The Strange Fate Of The Black Loyalists

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The process of land-granting was tortuous; prospective grantees had to submit petitions, which the administration processed with maddening slowness. The black Loyalists were to suffer not so much from overt hostility as from their own inexperience at manipulating dilatory bureaucracies—and from a touching innocence. They knew so little what to expect in Nova Scotia that some, arriving during the winter of 1783, thought the snowy capes were covered with salt.

The black Loyalists were not the first of their race in the province. Assimilated Moors had been among the crews of the Portuguese caravels that fished for cod in the Gulf of St. Lawrence during the summers of the sixteenth century; some are said to have jumped ship and vanished among the Micmacs. Slaves had been imported to what was then New France as early as 1628, but the long and unproductive winters made the cost of keeping them prohibitive. Though little practiced, slavery remained legal throughout the eighteenth century. In 1772 Lord Mansfield had ruled from the Court of King’s Bench in London that “the air of Britain has long been too pure” for slaves to breathe; by virtue of respiration all men were free under a British sky, but the colonial atmosphere conferred no such benefits. Wealthy white Loyalists brought their slaves with them to Nova Scotia, though this remained a guilty indulgence, and these slaves were euphemistically referred to as “servants.”

The omens were not favorable for the black Loyalists. They did not know that the “Company of Negroes” evacuated from Boston in 1776 had very nearly been exchanged for British prisoners-of-war. The status in law and society of free blacks was unclear, and a community that tolerated slavery could never completely endorse the aspirations of free blacks.

Immediately upon their arrival at Shelburne, black Loyalists were segregated from whites and their slaves, shunted to separate quarters, and required to perform public labor to earn provisions that the whites received gratis. Still, it suited the black Loyalists to keep their distance from the other refugees; having shaken off their fetters, they held in contempt those who hadn’t and little wished to associate with slaves; they liked to see themselves as a chosen people, an aristocracy. The most senior officer among the Black Pioneers, Col. Stephen Blucke, proved to be an appropriate leader. A man of considerable education, he was bumptious, grandiloquent, and sly. In August of 1783 Shelburne’s deputy surveyor showed Blucke the site for a proposed black township several miles from Shelburne and recalled that Blucke pronounced it acceptable to his “black gentry.” The first black ghetto in North America would be named Birchtown, in honor of Gen. Samuel Birch.

The largest contingent of demobilized Black Pioneers landed at Digby; their senior officer, Sgt. Thomas Peters, actively petitioned the government for a separate black townsite, and in deference to these veterans Parr granted the request promptly. The enclave was named Brindley Town, and it was all the Digby blacks would ever receive. Few of the Birchtowners got their promised farmlands either (Blucke being a notable exception). Only at Preston, near Halifax, where blacks and whites were settled among one another, did more than a few black Loyalists receive farm lots; their grants, however, were smaller than the whites’, the land was poor, and the blacks soon found themselves looking for jobs in town or working for their white neighbors.

 
 
 

By 1784 Shelburne, swarming with ten thousand inhabitants, was the most populous city in British North America. Most of its residents were landless and destitute. Disbanded white soldiers, surly with impatience, roamed the streets in search of work; blacks from Birchtown began moving into Shelburne, where, because they would accept lower wages than the whites, they monopolized a meager job market already distorted by slave labor. Resentments ignited on July 26, 1784; Shelburne exploded in a race riot. White mobs pulled down houses with ships’ tackle and drove the blacks back to Birchtown.

The following year white Loyalists at Annapolis, near Digby, forced the Parr administration to grant their lands by “sitting-in” on the glebe and commons. But the blacks knew no better how to agitate in their own interests than how to shepherd a petition through a maze of bureaucrats. Though settlement lagged far behind schedule, rations were reduced by a third in 1784 and by another third in 1785 in accordance with the government’s three-year plan. Shelburne slaveholders, unable to support their bondsfolk, turned them out in the winter of 1784, and the Birchtowners took them in, pleased to affirm their superiority by dispensing charity despite their own poverty.