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A Cry for Land

This story was initially published in 2005

On February 28, 1788, Nova Scotian Governor John Parr approved a land grant for 184 black Loyalists (supporters of the British crown) at Birchtown, Shelburne County, Nova Scotia. For the more than 3,000 black Loyalists who had been evacuated from the United States, this was a small step towards calling Nova Scotia their home.

A Black woodcutter from Shelburne, Nova Scotia, 1788
© Library and Archives Canada / C-040162

During the American Revolution, the British government offered American slaves freedom from slavery, land and supplies in return for their loyalty. The British hoped this would reduce the pool of slave labour and weaken the rebel forces. Slaves belonging to white Loyalists were not offered their freedom as slavery remained legal in the British Empire until 1834.

On arrival, black Loyalists were transported to various destinations in Nova Scotia, including Digby, Guysborough and Shelburne counties. Unfortunately, Nova Scotia was not prepared for the dramatic influx of people. Almost overnight, the population had more than doubled and resources were already limited. Furthermore, there were not enough trained land surveyors available and black Loyalists were made to wait until others had received land. By November 1786, white Loyalists had each been granted, on average, 18.5 hectares of land. Two years later, some black Loyalists began to receive land grants ranging from one-quarter to 20 hectares.

Often the land provided for black Loyalists was rocky and could not sustain a farming family. These lands were frequently isolated from towns, and harder to clear and cultivate than those provided for white settlers. Black settlers who did not receive land usually worked as indentured servants or apprentices. Others hired themselves out as sharecroppers on land belonging to other Loyalists.

Birchtown Black Loyalist Display
© Parks Canada, Henry Bishop designer

Broken promises and discrimination made many black Loyalists feel that they would be better off leaving the province. On January 15, 1792, 1,196 of them migrated to the British Colony of Sierra Leone in West Africa, where they hoped to find the liberty and equality for which they searched. Those who remained, continued the struggle to lay foundations for African-Canadian communities in Nova Scotia. In 1993, the Black Loyalists Experience was designated a National Historic Event and a plaque was erected in Birchtown three years later.

February is Black History Month. For more stories on Black history, see: Africville's Life After Death, Ahead of her time: Marie Marguerite Rose , Harry Jerome receives the Order of Canada , Portia May White: the Legendary Contralto , Reverend Richard Preston Fights Slavery!, and Thornton and Lucie Blackburn Test the Fugitive Offenders Act in the This Week in History archives.

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