation for confiscated Loyalist estates. But at Savannah, as at Boston, the black Loyalists had been evacuated, and Leslie wanted to follow these precedents. He offered to return only captured and confiscated slaves, not those who had responded to the Philipsburg Proclamation. The Americans spurned the agreement, and so in the confusion of a hasty and unsupervised evacuation, five thousand black Loyalists set sail for other parts of the Empire, hopeful, as Leslie wrote, that “their past services will engage the grateful attention of the government.”

Leslie saw that Britain could fulfill the commitments of the Philipsburg Proclamation only by resettlement, for regardless of the outcome of the war, emancipated blacks could never hope to live freely and securely among the aggrieved colonists. However, no program for resettlement existed, despite the fact that Britain had advertised the proclamation by trumpeting the slogan “Freedom and a Farm.” Black Loyalists taken to the West Indies often fell back into slavery, and the few thousand who made their way to New York by way of Savannah or Charleston found no farms and only precarious freedom; the evacuation of New York by the British was impending.

 
 

The black Loyalists had scorned the blandishments of their American masters and, at great risk, had sought to advance themselves as free souls. Indeed, such was the proclamation’s allure that many blacks already free took advantage of it and joined the Crown. But streaming into New York, a city teeming with frightened Tory refugees, where jobs were scarce and wages low, in which the last light of Empire was about to be extinguished, the blacks plunged instantly into desperate poverty. Public assistance was not readily forthcoming. White Loyalists, who had suffered considerable losses, held Britain in their debt; they resented the black civilians who had lost nothing but their chains, who owed their freedom to the Crown yet felt themselves entitled to the Crown’s support. It was not the general view that blacks ought to be compensated for having been made slaves in the first place.

In May of 1782 Sir Guy Carleton had arrived in New York to replace Clinton as commander-in-chief during the last hours of the Revolution. To him went the melancholy assignment of supervising the withdrawal of troops from the Northeast and the evacuation of New York, England’s last foothold in the United States.

His task was made the more difficult by-Article VII of the provisional peace treaty, which provided that “His Brittanic Majesty shall with all convenient speed and without … carrying away any Negroes or other Property of the American Inhabitants withdraw all his Armies, Garrisons, and Fleets from the said United States.” Clearly this prohibited the evacuation of the black Loyalists from New York. Rumors, trailing panic, spread among the blacks that England would repudiate them. Slave owners did indeed converge on the city in search of runaways, and accounts circulated of blacks being seized in the streets or dragged from their beds. But Carleton was not to betray them.

ON MAY 6, 1783, Carleton and Washington clashed over the interpretation of Article VII during a stormy meeting at Orangetown, New York. Washington, chagrined at the flight of some of his own slaves, argued that “slaves which have absconded” remained the property of their owners and could not be evacuated. Carleton maintained that the Philipsburg Proclamation had freed all slaves who claimed its protection and that no black who had done so before November 30, when the signing of the provisional treaty had ended British jurisdiction in the United States, could revert to the status of chattel or “property” under the treaty’s terms. Carleton would surrender only confiscated or captured slaves or those who had arrived behind his lines after November 30. It was an audacious position, a triumph of justice over scruples, for the general knew perfectly well that the proclamation had never had the force of law, that the emancipation it conferred was entirely spurious, since British law and the colonial courts continued to recognize a right of property in slaves. But Carleton remained adamant and played his hand with a flourish:

Britain had trumpeted “Freedom and a Farm,” but in fact there was no program for resettling the black Loyalists.

“Delivering up the Negroes to their former Masters would be delivering them up some possibly to Execution and others to severe Punishment which in [my] opinion would be a dishonorable Violation of the public Faith pledged to the Negroes in the Proclamation. … No interpretation [of the Treaty] [can] be sound that [is] inconsistent with the prior Engagements of the Faith and Honor of the Nation, which [I] should inviolably maintain with Peoples of all Colours and Conditions.”