Nova Scotia Archives

African Nova Scotians

in the Age of Slavery and Abolition


Black Refugees, 1813-1834

The War of 1812, like the War of Independence thirty years earlier, provided enslaved African Americans with the opportunity to escape the chains of the "peculiar institution." In April 1814, British military authorities offered Americans who deserted to the British side the opportunity of entering into British military service or going as free settlers to one of the British colonies. The offer was issued in part as a response to escaped slaves who had already come over to the British side. Although not addressed specifically to slaves, the intent of the proclamation was clear.

About 4000 enslaved African Americans, primarily from coastal Georgia and the Chesapeake region (Maryland and Virginia), seized this opportunity to escape from slavery. About 2000 of these Black Refugees sailed to Nova Scotia between September 1813 and August 1816 on both naval vessels and private transports chartered by the British. The remainder were settled in Trinidad and other British colonies. Of the 2000 who came to Nova Scotia, 400 or more were settled in New Brunswick in May 1815.

Once in Nova Scotia, the Black Refugees encountered a government and society that resented their presence. In fact, the authorities tried repeatedly to remove them. In 1817 Lieutenant Governor Lord Dalhousie recommended to the British government that the refugees be returned to the United States or sent to Sierra Leone. However, he discarded the plan after visiting them and discovering that "none of them are willing to return to their masters, or to America."

Despite this setback, Dalhousie soon arranged for the Black Refugees to be resettled in Trinidad. He waged an extensive campaign to convince them to leave. However, only 95 chose to emigrate to Trinidad in 1821. This was in sharp contrast to the exodus of free black Nova Scotians to Sierra Leone in 1792. The overwhelming majority of black settlers during and after the War of 1812 chose to stay in Nova Scotia, refusing to go to any country where slavery still existed.

The Black Refugees, like the Black Loyalists before them, faced extremely difficult circumstances. The colony fell into an economic depression at the end of the War of 1812 and European immigration increased. Many of the newly arrived black men could not find work, while the women found poorly paid employment as domestics and charwomen.

The Black Refugees settled at Preston, Hammonds Plains, Beechville (‘Refugee Hill’), Five Mile Plains, Beaverbank, Prospect Road, Halifax, Dartmouth, and elsewhere. The largest community was Preston, followed by what is now Upper Hammonds Plains and then Beechville. The majority of Black Refugees were given licenses of occupation for generally poor-quality ten-acre lots that could not reasonably be expected to produce enough crops for a family to survive. Those who managed to grow enough food were generous in helping their starving neighbours – until, at the end of the long winters, all were destitute. Since the Black Refugees had licenses of occupation they could not sell the land they lived on, to enable them to move to another part of Nova Scotia. Finally, in 1834, 30 men at Upper Hammonds Plains received a grant of 600 acres. Still later, in 1842, a grant of 1800 acres at Preston replaced the licenses of occupation issued in 1816. Some of the Black Refugees were able to purchase land, for example, Tobin Maxfield and nine others, all surnamed Hamilton, near Fletchers Brook (Wellington) in 1815; and Isaac Fitchet and Sergeant Pelotte in the township of Windsor (Five Mile Plains) in 1816. Some others leased land from private landowners.

Most of the Black Refugees attempted to supplement their farm produce by day labour or other employment. For example, they worked on ships and some found employment as carpenters in Halifax. Black women went to the Saturday market to sell farm produce, baskets and anything else that would have helped to make ends meet. The 1816-17 census of the town of Halifax shows a black population of 745, out of a total population of 11,156. A comparison with earlier census returns shows that over half of these black Haligonians came after the War of 1812.

The year 1834 saw the implementation of the 1833 act which abolished slavery throughout the British colonies. For black people this was an important victory. However, many white Nova Scotians feared its consequences. They believed that the end of slavery might mean more black immigration. In an effort to prevent an influx of Blacks from the Caribbean, the Nova Scotia legislature passed legislation that would have banned the entry of former slaves from the British West Indies. However, the British government disallowed the law, on the grounds that it would result in unequal treatment of different classes of His Majesty’s subjects.

African Nova Scotians remained keenly aware of the continuance of slavery in the United States. In 1856, the minister responsible for St. John’s Anglican Church, Preston, reported that the Baptist inhabitants of Preston brought their children to him for baptism. They gave as their reason the need for a certificate of baptism to protect their children’s freedom should they ever travel to the southern United States. A few years earlier, a black woman from Porters Lake had asked the same minister to baptize her son who was about to go to sea. Her intent was to obtain proof of his status, to prevent him from being enslaved if he were ever captured.

The story of the Black Refugees of 1813-16 is not only about struggle and survival, but also about community development. The refugees arrived destitute, homeless, and in many cases sick. The very different systems of slavery, in terms of labour and culture, in coastal Georgia as opposed to the Chesapeake, made the Black Refugees a diverse group. They developed a shared experience and culture only after they settled in Nova Scotia.

