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The Strange Fate Of The Black Loyalists

July 2024
17min read

Thousands of them sided with Great Britain, only to become the wandering children of the American Revolution

IN THE EARLY summer of 1775 the rebeb of Virginia evicted their royalist governor, John Murray, Earl of Dunmore, from his capital at Williamsburg and drove him to refuge aboard a British warship. With only three hundred Royal Marines at his disposal, Dunmore lit upon a controversial recruiting stratagem. On November 7 he seized Norfolk, established his headquarters there, proclaimed martial law throughout Virginia—and went on to state: “I do hereby further declare all indentured servants [and] Negroes … free, that are able and willing to bear arms, they joining His Majesty’s Troops, as soon as may be. …” Within a week Dunmore had mustered three hundred runaway slaves into his “Ethiopian Regiment,” whose slogan, “Liberty to Slaves,” was presumed to represent British policy. Within a month the “Ethiopians” were sufficiently armed and drilled to put to rout militia under Col. William Woodford at Kemp’s Landing.

The colonists were horrified. “Hell itself,” wrote one, “could not have vomited anything more black than this design of emancipating our slaves. ” A flood of slave defections would deplete the rebels’ labor force, demoralize them with the prospect of imminent insurrection, and swell the British ranks with new recruits whose freedom, whose very lives, would rest upon the Crown’s fortunes. Ironically the British high command may have shared the sentiments that moved the colonists to outrage at Dunmore’s plan: in fact, the move had already been considered and rejected, and Dunmore himself appears to have slipped his offer quietly, even guiltily, into his proclamation of martial law.

Nonetheless, it had a profound effect. In early December Edward Rutledge of South Carolina wrote that it tended “more effectually to work an external separation between Great Britain and the Colonies, than any other expedient, which could possibly have been thought of.” George Washington branded Dunmore, his erstwhile friend, “the most formidable enemy America has.” Able-bodied slaves were withdrawn far from British lines, and threats of reprisal were published. Moreover, it was bruited that Dunmore intended to renege on his promise, and this, sadly, proved true. Far from representing a policy, his plan was only a temporary expedient. On December 9 Woodford’s militia avenged its defeat at Kemp’s Landing by beating Dunmore in a brief, sharp fight at Great Bridge. The earl razed Norfolk, retreated to his fleet, and harassed the coast for several months before retiring to New York and thence to London. He demonstrated his gratitude to the blacks who had fought for him by returning most of them to slavery in the West Indies.

The reluctance of the high command notwithstanding, younger officers along the coast became enthusiastic for the Dunmore stratagem; they issued more such offers, which were met with equally enthusiastic responses. A “Company of Negroes” fought for the Crown in the New England campaign, and General Howe evacuated them from Boston in March 1776, along with the other Loyalists. This established an important precedent; thereafter, the emancipation offer was taken to include an implicit guarantee of security. The high command finally carried practice into policy in 1779, when Sir Henry Clinton, the British commander-in-chief, issued the Philipsburg Proclamation. It pledged to “every Negro who shall desert the Rebel Standard … full security to follow within these lines, any Occupation which he shall think proper.” The runaway need no longer enlist in His Majesty’s forces but only in His Majesty’s cause to win freedom “under the Lion’s paw.”

The Americans could only underbid the Philipsburg Proclamation, reversing the interdiction against black enlistment and, in some states, bartering manumission for military service. (South Carolina, however, offered new white recruits a bounty in slaves: for privates, one grown Negro; for colonels, three grown blacks plus a child.) By war’s end at least five thousand blacks had served the rebellion in arms, but far more—as many as one hundred thousand, a fifth of the slave population of the Thirteen Colonies—had thrown in their lot with the British. Ambitious and daring, these runaways braved militia patrols to gain the British lines or swam out to British warships; some lived for years as fugitives before making their way to freedom. The black Loyalists were employed by the British as servants, military laborers, custodians of confiscated estates. Many followed their professions—shipwright, carpenter, coastal pilot—for in the days before the cotton economy demanded mindless field labor, slaves often received vocational training. Few actually bore arms, and numbers of them were simply left to fend for themselves. They did not expect to prosper at once and tolerated disappointment in the certainty of future reward.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

From among those who found refuge with the Scots of Cape Breton’s Skye Valley, Kipling probably drew the dour black cook in Captains Courageous who “called himself Mac Donald and swore in Gaelic. ” They can still be seen in the hamlets and fishing villages of northeastern Nova Scotia and Cape Breton, where the Appalachians glimmer out in the Atlantic —unexpected black faces that seem very far from home. These may be the last descendants of the black Loyalists, those wandering children of the American Revolution.

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