Nova Scotia Archives

African Nova Scotians

in the Age of Slavery and Abolition


Black Loyalists, 1783-1792

The aftermath of the American War of Independence brought the Black Loyalists to Nova Scotia. During the war, British authorities in America offered freedom to slaves of rebels who escaped and made their way into British lines. Many enslaved African Americans seized this opportunity to gain their freedom and came over to the British side, as did a much smaller number of already free African Americans. Some of the Black Loyalists provided military service alongside the British Army, while others served in non-military roles. Toward the end of the war most of them converged on New York, which was home to British general headquarters. Three thousand of them sailed to Nova Scotia between April and November 1783, on both Navy vessels and private transports chartered by the British.

In addition, a small number of free black people came as Loyalists on an individual basis. By 1784, well over 3000 Black Loyalists had immigrated to Nova Scotia, which included present-day New Brunswick. They came from Virginia, Georgia, South Carolina, New York, and New Jersey, as well as parts of New England. Among them were men and women of accomplishment, such as preacher David George and schoolteacher Catherine Abernathy, and a significant number of skilled labourers and craftsmen. Also among them was the father of Rose Fortune, noted as "Fortune – a free Negro," in the muster roll of Loyalists at Annapolis in June 1784. Other Black Loyalists included the members of the Black Pioneers, the only official black regiment on the British side during the War of Independence. There were also a number of ship pilots, such as London and James Jackson, who had been employed by the British during the war.

The Black Loyalists founded settlements throughout Nova Scotia. The largest was at Birchtown, near Shelburne, with an initial population of about 1500. The people of Birchtown earned their living in the fishery, cutting wood, clearing land, and hunting, and as domestic servants and day labourers. Other settlements were Brindley (Brinley) Town (near Digby), Preston, Birchtown (Guysborough County), Negro Line (now Southville, Digby County), and Birchtown (Princedale-Virginia East-Graywood area, Annapolis County). A group of about 170 settled at Old Tracadie Road (Guysborough County).

The Black Loyalists were part of a larger wave of Loyalist immigration which numbered around 30,000 people. The sudden influx of so many people placed a strain on the resources of the Nova Scotia government. The Black Loyalists encountered unfair and unequal treatment. They were given much smaller plots of land and fewer provisions than white settlers. Indeed, many did not receive any land, and some received no provisions. Black labourers were paid lower wages than white labourers for the same work. In 1784, local white labourers and disbanded soldiers drove black people out of Shelburne because they blamed them for low wages and unemployment. In addition, black people were faced with discriminatory local bylaws that penalized them for 'offences' such as dancing or loitering.

Despite the arrival of over 3000 free black people, the Loyalist influx also brought an estimated 2500 slaves to Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. They served their Loyalist owners as domestics, labourers and farmhands. In the summer of 1784, Lieutenant Colonel Morse CE reported in his return of disbanded troops and Loyalists that there were 1232 slaves in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. However, he excluded Shelburne, where the slaves were most numerous, as well as other places such as Halifax and Cape Breton, where slaves of Loyalists were also to be found. The number of slaves in Shelburne stood at 1269, as shown by a report on the number of persons receiving government rations there on 8 January 1784. The combined total of the two reports is 2500, double the number generally cited.

By 1790, many Black Loyalists had become dissatisfied with conditions in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. About 1200 of them accepted the offer of the Sierra Leone Company (a British anti-slavery organization) to resettle in Sierra Leone, on the Atlantic coast of west Africa. Approximately 1000 Black Loyalists from Nova Scotia left. Most came from Birchtown (Shelburne County), Preston and vicinity, Digby, and Annapolis. Nearly every black resident of Preston and Brinley Town left. The emigrants sailed from Halifax for Sierra Leone on 15 January 1792. Among them were community leaders such as David George (Shelburne), Boston King (Preston), and Joseph Leonard (Brinley Town). Stephen Skinner, local government agent at Shelburne, listed the occupations of the emigrants as farmers, skilled tradesmen, and soldiers. Their possessions included tools, a few muskets, and some tables, beds, chests and spinning wheels. Some families, including David George's, took their dogs with them.

The majority of free African Nova Scotians remained in the province. Among them were those in Halifax, those in the Black Pioneers and those skilled as ship pilots. The free black people in Guysborough also remained, probably due to the fact that they were not properly informed of the Sierra Leone Company's offer. Thomas Brownspriggs (Tracadie) and Stephen Blucke (Birchtown) were two teachers and community leaders who stayed. Prior to the exodus, Blucke warned Lieutenant Governor Parr against the expedition to Sierra Leone. His petition, also signed by 50 other free black people remaining in Shelburne County, forecast that those who went to Sierra Leone would face "their utter annihilation." Contemporary white observers noted the economic cost of the exodus. Stephen Skinner wrote that the settlement had been "deprived of upwards of five hundred good and efficient citizens...." Gideon White of Shelburne described it as "a serious loss."

