Abandoned Allies: Black Loyalists in the American Revolution
By: Daniel Poochigian, Blake Noyes, Isaac Kang, Arielle Hinojosa
On July 4th, 1776, the Thirteen American colonies of the British Empire expressed their desire to rebel from King George III. While common understanding is that most peoples in the American colonies were supportive, if hesitant, for independence, the colonists actually had co-inhabitants whose loyalties weren’t exactly ensured—their slaves. Not beholden to either the British government or their owners, the slaves in the American colonies sought the one thing that they were deprived of as slaves: their freedom. While colonial repression of slaves and the promise of freedom delivered the loyalties of most of the slaves in the American colonies to the British, these loyalists and their exploits would soon be forgotten by both the very government which sought to ally with them seemingly only for the sake of controlling its far-flung colonies, and by the population at large who remains ignorant of these loyalists and their efforts on account of the biases of written histories.
Run-Up to the Revolution
To fully understand why the colonists’ own slaves would be so quick to fight against their masters we must first understand the conditions under which the slaves lived during the run-up to the Revolution. Ironically, the very empire which the British were building in North America would come to cause the very troubles which would manifest in the colonies’ bid for independence. With competing imperial interests seeking to contain their British rivals as much as possible, one way of doing just that was to fan the flames of slave unrest, since slavery was so crucial to the economic vitality of these colonies. Indeed, the Stono Rebellion of 1739 may have been sparked with the aid of promises and persuasion from Spanish officials who had infiltrated South Carolina. While the rebellion itself failed to achieve its goal, which most likely was for the rebels to reach freedom in Spanish Florida, the colonies’ reactions to it were fierce. South Carolina, where Stono took place, immediately drafted a new slave code in its colonial legislature. The Slave Code of 1740, titled the “Act for the better ordering and governing of Negroes and other Slaves in this Province”, stipulated new, draconian laws in an attempt to prevent another armed insurrection, while also imposing restrictions upon the planters lest the cruel treatment of their slaves create another Stono. For instance, section XVII of the code lays out that “any slave who shall be guilty of homicide of any sort, upon any white person, except by misadventure, or in defence of his master, or other person under whose care and government such slave shall be, shall…suffer death” (Smith 22). Contrast such punishment to the five pounds indemnity levied against a slave owner who forces his slaves to work on a Sunday when not performing vital tasks.
But Stono’s aftermath was not limited to South Carolina alone. Even in the northern colonies, populations of slaves still existed in large enough numbers to be considered a threat to their owners. New York City, one of the larger colonial cities in the north, had actually suffered a revolt in 1712, and while the rebellion had been put down, more than seventy slaves and nine whites had been killed. With war between Spain and Britain still raging, memories of Stono still fresh, and a harsh winter causing tough conditions for the urban poor, a conspiracy was discovered in 1741 to overthrow the colonial government of New York and put a new government in its place. To be sure, such a conspiracy may have existed, as the city had been hit with a rash of fires too frequent to be considered simply natural, but whatever the reasoning, by the end of the trials, 170 people had been arrested, 150 of them slaves.
While the colonies dabbled in measures designed to control their captive populations, England itself moved in a more enlightened manner. With the spirit of the Enlightenment burning brightly in Europe, the year 1772 saw a landmark case be decided by the Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, Lord Mansfield. Mansfield presided over the Somersett case, a case involving a runaway slave, James Somersett, petitioning for his freedom after having been recaptured at sea and brought back to England. Mansfield not only judged in favor of Somersett, he went much further. Claiming that British law neither “allowed” nor “disapproved” of slavery, Manfield ordered that Somersett “must be discharged” (ex parte Somersett).
Enlightenment thought may have inspired England to abolish slavery within its borders, but that same thought, tied with the continuing pressure from increased British presence within the colonies, inspired the thirteen colonies to rebel from Great Britain. By 1776, the colonies were in open revolt against the crown, and each colony would come to sign the famous Declaration of Independence on July 4th, 1776. However, before the signing of the Declaration, individual colonies also drafted their own declarations of freedom and human rights. Virginia’s Declaration of Rights, signed on June 12th, 1776, less than a mere month before the Declaration of Independence was signed, offers us a telling case of what colonists believed that they were fighting for:
That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.
Unlike the famous preamble of the Declaration of Independence, Virginia’s Declaration of Rights clearly asserts that all men are entitled to life and liberty by means of “acquiring and possessing property”, and that no one can “deprive or divest” them of this right. Clearly, Virginians were fighting for their right to hold onto their property, and thusly, were fighting to perpetuate the socio-economic structure to which they had been accustomed. It may come as no surprise, then, that the slaves whose limited rights were being increasingly restricted and whose owners sought to perpetuate the current condition of their slaves would join the side of whoever promised and could actually deliver them their freedom at the end of the Revolution.
