The Strange Fate Of The Black Loyalists

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PARR’S ADMINISTRATION had never taken inventory of Nova Scotia’s arable lands and harbors and had no idea what it was bestowing on the Loyalists. By 1785 settlers had discovered the soil was too shallow, the growing season too short, and their farms too remote to support them all as independent yeomen. The country around Shelburne was little better than a swamp, and the pretty little harbor was ice-blocked or fogbound most of the year, unsuitable for heavy maritime commerce. Nevertheless, in 1787, precisely on schedule, government rations were withdrawn, and famine promptly ensued. Emergency provisions had to be hunted up and distributed. Homeless blacks died in the streets of Birchtown, and many slaves whose masters had evicted them (while retaining the option to reclaim them in better times) decamped for the United States. A contingent led by Thomas Brownspriggs fled north to Chedabucto Bay and Cape Breton Island. Over the next four years, emigration, starvation, and disease decimated the black population.

Under the stress of these vicissitudes, the black Loyalists gathered in around their churches. The Methodists, led by the blind and fiery Moses Wilkinson, attracted many converts in Birchtown and Preston, but the Baptists remained the predominant black sect. Self-governing Baptist congregations provided the black Loyalists with their only practical experience of political autonomy and reinforced their aspirations. The Anglican Church of England claimed only a few black members (Colonel Blucke was one), for the established church segregated its congregations and charged stiff pew fees. Moreover, the Methodists and Baptists emphasized personal revelation and inspiration. Each worshiper, little better than a slave in the world, became a prophet in church, for God spoke directly to these folk—and He did not speak directly to the Anglicans. Unfortunately, sectarian rivalries prevented the churches from uniting as a political force. It remained for a secular leader to precipitate the events that would save the black Loyalists.

 
 

By 1790 most white Loyalists were settled, but the majority of blacks remained landless, and their deprivation had come to serve provincial interests. They provided cheap labor and a reliable market for local goods. These wage slaves, virtual peons, bore the Nova Scotian economy unsteadily on their backs. In 1790 Sgt. Thomas Peters, unable to obtain his grant after seven years of trying, collected powers of attorney from 202 black families in Brindley Town and the province of New Brunswick. Backed by this personal constituency, he drew up a list of grievances and boldly set out for London to seek satisfaction directly from the British secretary of state.

On his arrival Peters found himself swept up and lionized by the abolitionist directors of the Sierra Leone Company. These men, bankers and politicians, had taken over a defunct Crown Colony on the west coast of Africa and were resolved to transform it into a profitable private settlement for British blacks freed by Lord Mansfield’s ruling. Peters’s tales of discontent among the Nova Scotian blacks suggested a new source of colonists. The directors saw to it that the newly appointed secretary of state received Peters’s memorandum; what is more, they induced the secretary to send a letter to Parr reproaching him for his negligence, instructing him to satisfy the black Loyalists, and requiring his cooperation in the enlistment of black volunteers for the Sierra Leone project.

The company dispatched as its agent the twenty-five-year-old John Clarkson, a gifted idealist with a dangerous proclivity for romance. Tactless and intemperate, Clarkson accompanied Peters back to Nova Scotia, where he lost no time in antagonizing Parr, who was already testily defensive because of the secretary’s letter. Parr’s assistance was vital to the project, and though Clarkson grasped this, he seems to have treated the governor with chilly and consistent arrogance. He also alienated Peters, whose natural claim to leadership of the project Clarkson would never acknowledge. Peters wisely confined himself to recruitment in Digby and New Brunswick, consolidating his standing among those black Loyalists, while Clarkson worked the Halifax and Shelburne areas. The young agent secured the support and friendship of David George, a popular and courageous black Baptist minister who had braved white mobs to live and preach before integrated congregations in Shelburne. It was George who organized an assembly of curious Birchtown blacks at which Clarkson committed a fateful indiscretion.