The efforts of free African Nova Scotians to obtain land grants, to improve their allotments and to establish their own communities had a considerable impact. Interaction between free and enslaved African Nova Scotians must have greatly influenced the attitudes and expectations of the slaves. Slaves escaped in increasing numbers, as they now had the opportunity to disappear into the free black population.


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David George's lease and passports, 1779-1781
Date: Recorded in orderly book at Halifax, late 1782 or early 1783
Reference no.: Commissioner of Public Records  Nova Scotia Archives RG 1 vol. 170 pp. 332-3 (microfilm no. 15282)

Theme: Black Loyalists, 1783-1792

Certificates for Thomas Williams and his wife as "freeborn Blacks", 1 July 1781
Date: Recorded in orderly book at Halifax, late 1782 or early 1783
Reference no.: Commissioner of Public Records  Nova Scotia Archives RG 1 vol. 170 p. 333 (microfilm no. 15282)

Theme: Black Loyalists, 1783-1792

Certificate of Ned, his wife and family as "free Negroes", 19 November 1779; passport of Ned, his wife and children, 14 October 1782
Date: Recorded in orderly book at Halifax, 13 March 1783
Reference no.: Commissioner of Public Records  Nova Scotia Archives RG 1 vol. 170 p. 336 (microfilm no. 15282)

Theme: Black Loyalists, 1783-1792

Passport of Phillis Thomas, a "free Black woman", 12 October 1782
Date: Recorded in orderly book at Halifax, 14 March 1783
Reference no.: Commissioner of Public Records  Nova Scotia Archives RG 1 vol. 170 p. 338 (microfilm no. 15282)

Theme: Black Loyalists, 1783-1792

Certificate of Michael Thomas as a "free Negro together with his wife and children", 24 July 1780
Date: Recorded in orderly book at Halifax, 14 March 1783
Reference no.: Commissioner of Public Records  Nova Scotia Archives RG 1 vol. 170 p. 338 (microfilm no. 15282)

Theme: Black Loyalists, 1783-1792

Passport for Cato Ramsay to emigrate to Nova Scotia
Date: 21 April 1783
Reference no.: Gideon White family fonds  Nova Scotia Archives MG 1 vol. 948 no. 196 (microfilm no. 14960)

Theme: Black Loyalists, 1783-1792

Passport and certificate of John Williams, 19 April 1783
Date: Recorded in orderly book at Halifax, June or July 1783
Reference no.: Commissioner of Public Records  Nova Scotia Archives RG 1 vol. 170 p. 341 (microfilm no. 15282)

Theme: Black Loyalists, 1783-1792

"Book of Negroes"
Date: [after 31 July 1783]
Credit: The National Archives, Kew (PRO)
Reference no. Sir Guy Carleton Papers no. 10427 The National Archives, Kew PRO 30/55/100 (microfilm copy available at NSARM, microfilm no. 10149) click to view online

Theme: Black Loyalists, 1783-1792

Certificate of manumission for 'James', a four month old "mulatto child"
Date: Recorded in orderly book at Halifax, October or November 1783
Reference no.: Commissioner of Public Records  Nova Scotia Archives RG 1 vol. 170 p. 350 (microfilm no. 15282)

Theme: Black Loyalists, 1783-1792

Runaway slave advertisement
Date: 9 December 1783
Reference no.: Nova Scotia Archives Nova Scotia Gazette and Weekly Chronicle 09 December 1783 p. 4 (microfilm no. 8159)

Theme: Black Loyalists, 1783-1792

"Fortune — A Free Negro"
Date: 30 July 1784
Reference no.: Commissioner of Public Records  Nova Scotia Archives RG 1 vol. 376 pp. 52-3 (microfilm no. 15437)

Theme: Black Loyalists, 1783-1792

Rose Fortune (ca. 1774-1864)
Date: [1830s?]
Artist: unknown
Reference no.: Nova Scotia Archives Documentary Art Collection: acc. no. 1979-147/56

Theme: Black Loyalists, 1783-1792

"Return of the disbanded troops and Loyalists settling in the Province of Nova Scotia, mustered in the summer 1784" in "A general description of the Province of Nova Scotia...by Lieutenant Colonel [Robert] Morse, Chief Engineer in America"
Date: [after July 1784]
Credit: By Permission of The British Library
Reference no. The British Library King's Mss. 208 folio 23

Theme: Black Loyalists, 1783-1792

Petition on behalf of the Black Pioneers
Date: 20 (?) August 1784
Reference no.: Commissioner of Public Records  Nova Scotia Archives RG 1 vol. 359 no. 65 (microfilm no. 15428)

Theme: Black Loyalists, 1783-1792

"Return of Negroes and their families mustered in Annapolis County between the 28th day of May and the 30th day of June 1784"
Date: 5 September 1784
Reference no.: Commissioner of Public Records  Nova Scotia Archives RG 1 vol. 376 pp. 73-7 (microfilm no. 15437)

Theme: Black Loyalists, 1783-1792
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