In April of 1772, three years prior to the beginning of the American Revolution, John Murray, the Lord of Dunmore and Royal Governor of Virginia, expressed his fear that, should there be an armed conflict between the British forces and the American colonists, “the slaves” would “join with the first that would encourage them to revenge themselves.” (Selig). By the middle of 1775, Dunmore, finding his own ranks reduced to a combined total of 300 loyalists, sailors, and soldiers, appears to have turned this fear into opportunity. Out of desperation, Dunmore let it be known that anybody willing to join him and take up arms for the British was welcome in his regiment, with no regard for race (Selig). This declaration was followed by no less that 100 runaway slaves joining Dunmore’s regiment in the fall of 1775. Armed with his newly expanded forces, Dunmore was able to achieve military victory at Kemp’s Landing, Virginia. Suddenly aware of the value of adding runaway slaves to his army, Dunmore followed up this victory by reciting his Proclamation, which promised freedom to any slaves of colonists that fought for the British. Such a move was highly controversial amongst British forces, as there was a hesitance to arm slaves, for fear that the slaves may betray them (Black Loyalists). The strategy appeared to have been highly successful for Dunmore, however, as no less than 800 runaway slaves had allied themselves with Dunmore by the summer of 1776 (Selig). This group made up what would become known as Dunmore’s “Ethiopian Regiment,” and each runaway slave was fitted with a custom uniform that had the words “Liberty to Slaves” emblazoned across the chest (Johnson).
Despite Dunmore’s surge in numbers, the Ethiopian Regiment would largely be characterized by tragedy. Perhaps made over-confident by the Kemp’s Landing victory, Dunmore ordered his troops to storm Great Bridge, where his regiment was soundly defeated and forced to retreat (Black Loyalists). Their luck worsened further in August of 1776, where close living quarters facilitated an outbreak of smallpox that reduced Dumore’s regiment—once numbering over 800—to a mere 300 soldiers (Selig). Ultimately, Dumore fled to New York and disbanded the Ethiopian Regiment. The dissolving of the group left many former soldiers to fend for themselves, while others found themselves serving in another segment of the British forces: the Black Pioneers.
It should be noted that Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment—which was a combat force—was the exception to the rule. Due to the aforementioned hesitance of the British to arm former slaves, the vast majority of runaway slaves were assigned non-combat roles, as is the case with the Black Pioneers. The Black Pioneers was easily the most populous group of runaway slaves within the British army and was divided into smaller segments of approximately 30 men, each attached to an existing unit of the British army. The role of the Black Pioneers was to build huts, dig fortifications, and perform other duties involving manual labor rather than combat (Black Loyalists). Despite the limiting factors imposed by the British upon runaway slaves, the Pioneers contributed significantly to the war effort, if in ways that are somewhat indirect.
In rare cases, however, runaway slaves could be utilized in ways that exceeded even Dumore’s role for them. Such was the case for the Black Brigade, a highly specialized force operating in New Jersey (Black Loyalists). Led by Titus Cornelius, a former leader of the Ethiopian Regiment, the Black Brigade was a guerrilla force, committing assassinations and obtaining supplies for the British. The Black Brigade was met with such success that Cornelius became one of the most feared loyalists and was honored with the nickname “Colonel Tye” (Black Loyalists). This feat was particularly remarkable since black soldiers were not permitted to obtain any sort of military rank, a notion highlighting the prevailing belief that not only were runaways untrustworthy due to their circumstances, but that they were inherently inferior.
Despite the versatility of ways in which former slaves were used as part of the British war effort, the British were, of course, ultimately defeated. This then led to the predicament of what should be done with the slaves-turned-soldiers who were promised freedom at the war’s end.
The War’s Aftermath
What was done, then, was to transfer those loyalists still with the British army back to Great Britain. However, they found it hard to find jobs, experiencing racial discrimination and hatred. They wandered the streets as beggars, illustrating a sharp contrast with white loyalists, who were treated with welcome arms. They began to seek out immediate government support, which provided temporary financial support until further employment was found, and also reimbursement for lost property. However, in reality, less than half of the black loyalists received any benefits from these two programs, while only a few white loyalists were denied pensions and reimbursements. Furthermore, the people in charge didn’t hide this from public – they claimed, “He ought to think himself very fortunate in being in a Country where he can never again be reduced to a state of Slavery” (Norton 404) – Exploiting their situation.
