Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Black Loyalists part 1

I was lying in bed this morning listening to the CBC radio's coverage of the results from the American election. Whatever your political stripes, this is seemingly a momentous day and I felt that it would be nice to be relevant in my heritage based way. As I was lying there wondering what to write, a voice from Annapolis Royal's recent past came across the airwaves and I immediately knew what I should discuss. Part of the local CBC coverage of the American election took place at a gathering in Halifax last night. One of the people interviewed was former Annapolis Royal Mayor, Daurene Lewis. Among her many accomplishments, Daurene was the first black, female mayor in Canada when she was elected in 1984.

Daurene Lewis, as with most of the African Nova Scotians living around Annapolis Royal, is a descendant of the Black Loyalists. In fact, Rose Fortune, the image at the top of this post is one of Daurene's direct Black Loyalist ancestors. Who were the Black Loyalists? Why did they come to Nova Scotia?

The Loyalists themselves are a complicated group. Truthfully, the only thing which binds the Loyalists together as a group is that they all left the newly minted United States at the end of the American Revolution. Their were a great many reasons for leaving. Some were legitimately remaining loyal to the British Crown. Others were seeking new economic opportunities and grants of land. Some arrived through mixed up circumstances and would quickly return to the United States. Finally, some were fleeing slavery and others arrived as slaves. These last two groups, the freed slaves and those still enslaved have come to be known as the Black Loyalists.

As the American revolution was progressing, the British Crown issued various proclamations which offered American slaves their freedom in exchange for fighting for the British. A great many slaves took advantage of these offers by escaping from their owners and joining the British ranks. In many cases, living conditions for Blacks in the British military were not much better than enslavement.

Toward the end of the war in 1783, many freed and escaped slaves had made their way to New York City. New York was the last of the British strongholds and as such was a relatively safe refuge for those trying to escape slavery. Safety did not mean ideal or even adequate living conditions. Many Blacks were living in accomodations not much better than tents and wooden boxes.

With the war's end, the British began to evacuate their subjects to areas still governed by the Crown including Nova Scotia. Much to the delight of genealogists, a log was kept of all of the Blacks who were evacuated. This log, commonly referred to as the "Book of Negroes", was written partially so that any disputed claims over the ownership of freed slaves could be settled. The descriptions in this book also allow descendants to know if they were descended from a "stout wench", a "fine boy" or someone who was "worn out".

Due to the scope of this story, another installement in the saga of the Black Loyalists will have to wait for a future post. Rest assured, there will be hardships, a riot, and even a voyage to Sierra Leone.

All for now,


  1. I feel your sentiments. I'm a Creole from Sierra Leone and our founding fathers were black loyalists like Thomas Peters and others. I just released a new CD and video called The Black Loyalists. You can find it on youtube
    or you can visit to check it out. The African spirit is resilient.

  2. I too woke up to Daurene's voice, and remembered 1984 when Annapolis Royal added to its long list of "firsts" by electing Daurene!

  3. I am descended from the Nova Scotians of Sierra Leone. My ancestors were not Loyalists, and I resent that title. They were African Americans and they were not Loyalists. While some were legitimately loyal to the crown, I completely resent this notion that they were Loyalists. I have read too many documents which contradict this idea, and if one once to know the truth, James Walker who came up with the term "Black Loyalist" does not give the full story of these blacks. In their own personal narratives they do not even refer to themselves as Loyalists. While I like having a kinship relationship with African Americans and their African Nova Scotian descendants, I resent the notion that we have to mold our ancestors into this "Loyalist" merely to fit Canadian historical ideals. Some of our ancestors were Loyalists, and some were not. One thing they all were, were Refugees. I agree completely that my ancestors were African American Refugees or Black Refugees like those American slaves who came to Nova Scotia after the War of 1812.

  4. This brings forward an interesting point of historical debate. Were the Black Loyalists loyal to the British Crown? In most cases the simple answer is no. Many fought for the British in groups like the Black Pioneers, but this was done as a means to escape slavery rather than as an end in itself. The British "Loyalist" option was really the lesser of two evils. This proves itself true by the unjust treatment of the Black population once they arrive in Nova Scotia and the eventual departure of part of that group for Sierra Leone.
    African Nova Scotian author George Elliot Clarke has put forward the tern Africadian to describe the current Black population. Africadian is a mix of African and Acadian. For the group who arrived at the end of the American Revolution Historically this term is a bit awkward as it does not provide context to their arriving from America.
    Should the truth be told, the term Loyalist may be incorrect for many parts of the Loyalist movement. While some people did in fact leave the American Colonies to remain loyal, others came to claim grants of land or for economic reasons. Loyalty often had nothing to do with the reasons the Loyalists arrived.
    The Black Loyalists were really interested in their freedom rather than any sort of loyalty to the British. Accepting that this is true, I am interested to hear suggestions as to the proper name for this group.