The experiences of Black Loyalists

A Black Canadian Wood Cutter at Shelburne, Nova Scotia. © Library and Archives Canada

For the Week of Monday, January 11, 2020.

On 15 January 1792, approximately 1,200 people of African descent, known as Black Loyalists for their support of Britain during the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783), left Nova Scotia and New Brunswick for Sierra Leone. This was the first of two large-scale migrations to West Africa, which exemplified the frustrations and disillusionment of people of African descent with life in the British colonies.

Born in West Africa around 1738, Thomas Peters was forcibly captured, enslaved, and transported to North America. He escaped enslavement on a plantation in North Carolina to join the Black Pioneers in 1776, rising to the rank of sergeant and meeting his wife, Sally, while fighting on the side of Britain during the American Revolutionary War. Sally and Thomas Peters were among the roughly 3,500 Black Loyalists evacuated to Nova Scotia by 1784, many of them settling in the communities of Shelburne, Preston, and Birchtown. They had been promised freedom, full citizenship, and property in the British colony. However, the Black Loyalists received smaller, less fertile allotments than did white Loyalists, if granted any at all, and faced threats of unlawful mob violence and enslavement, which remained legal in British North America until abolished in 1834. With few other options, many were forced into exploitative wage labour or indentured servitude.

When they did not receive the rations and property promised to all Loyalists, Thomas Peters and Murphy Still (Steele) successfully petitioned the governor for one-acre plots for 76 Black Loyalist families in Brindley Town, south of Digby. Still they were denied farmland and forced into subsistence farming, leading Peters to petition Governors Parr of Nova Scotia and Carleton of New Brunswick. Frustrated, hundreds of Black Loyalists in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick granted Peters power of attorney, so that he could bring their grievances before the British government in 1790. In his direct appeal, Peters indicated that they wanted a settlement of their own and were “ready and willing to go wherever the Wisdom of Government may think proper to provide for them as free Subjects of the British Empire.”

Peters was aware that the Sierra Leone Company was looking to establish a permanent settlement of formerly enslaved people of African descent and, when the directors offered to transport the Black Loyalists to the West African colony, he agreed. The British government provided the funding, abolitionist John Clarkson made the arrangements, and Peters recruited volunteers in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. He was personally responsible for recruiting about 500 of the roughly 1,200 emigrants, whose move to Sierra Leone significantly reduced the number of free people of African descent in the Maritime colonies, halving the population of Birchtown, and depriving a close-knit population of important religious and educational leaders. Those that remained formed enduring communities of African descent that grew following the arrival of Black Refugees from the United States, following the War of 1812.

The Black Loyalist Experience is a designated national historic event. The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC) advises the Government of Canada on the commemoration of National Historic Events, which evoke significant moments, episodes, movements, or experiences in the history of Canada.

The National Program of Historical Commemoration relies on the participation of Canadians in the identification of places, events and persons of national historic significance. Any member of the public can nominate a topic for consideration by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. Information on how to participate in this process is available here: https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/culture/clmhc-hsmbc/ncp-pcn

 


February is Black History Month. Learn more about African-Canadian histories by exploring our online archives about R. Nathaniel Dett, Carrie Best, Ernest Melville DuPorte, William Hall, George Dixon, and the Experiences of Black Loyalists, among others, and check out entries about No 2 Construction Battalion, C.E.F., Kathleen ‘Kay’ Livingstone, and the Black Pioneers in British Columbia in the Directory of Federal Heritage Designations

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