The Black Loyalists: the piece of ‘grey’ in Nova Scotia History

The Black loyalists of Nova Scotia have often been left out of the discourse of Canadian History and specifically the history of the Atlantic region. Their brief but very turbulent time in Nova Scotia can be seen in the various events that changed the landscape of Nova Scotia in the late 1700’s. The few documents that have been digitized by the Nova Scotia Archives and Record Management tell us about the Black Loyalists and their experiences, I will outline a few to depict their story.

The Loyalists of the American Revolutionary War fought on the side of the British with the understanding that their freedom would be granted to them if they had served. By definition, those Blacks either free or enslaved were considered to be loyal to the British crown and this would be displayed through their contributions in this war. It can be said that their assumed ‘loyalty’ to the crown was only out of necessity to reap the outcomes they desired—freedom and acres of land. In 1783, Blacks came in large numbers to Nova Scotia to reap the rewards of their service.

Certainly, the Loyalists were not the first Blacks to enter Canada as the Black presence goes back to 1604. With that said the various migrations of Blacks into early Canada can be largely depicted by referencing themes of subordination, neglect and subjugation. This can also be reflected in the migration of the Black Loyalists into Nova Scotia. Their migration into, what was then British North America, was solely based on certain conditions. In Blacks in Canada, Robin Winks notes, “[T]he British offered emancipation to all slaves who, during the Revolution, volunteered to serve with their forces.” For slaves, this meant that service would, simply enough, be the key to their freedom. In his book, Winks also shows how Blacks were treated differently from White Loyalists and were marginalized by government officials.

It is speculated that slave labor was the primary reason for the building of Halifax in 1749. Slavery was an undeniable part of the history of this region and this impacted society in Nova Scotia. With slavery present, we can see how the idea of Blacks was largely based on these conceptions of a slave; which at the time meant they were less human. The following is an ad placed in The Nova Scotia Gazette and Weekly Chronicle shows a slave owner in search of their missing slave. It reads,

“Runaway on the 27th inst. a Negro man named Dick, (belonging to Mr. Benjamin Douglass) late ensign in the Kings Carolina Rangers) about five feet eight inches high stout made, had on when he went away a red coat turn’d up with blue, white Waistcoat and Breeches. Aged about Twenty seven years. Whoever will apprehended said Negro and bring him, to Mr. Andrew Thompson, Halifax, Merchant shall be handsomely rewarded. Nov, 29th 1783.”

The existence of slavery in Nova Scotia certainly made it difficult for the Black Loyalists to separate themselves from the stigmas attached to their Black counterparts. The above document tells us that there was evident slave-holdings in this region which had substantial effects on the ways that these Loyalists were able to distinguish themselves.

One common issue that most Blacks came to confront together was the issue of land or lack thereof. While it was one of the conditions that the British had proposed, we can see how this did not take place by analyzing a petition by a group of Blacks in Manchester, Nova Scotia. It reads,

“To his excellency John Parr and governour in and over the province of Nova Scotia Captain General and vice Admiral of the same The humble petition of the free negroes now living at Manchester and county of Sydney most humbly sheweth That your petitioners has now lived at Manchester these two years by gone and has never got no lands not even Town lotts and is not ordered off the commons belonging the town before next October this is therefore most humbly begging your Excellency…take our case into consideration and cause our lands to be located.”

In 1786, about three years after the migration of Blacks into this region, their land had yet to be granted. The above mentioned case is only a small portion of what these Blacks faced in their settlements. Their ability to address this formally shows the seriousness of this issue as it had been an ongoing problem that blacks were faced with. What exactly then, could be made of these promises? It is certain the lack of efforts that were made to accommodate this group into Nova Scotia. Many more of these petitions exists in the collection of documents which tell us that Blacks, indeed, were not provided with the necessary provisions for their subsistence.

Efforts were made to begin this exodus to Sierra Leone. Propositions brought forth from some Blacks were as follows “it was asserted that some of those black people were earnestly desirous of obtaining their due allotments of land and remaining in the America, whereas others were ready and willing to go wherever the government might think proper to provide for them as free subjects of the British Empire.” It becomes clear that not all blacks wanted to immediately leave their communities in Nova Scotia. They simply requested the land in which they were promised and therefore, could be industrious and maintain their settlement in Nova Scotia.

Whatever one’s view is of the removal of these Blacks from Nova Scotia, one thing is certain; this concept of resettlement is not new. The aim of this ‘experiment’ is similar to the ideals of British supremacy that existed decades prior. Rather than providing the necessary provision they had promised, the idea to move these individuals again seemed like a better option. Had these Blacks been provided with the necessities, their conditions would be far better off. Thus, the exodus to Sierra Leone was a direct result of the harsh treatment of Blacks that had perpetuated from times of slavery. It is certain that with the existence of slavery in the province of Nova Scotia, coupled with the neglect of the Nova Scotia government and British officials, the Black Loyalists were compelled to resettle to continue their search for freedom. Although migrating to Nova Scotia had offered refuge to thousands of Blacks from the American colonies, it failed to present them with the necessary resources for their sustenance. The story of the Black Loyalists, their contributions to the American Revolutionary war and their transatlantic experiences is important to the history of Nova Scotia and should be an integral part of the discourse of Canadian history.

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