The Black Poor Committee was introduced to raise money to provide hospital and financial support for the poorest of the blacks. However, they were not able to provide enough, and were forced to ask the Treasury to provide six pence a day to compensate their lack of finances. After some time, even this was not enough to suffice, and a man named Henry Smeathman, a botanist who went to Africa for his research, notified the Black Poor Committee that Sierra Leone would be a good location to provide the Black Loyalists land and opportunities to earn wages by “the cultivation of the earth, and other useful labor” (Norton 408). This seemed like the ideal emigration, but it did not include the consensus of the Black Loyalists. Jonas Hanway finally consulted the Black Loyalists and their interest, but they showed reluctance due to the danger of going back into slavery. However, in 1772, during the Somerset case, Lord Mansfield decreed that the law of England would not permit a black to be removed forcibly from the country to be returned to slavery elsewhere, thus prohibiting the deportation to slavery states due to over-population, or reasons otherwise. This was highly important because the Black Loyalists used this to their advantage in order to gain more advantageous amenities in their migration to Africa. Throughout the entire American Revolution, the Black Loyalists had choices to make – whether it be migrating to England or Canada, or even whether to go back home. In the same light, they were provided choice when given options in migration patterns. Because the Black Loyalists were rarely consulted, they threatened to not leave Great Britain, thus allowing them to express their desires throughout the process of emigration. Therefore, Hanway agreed to give them a written guarantee for their freedom. However, this turned into a failed insistence for the Black Loyalists because the agreement that they were fighting for actually proved to be more beneficial to the committee, in that “each Settler…binds and obliges himself or herself to the other Settlers, for the Protection and Preservation of their common freedom” (Norton 409). Neither England nor Black Poor Committee had to be responsible for their freedom. Rather, they were responsible for each other. The British, pushing aside all responsibilities they had taken on when recruiting the Black Loyalists, wanted nothing to do with them, inconspicuously devising a plot to rid themselves of their burden, abandoning their allies.
The Sierra Leone colony seemed like the perfect emigration – good for Black Loyalists, Committee and British Government. However, with the unexpected death of Henry Smeathman on July 3, 1786, and no one to succeed his motive of overseeing the migration, the scheme seemed to fall apart, and the motives behind the migration seem to be unveiled. If the committee truly cared about the welfare of the Black Loyalists, they would have found a successor, and adding insult to injury, even Hanway, Committee Chairman, admitted that “he (Smeathman) was the only one that offered [to run the colony]” (Norton 411). A few alternative solutions were constructed including the Bahamas and New Brunswick, but neither of them suited well with the Black Loyalists due to the slave-holding nature of the Bahamas and Canada’s probable future of using the Loyalists to their advantage and withholding them from making a living on their own. Eventually, the Sierra Leone plan was revived, and after much debate, Joseph Irwin, colleague of Smeathman, was given responsibility to oversee the colony, and 675 people were signed formally to go to Sierra Leone. For reasons of fear of being sent to other slave colonies, and simple reluctance to leave England, only a third of the signers were on board by departure time. Additionally, waiting for additions took months and living conditions resembled that of slave trade boats. Captain Thomas B. Thompson was put in charge to control and prevent Black Loyalists from leaving the boats, and it was during this time that tensions were growing between Irwin and Gustavus Vassa, known to many by the name Olaudah Equaino. Vassa, hired by the Navy Commission, was complained to stir up the Blacks on board while preparations were being made to depart; the Navy Commisioners defended Equiano through his previous, note-worthy employment, but this was not enough to quell the argument between white and black. Thus, Equiano was recalled, paid, and no longer a piece of the puzzle that was to come. On April 9, 1787, the three boats finally left Plymouth harbor with 411 passengers.
Along the month-long voyage to Sierra Leone, about 35 people died due to the harsh conditions, and at St. George’s Bay, they were met with immediate difficulties. This included purchasing land from a man who had no authority to sell, rainy season which prevented the building of sustainable shelters, illnesses from the migration and weather, deaths of leaders, etc. which caused much confusion and disorganization among those controlling the colony at the time. These, among many other factors, lead Granville Sharp, an English advocator of the abolition of slaves, to charter supplies for the colony, providing temporary salvation. By 1798, the old colony existed with about 120 settlers. However, with additional conflicts between American slave ships, and nearby chiefs, the colony reduced to 60 within months. The future of Sierra Leone was left to be revived by the new colonists/emigrants from Nova Scotia, and the remaining Old Settlers evolved to become savages, discontented with any way of living, once again forgotten by their leaders.
