- 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
THE YOUNG MAN had been charged, perhaps disingenuously, only to oversee recruitment that was to have been carried out by Parr’s appointed agents. But Clarkson, passionately sympathetic to the blacks even before his arrival, could scarcely restrain himself from advocating the project and soliciting volunteers. At the Birchtown meeting, intoxicated by the enthusiasm of the audience who, after all, had nothing to lose by pinning their hopes on Sierra Leone, Clarkson wildly misrepresented the venture according to his own vision of it as an experiment in social democracy rather than a private, profit-making enterprise. He promised no quitrents for company grants and claimed that taxes “for charitable purposes” within the colony would be the only imposts; this created the impression that the company would operate only for its colonists’ interests and that blacks might govern themselves. He concluded by pledging his life to the service of the black Loyalists, who then burst into applause. Within three days six hundred blacks from the area had enrolled.
They can still be seen in the tiny Nova Scotian fishing villages—black faces that seem very far from home.
Parr had anticipated that no more than thirty families would apply from the province, but 544 persons volunteered from Birchtown alone, 200 from Brindley Town. Alarmed by the prospect of losing so much cheap labor and such a large market, white landowners agitated against the venture. Parr did his best to obstruct it but died of gout on November 25, 1791, and his successor proved more agreeable.
Between them, Clarkson on the west coast and Peters on the east induced over twelve hundred prospective colonists to assemble at Halifax, the embarkation point, during the late autumn and early winter of 1791. There, huddled in unheated warehouses and old barracks, they endured sickness and hunger with incredible forbearance, while Clarkson scurried around the city arranging shipping and provisions. He drove himself to exhaustion but accomplished the enormous task almost singlehandedly, while Peters and David George acted as his deputies among the blacks. Sectarian differences began to melt in the warmth of an incipient nationalism; even Peters, who bridled at Clarkson’s assumption of authority, banked his ambition for the sake of the venture. The exodus finally began on January 15, 1792, when, nearly a decade after the evacuation of New York, a flotilla of fifteen ships bearing 1,193 black Loyalist’s sailed out of Halifax for Sierra Leone.
The colonists arrived in Africa two months later, and they began accumulating grievances almost at once. The chief complaint was the company’s governance, which disappointed their expectations of self-rule. Peters organized a rebellion that served only to rekindle sectarian rivalries; the Methodists sided with him, but David George, faithful to his friend Clarkson, brought the Baptists behind the company. The uprising died down but certainly would have broken out anew had not Peters unaccountably ruined himself by being caught stealing from the body of a dead man. The sergeant who might have become the first head of an African state died soon afterward in disgrace. The black Loyalists, their dream of independence crushed, settled for wealth instead. Building from their original lands, they moved into trading and became a mercantile elite, while indentured native laborers, little more than slaves, worked their farms. They called themselves Nova Scotians to distinguish themselves from the Africans and emigrants from elsewhere in the Empire, and their sense of spiritual eminence became mere snobbery. In 1808 Sierra Leone reverted to the Crown, and by 1840 tax laws and property confiscations had eroded the Nova Scotians’ power. Eventually their bloodlines subsided in Creoledom, the popular culture of the immigrant blacks that survives in Sierra Leone to this day.
NOVA SCOTIA’S economy was devastated by the exodus from the black community. Stephen Blucke, who had disparaged the Sierra Leone project—and whose reward was to entertain Prince William Henry, later William IV, in his Birchtown home—misappropriated funds entrusted to him for black relief and fled to the Bay of Fundy, where, legend has it, he was eaten by wild animals. By 1832 Birchtown was a ruin, Shelburne virtually a ghost town. During the War of 1812 a new wave of black refugees, lured from the United States by offers similar to the Philipsburg Proclamation, arrived in Nova Scotia; they encountered no better fortune than their Loyalist forebears and found no Clarkson or Peters to lead them to an African Canaan. They put down roots in the province and reestablished a black community.
Today that community numbers some ten thousand, but what Loyalist families might have remained after the exodus are largely submerged among the descendants of the 1812 refugees and the more recent arrivals from the West Indies. In eastern Guysborough County, however, and on Cape Breton Island the Loyalists who fled the famine of 1784 may have left a clearer lineage. Neither Clarkson nor Peters recruited here, and it is doubtful the Sierra Leone project was even advertised in these precincts. The blacks who came here dispersed among farmers and fishermen, settling on the perimeters of white communities, forgetting their African heritage, and adopting the folklore and language of the Europeans.