Black Loyalists in the American Revolution


Mr. McLaughlin received his PhD in history from Drew University in 2008. His dissertation focused on General Albert C. Wedemeyer.

In 1775 when armed conflict appeared inevitable between England and the American Colonists, there were approximately 500,000 slaves in the Southern Colonies, roughly twenty percent of the total population of the entire 13 colonies.  This presented a frightening situation for the slave owners, but fascinating opportunities for the British forces.  The British were chronically short of troops, and a number of theories were advanced to take advantage of the slave situation, such as inciting an insurrection of the slaves and causing chaos in the southern colonies, wrecking their economy. The colonists briefly considered using some as soldiers to fight the British, but this notion was quashed by the fear of putting weapons in the hands of slaves whose loyalty was uncertain.  Furthermore, slave owners feared that if this plan was implemented, some slaves, devoted to their masters, would have willingly borne arms, but would have presented postwar problems. The question would have been how to compel them to revert to their pre-war slave status after having fought a war for independence and "freedom" from oppression.

Two declarations, both authored by the British, initiated "Black Loyalist" history. The first was Lord Dunmore's Proclamation of 1775; the second, Commander-in-Chief Sir Henry Clinton's Philipsburg Proclamation of 1779.  The idea behind both declarations was to encourage the slaves to desert their masters and come over to the British cause on the promise of freedom and free land at the end of the war.  Lord Dunmore's Proclamation met with only limited success because it required the slaves to actually join the fighting forces and bear arms.  It was unlikely that any married slave would desert his family and leave them to the mercy of an infuriated master.  Four years later, Sir Henry Clinton's proclamation solved this dilemma by making the same offer to any slave who came over to the British side and pursued "any occupation which he shall think proper."  The offer applied to males and females and included the slave's family.

Clinton's proclamation was very successful.  It is estimated that about 100,000 slaves, often whole families, deserted to the British.  Black slaves proved extremely useful to the British.  In addition to the thousands who actually saw military action, many were employed as blacksmiths, coopers, tailors, carpenters, bakers and guides.  Slaves were especially important as guides. Many knew the country intimately (especially the back roads, swamps, rivers and streams) and were invaluable to the British.

Just what did the termination of hostilities mean for slaves who had taken advantage of the Dunmore and Philipsburg Proclamations?  After all, the British were the losers and hardly in a position to dictate terms.  Suffice to say, it presented the British with a real dilemma.  General Carlton, the new British commander who replaced Clinton, knew that the Treaty committed his country to returning all slaves to their former owners, a policy totally at odds with the promises of Dunmore and Clinton, and he resolved to remedy the situation. The Americans, intending to enforce the provisions of the peace treaty relating to return of slaves, demanded their slaves back as “property” and were not interested in any British commitment to free the slaves and grant them land.  General Washington met General Carleton at Orangetown, New York on May 6, 1783 and determined to force his will on the British general and return the slaves.  Carlton, to his immense credit, refused to honor the provision of the peace treaty that required return of the slaves to their former owners.  He insisted that the British commitment be honored and he pledged the honor of the British Parliament to grant compensation to the slave owners if his stand was not upheld.  He refused to give in to the pressure from Washington, in itself a formidable task.

There were thousands of blacks in New York claiming freedom.  In order to settle the claims a commission was set up to hear the cases.  The commission, under the supervision of General Samuel Birch, consisted of three British and two American officers.  They met twice weekly at the famous, and still standing, Fraunces' Tavern, in lower Manhattan to hear and decide the cases of those blacks who claimed to "qualify" under the terms of the proclamations.  One can only imagine the heartrending scenes that transpired, as hundreds of poor, uneducated, and inarticulate blacks seeking to produce evidence faced hostile and demonstrative masters who poured into the city from all over the south, demanding their "property" back.  The actual records still exist and copies of the hearings are lodged with the New York Public Library.  Each decision is written in longhand.  There were no "pro bono" lawyers or a "Legal Aid Society" to represent them.  Doubtless, many of those entitled to freedom lost their cases.  Many worthy blacks were spirited away by former masters and returned to slavery without a chance to present their cases.

The approximately 3,000 slaves that qualified were transported to Nova Scotia to begin a new life along with roughly 27,000 white Loyalists.  They landed in Birchtown [named after Samuel Birch] in the spring and summer of 1783, full of hope and the expectation to begin a wonderful new life as free men and women.

The story should have ended there with a happy conclusion for these brave colonists.  Unfortunately, it did not. Most of the good land was deeded to the 27,000 white Loyalists who fled to Nova Scotia.  Priority was given to those who lost the most "property" in the revolution, and, of course, none of the blacks had any property to lose, so they came at the end of the line.  After seven years of suffering, approximately one-third of the black settlers accepted an offer to create a new colony by the name of Sierra Leona in Africa, and sadly they returned to their native land.

Descendents of the two-thirds of the Black Loyalists who came to Nova Scotia and did not return to Africa are still living in Nova Scotia.  Their remarkable history is recorded in the Black History Museum located in Shelburne, Nova Scotia.  This author has twice visited the Museum and interviewed some of the descendents.  Anyone interested in reading more about the Black Loyalists should consult the two best books The Black Loyalists, by James W. St. G. Walker and The Loyal Blacks by Ellen Gibson Wilson, or visit The Black Loyalist Heritage web site at blackloyalist@blackloyalist.com

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Peter Kovachev - 2/10/2010

What an excellent little essay, Mr McLaughlin! As a Canadian and a Monarchist by choice, not just default, it pleases me to see an American treatment of the war between Britain and the colonies as something more than a war between the forces of Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker.

This little history piece of yours also underlines that our Nova Scotia Black communities were not just established through ideals, charity and kidness to unfortunate runaway slaves, but just as importantly, through respect for legal and ethical obligations to brave allies, something which is traditionally accorded only to equals. Interesting.

My MO on these forums is to kvetch and critique, so, for the sake of consistency, my complaint is that your essay could have been quite a bit more detailed and much longer. This would mean a book, I guess. Hmmm...

Nancy REYES - 2/3/2010

one of the ironic side effects of the black slaves who fled to help the British is that their camps erupted in smallpox epidemics. See Pox Americana

Any military historian who ignores the connection of disease and war is ignoring the elephant in the living room.

John J. McLaughlin - 2/2/2010

Ms. Simmons makes an excellent recommendation. Anyone interested in further study would be well advised to make a trip to Nova Scotia. At Birchtown there is a Black Loyalist Museum where, among many other fascinating books, records, artifacts, etc is the "Muster Book of Free Blacks", a list of all the colonists that settled there in 1784. Debra Hill, the Registrar is herself a decendent of the Black Loyalists and a qualified genealogist, and has devoted herself to studying the history of the Black Loyalists.

HNN - 2/1/2010

(I could not respond directly to the article due to some computer problem.)
For those interested in an excellent fictionalized account of the Black Loyalists, I recommend the novel The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill (named after the book the British in New York kept all the names in). This is the Canadian title--they changed the title for the U.S. edition--not sure what it is. The main character is a female slave, and the story begins with her capture in Africa and goes to slavery in the U.S., time in New York at the end of the Revolution, the passage to Nova Scotia and Birchtown, and ultimately to England. It's very well done.