In Nova Scotia, there were three waves of black immigrants which populated the area. These were brought upon by two wars between England and America and the Jamaican internal conflict. Post-American Revolution provided the Black Loyalists two options – go into exile in a different country, or return home. Some of the countries that they ventured out to were the West Indies, England and Quebec, but the majority of the Black Loyalists travelled to Nova Scotia, where they were promised free land, rations for 3 years, and other aid for their establishments. Enduring the 1789 famine, racial intolerance, and angry white laborers out of business, they had no more resources to strive in new land. Eventually, they asked to migrate, and John Clarkson, in 1791, agent of Sierra Leone Company, took charge in organizing Black Loyalists to migrate to Africa. Clarkson saw through all details for the emigration including lodging, transports, and amenities. In 1792, a fleet of 1,190 leave for Africa 40 day voyage, costing the British government 16,000 pounds.
Soon after, a community known as the Maroons was to make their way to Canada from Jamaica. Due to civil war and lack of peace, the Maroons were eventually exiled to Nova Scotia. Although this does not include the Black Loyalists, this is important, as the Maroon migration to Nova Scotia and eventually Sierra Leone shaped the existence of the colony in Sierra Leone. So, with a large budge, the Maroons were encouraged to “cultivate the soil” in Nova Scotia, but because they were such a warrior community, they were not comfortable with this type of living. With harsh winter, financial support running low, and discontent with life style, the Lieutenant-Governor decided to move them to Africa. By 1799, preparations were made despite the Sierra Leone Company’s reluctance, and in 1800, the Maroons arrived in Sierra Leone.
The first 60 pioneer Black repatriates, from Britain, loved the independent nature of government, but dealing with hostility of slavers and neighboring Africans led them to depend on the Sierra Leone Company and their 1,190 Nova Scotian Blacks to take charge. This included replacing Black administration with Whites, thus creating resentment. However, they were able to keep the tythingmen and hundredors, the officials dedicated to settling minor disputes about general welfare. Eventually, taxes rose, land became scarce, and the blacks lacked voice, so Thomas Peters, the proud spokesman for settlers, was asked to petition against John Clarkson for their grievances. This, however, failed, and the Blacks decided to revolt against the Sierra Leone Company. In 1799, the Nova Scotians wanted to elect their own judge, and the elections for the hundredors and tythingmen became a major event. By a few Black judiciaries winning the elections, the Nova Scotians began to rise as one, and in 1800, they rebelled and bid to win their independence from the Sierra Leone Company. They confronted government troops, but at this time, were coincidentally matched by the 550 Maroons and British troops, which were used to quell this rebellion. In the aftermath, a new charter granted Sierra Leone Company full authority to govern the colony and thus, regained White control of the judicial system. However, this was a backfired mission because no one would trade with them. The Nova Scotians were uncooperative with the new government, so the British government had to take control in 1808 and they continued to recapture Africans (about 50,000) and bring them to Sierra Leone. Over a very long period of time, everyone intermarried and evolved into a race called the Creoles. With trade growth, and trust gained, the British gave political independence back to Sierra Leone in 1961, ending the one and a half century long rule of White colonials. A tragedy to say the least with the prevalent dominion over such a small community for such an extended period of time, but a last speck of hope is indicative by the presence of Diaspora and pan-Africanism.
An ally is defined as the association or connection of two said people or groups by the means of a mutual relationship via treaty, league, marriage, or the like. In regards to the American Revolutionary War, African slaves allied themselves with the British crown; therefore associating themselves as what would be defined as loyalists. By making this particular distinction, African slaves believed that they would receive, in exchange for their labor in the war effort, food, clothing, and protection from the ceding Americans to ensure their freedom from further enslavement. As we know from documents such as Dunmore’s Proclamation, such amenities were simply not included into the so called agreement. In many instances, the life of the Loyalist African was just the same as the life of the African American slave during the war effort. It just so happened that in this relationship, the oppressor was following the British Crown and its government.
What is more surprising than the actual consequences of the supposed mutual relationship between the African slaves and the British is the fact that this particular history is unknown to the general educated population of the world. How do we as historians account for this fact? How do we begin to rectify this situation?
Afua Cooper, historian and leading scholar of the African diaspora in Canada, explains this phenomenon as follows:
…I have come to realize that Black history has less to do with Black people and more with White pride. If Black history narratives make Whites feel good, it is allowed to surface; if not, it is suppressed or buried. That is why slavery has been erased from the collective consciousness. It is about an ignoble and unsavoury past, and because it cast Whites in a “bad” light, they as chroniclers of the country’s past, creators, and keepers of its traditions and myths, banish this past to the dustbins of history (Cooper, 8).
