Thursday, November 13, 2008

Black Loyalists part 2

Well, about a week ago I left the poor Black Loyalists floating in New York harbour in part 1 of this post. I suppose that it is time to move them along on their journey to Nova Scotia.

In New York in 1783, the Black Loyalists were indeed cataloged and loaded onto ships. Doubtlessly, this would have been eerily reminiscent for those who had made the crossing from Africa. Slaves leaving Africa had been bound hand and foot with iron shackles and loaded into ships as cargo. Most had a space no larger than two feet in which they would spend months lying in human filth. In these inhumane conditions, many slaves would perish before they reached North America. The film Amistad depicts an absolutely haunting trip aboard a slave ship and I am sure that this is still far short of the actual horror of these events.

Thankfully the ships leaving New York were not this sort of vessel. While the black passengers would have had the worst accomodations, they were not cargo. These ships spread out to all of the ports where the Loyalists were landing. Included in the communities where Black Loyalists landed were Shelburne, Annapolis Royal, Digby, Saint John, Halifax and Guysborough although this is far from a complete list.

Despite having suffered many traumatic events (slavery, beatings, war) in the period leading up to their arrival in Nova Scotia, their plight did not end when they stepped onto our shores. Yes, most of the Black Loyalists were free but this freedom did not mean that they would receive equitable treatment on the part of the government or from their fellow inhabitants of Nova Scotia. It should also be noted that a minority of Black Loyalists were brought as the property of the aristocracy.

When grants of land were given, the Black Loyalists always received the poorest quality of land and were the last to have their land granted. In many cases Blacks waited years to have poor rocky land granted. In what would foreshadow the tragedy of Africville, there are even some cases in Brindley Town and Preston where land was taken away and the residents reassigned to new land.

In these early years supplies of food were high demand. Many people needed provisions from the government so that they could survive the winter. Blacks had great trouble getting their fair share of the supplies. There are stories of people selling themselves into indentured servitude so that a white person could draw their share. Of course, with this system, not all of the supplies got to their intended destination.

Indentured servitude also became common for another reason. If Blacks were able to find work it was often at half the wages of white workers. Despite the fact that many had worked as tradesmen or labourers, they had great difficulty finding work. To feed their families, Blacks would often need to sell themselves into bondage.

Justice itself was not equal for Blacks. Many expressions of identity such as "frolicks" were banned with offenders jailed. Dances for white settlers continued to be popular. Denied the right to trial by a jury most, Blacks were tried by a magistrate alone. In addition to jail time, punishments could include lashings and indentured servitude.

This seems to be another good opportunity to take a break in this narrative. In the next installment, things will reach a head and a riot will take place in Shelburne.

The image at the top of this post was taken in the 1950s and features James Lewis junior. During his life, Mr Lewis was the owner of Lewis Transfer in Annapolis Royal. He is a descendant of the Black Loyalists. The image is from the Annapolis Heritage Society Archives.

All for now,
RGS

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