- Historic Sites
The Strange Fate Of The Black Loyalists
Thousands of them sided with Great Britain, only to become the wandering children of the American Revolution
June/july 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 4
And he mooted the argument by disclosing that he had already sent numbers of black Loyalists to safety in Nova Scotia.
Washington seethed but reluctantly agreed that only confiscated slaves and post-treaty refugees would be returned, with compensation negotiated for the loss of the rest. Thereafter, from ten o’clock in the morning until two in the afternoon every Wednesday between May and November of 1783, a “Book of Negroes,” kept by a joint British-American commission, was opened in Samuel Fraunces’s Queen’s Head Tavern on the corner of Pearl and Broad streets in Lower Manhattan. In it were registered the details of each black Loyalist’s enslavement, escape, and military service. Blacks whose claims to freedom withstood challenge from the commissioners received certificates from Brig. Gen. Samuel Birch entitling them to transport from the United States. Over three thousand Loyalists enrolled in the Book of Negroes, and when they were offered their choice of resettlement in Florida, the West Indies, or Nova Scotia, all of them, mistrustful of the southern colonies, where the slave system prevailed, and having had no word of the fate of previous emigrants to the Caribbean, elected Nova Scotia.
These formalities gave reassurance that Britain meant to redeem her promises, and the blacks filed aboard ship without incident. On November 21 Washington crossed into Manhattan, occupying Harlem Heights in the wake of the British withdrawal, and on the twenty-fifth, as Gen. Henry Knox led the triumphal procession of American troops into Lower Manhattan, the last of the black Loyalists departed the new republic on what would prove to be only the beginning of an arduous quest for freedom.
Nova Scotia, wrested from the French in 1749, bobs alongside what was then British North America like a dinghy moored to the mainland only by the narrow isthmus of Chignecto. By the time of the Revolution, Nova Scotia, the northernmost frontier of European settlement in the New World, had become a dead end; no longer crucial to the defense of the St. Lawrence, its economy had contracted, and numbers of its pioneers, many of whom had come up from New England, were trickling away to the Ohio Basin. The province remained a barely penetrated wilderness inhabited by peaceable Micmacs and fringed with half-deserted coastal villages. Never self-sustaining at the best of times, Nova Scotia’s circumstances were becoming perilously straitened by the reduction of grants from London. But then, with the success of the rebellion to the south, the province was presented an opportunity to repopulate with Loyalist refugees and thereby warrant increased aid.
Nova Scotia was hardly a choice assignment for a civil servant, and its officials tended to be men of small energy, content with such modest comforts as they could import to their cozy, isolated capital, Halifax. Presiding over the drowsy bureaucracy was Lt. Gov. John Parr, an Irishman so thoroughly unambitious that he had cheerfully conceded the title of governor to an absentee nobleman in order to keep his sinecure in this Siberia of British North America. Eager as he was to resettle the Loyalists in his bailiwick, Parr made no preparations to receive them beyond escheating a few abandoned grants (without bothering to ascertain why they had been abandoned). He had no idea how many Loyalists—fully thirty thousand—were crowding toward him expecting his logy administration to take prompt action in the granting of lands.
There were two primary disembarkation points for the Loyalists. One was at Port Roseway—soon to be renamed Shelburne—on the southwest coast about 125 miles from Halifax. With its picturesque little harbor, Shelburne was expected to become a focus of maritime commerce. A model city, complete with gridded streets and public commons, had been designed for the site. But before the survey could be completed, seven thousand Loyalists overran the district. On the other side of Nova Scotia four thousand Loyalists were unloaded on the shores of the Bay of Fundy; they threw up a shantytown of sod houses at Digby near the Annapolis Valley, where the province’s richest farmlands lay. Digby and Shelburne were intended as trading centers only; according to the government’s sketchy plans, settlers would receive quarter-acre house lots in the towns and much larger farm grants in the vicinity.
Following its schedule, the government canceled rations for the colonists in 1787. Famine promptly ensued.
THE SIZE OF the entitlements and the priority of accommodation were exactly prescribed. Those Loyalists who had lost estates should be compensated first in proportion to their sacrifices; after them, veterans of active duty were entitled to acreage according to rank—one thousand acres for field officers, seven hundred for captains, five hundred for subalterns, two hundred for noncoms, and one hundred for private soldiers. Civilians were entitled to one hundred acres for the family head and fifty for each additional family member. No racial distinctions were recommended. By government policy no Loyalist settler should work for wages, but all should establish themselves within three years as independent yeoman farmers.