Taking this premise into effect, the group began its own research into various historical textbooks, which claim to be all inclusive of American History to see if this outcome was in fact functional.
At the University of California Irvine, the textbook entitled Liberty, Equality, and Power: A History of the American People is used as the primary text for the American History survey series. In turning to the section subtitled The Loyalists the following was inscribed:
Many loyalists were committed to English ideas of liberty. Many of them had objected openly to the Stamp Act and other British measures but doubted that Parliament intended to undermine government by consent in the colonies. They also thought that creating a new American union was a far riskier venture than remaining part of the British empire. For many, the choice of loyalties was painful. Some waited until the fighting reached their neighborhood before deciding which soldiers to flee from and which to shoot at. The loyalists then learned a stark truth: They could not fire at their neighbors and expect to retain their homes except under the protection of the British army (Murrin, 237).
The passage continues with statistical data in comparison in numbers between the Loyalist and the Continentals. What is interesting is that African slaves are not even included in this segment. Why would they be excluded?
The following passage entitled Loyalist Refugees, Black and White includes a small portion of its passage which could be seen as an extremely brief notation of our Black Loyalist:
When given the choice, most slaves south of New England sided with Britain. In New England, where they sensed that they could gain freedom by joining the rebels, many volunteered for military service. Elsewhere, although some fought for the Revolution, they realized that their best chance of emancipation lay with the British army (Murrin, 237).
Why would the African slaves who fought for the British be classified as, or in this textbook, labeled as a refugee of the British? Did they not participate just as hard as the British troops? Did they not sacrifice just as much, possibly even more than these same British troops? By assigning the term refugee to the Africans striped the intimate involvement of this group of people with the physical war effort. Being defined as a refugee has the connotation of helplessness towards the people receiving aid and a savior like reverence towards the people providing aid. Does this not spin the coercive techniques the British implemented in order to have disposable bodies during the war? Not only were the Africans abandoned by the British in terms of the supposed promises guaranteed to them in compensation for their involvement, but they are abandoned from their own history. African slaves were as much a contributor to the systems of future American livelihood as their White settler counterparts. The kin of the slave masters made a decision to leave these slaves’ stories behind; to abandon their livelihood and their struggle that reside in the stories of Black Loyalists.
Perhaps it is presumptuous to assume that the African slaves were Black Loyalists in the original definition of the word. A loyalist (without the capital “L”) is defined as a person who is loyal; a supporter of the sovereign or of the existing government, especially in time of revolt. Where the African slave truly loyal to the British Crown? From the documents that have been recovered as an effort to reclaim lost history strongly supports the claim that African slaves were merely utilizing the British as a resource to raise their status quo. It is commonly known that the conditions under slavery were horrendous and far below any conceivable standards of living. When weighing the very heavy consequences of deciding to side with the Americans or the British, it became simply a means of accessibility towards a better life for the slave and their family. Just as the British Crown was utilizing the slaves as a means to defeat the Americans, the slaves had the intention of utilizing the British for freedom. Unfortunately due to British establishment and access to authority, it was very easy to manipulate the situation of the slave to one that would be beneficial, cost-efficient, and carefree to the British subjects.
Works Cited/Suggested Further Readings
Abasiattai, Monday B., The Search for Independence: New World Blacks in Sierra Leone and Liberia, 1787-1847, Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 23, No. 1, (Sept. 1992), pp. 107-116.
Grant, John N., Black Immigrants into Nova Scotia, 1776-1815, The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 58, No. 3, (July 1973), pp. 253-270
Norton, Mary B., The Fate of Some Black Loyalists of the American Revolution, The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 58, No. 4 (Oct., 1973), pp. 402-426
Smith, Mark M. Stono: Documenting and Interpreting a Southern Slave Revolt. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, 2005. Print.
The Forgotten Black Loyalists (Redemption Song Cover) ©, 2011 by Isaac Kang.
Original song written by Bob Marley (1980)
Oh Loyalists, we traveled to London and Canada
Minutes after they took I from America.
In London, we were forgotten denied of subsidies.
But the formed a congregation – The Black Poor Committee.
Won’t you help to sing these songs of freedom?
Cause all I ever had, redemption song, redemption song.
Emancipate yourself from Nova Scotia! They treat us just like before.
Our resources are diminished. What are we here for?
How long will they kill our dreams of freedom and community?
Even when travelling to Africa, we’re torn of liberty.
Won’t you help to sing these songs of freedom?
Cause all I ever had, redemption song, redemption song.