Yet, by 1834, the Black Refugees had created communities with African Baptist churches and a significant rate of school attendance. The development of benevolent societies such as the African Friendly Society and the African Abolition Society followed soon after. Those who settled near Halifax took an active part in the economic life of the town, most notably as market gardeners and seamen. William Deer, the Preston innkeeper, a first generation War of 1812 immigrant, and William Hall, Victoria Cross winner and second generation immigrant, are but two examples of how this second wave of African Nova Scotian settlers left their mark. Despite ongoing struggles with poverty, prejudice and poor and insufficient land, the Black Refugees of 1813-16 achieved much in the short span of twenty years.


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"List of 7 American slaves, deserted from the enemy — on board His Majesty's sloop Rifleman"
Date: 28 September 1813
Reference no.: Commissioner of Public Records  Nova Scotia Archives RG 1 vol. 420 no. 1 (microfilm no. 15464)

Theme: Black Refugees, 1813-1834

Admiral Cochrane's proclamation
Date: 2 April 1814
Reference no.: Commissioner of Public Records  Nova Scotia Archives RG 1 vol. 111 pages 99-100 (microfilm no. 15262)

Theme: Black Refugees, 1813-1834

"Ship news": several hundred black refugees arrive at Halifax on 1 September 1814
Date: 3 September 1814
Reference no.: Nova Scotia Archives Acadian Recorder 3 September 1814 p.3 (microfilm no. 5193)

Theme: Black Refugees, 1813-1834

Melville Island military prison, Halifax, which served as temporary accommodation for African American refugees after the War of 1812
Date: 29 May 1929
Photographer: Gauvin & Gentzel
Reference no.: Nova Scotia Archives Photo Collection: Army: General

Theme: Black Refugees, 1813-1834

"Return of black people at Halifax arrived from the Chesapeake"
Date: [1815]
Reference no.: Commissioner of Public Records  Nova Scotia Archives RG 1 vol. 305 no. 7 (microfilm no. 15387)

Theme: Black Refugees, 1813-1834

''List of Blacks recently brought from the United States of America and settled on the Windsor Road''
Date: [1815]
Reference no.: Commissioner of Public Records  Nova Scotia Archives RG 1 vol. 420 no. 133 (microfilm no. 15464)

Theme: Black Refugees, 1813-1834

"Return of black persons lately brought to the province from the United States..."
Date: 6 March 1815
Reference no.: Commissioner of Public Records  Nova Scotia Archives RG 1 vol. 411 no. 78 (microfilm no. 15457)

Theme: Black Refugees, 1813-1834

Address of the House of Assembly to Lieutenant Governor Sherbrooke opposing black refugee immigration
Date: 1 April 1815
Reference no.: Nova Scotia Archives Journal of the House of Assembly 1815 p. 107 (microfilm no. 3528)

Theme: Black Refugees, 1813-1834

Contract between Lewis DeMolitor and the collector of customs for the port of Halifax to supply provisions for black refugees
Date: 1 May 1815
Reference no.: Commissioner of Public Records  Nova Scotia Archives RG 1 vol. 420 no. 17 (microfilm no. 15464)

Theme: Black Refugees, 1813-1834

Indenture of David Dize
Date: 18 May 1815
Reference no.: Nova Scotia Archives MG 1 vol. 770A no. 57

Theme: Black Refugees, 1813-1834

"Names of men of colour who are settled upon lands conveyed to them by Henry H. Cogswell...at the Head of the North West Arm"
Date: 2 November 1815
Reference no.: Commissioner of Public Records  Nova Scotia Archives RG 1 vol. 420 no. 93 (microfilm no. 15464)

Theme: Black Refugees, 1813-1834

"Dr Head's report respecting black families settled at Preston"
Date: 1 February 1816
Reference no.: Commissioner of Public Records  Nova Scotia Archives RG 1 vol. 419 no. 47 (microfilm no. 15460)

Theme: Black Refugees, 1813-1834

"Report of lands cleared by the people of colour in the settlement of Preston..."
Date: 9 May 1816
Reference no.: Commissioner of Public Records  Nova Scotia Archives RG 1 vol. 421 no. 3 (microfilm no. 15464)

Theme: Black Refugees, 1813-1834

Plot plan of lands at Preston
Date: 19 November 1816
Reference no.: Commissioner of Public Records  Nova Scotia Archives RG 1 vol. 419 no. 29

Theme: Black Refugees, 1813-1834

Letter From Lord Dalhousie to Earl Bathurst about the black refugees
Date: 29 December 1816
Reference no.: Commissioner of Public Records  Nova Scotia Archives RG 1 vol. 112 pp. 6-9 (microfilm no. 15262)

Theme: Black Refugees, 1813-1834
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