Black Loyalist – African Americans in the Revolution


A Black Loyalist was an inhabitant of British America of African descent who joined British colonial forces during the American Revolutionary War. Many had been enslaved by the “Patriot” rebels and decided to join the British in return for promises of freedom.

Some 3,000 Black Loyalists were evacuated from New York to Nova Scotia; they were individually listed in the Book of Negroes as the British gave them certificates of freedom and arranged for transport. The original of the Book of Negroes and an authenticated transcript are now online. Some of the United Empire Loyalists who migrated to Nova Scotia brought enslaved African Americans with them, a total of 2500 people. These African Americans were not regarded as Loyalists, since they had no choice in their fates.

Some Black Loyalists were evacuated to London. They were included in the population of the Black Poor. With government assistance, 4,000 blacks were transported from London for resettlement to the colony of Sierra Leone in 1787. Five years later, another 1,192 Black Loyalists from Nova Scotia also chose to migrate to Sierra Leone. They became known in Sierra Leone as the Nova Scotian settlers and were part of creating a new nation and government. The modern-day Sierra Leone Creole people (Krios) are their descendants. The American leader Thomas Jefferson referred to the Black Loyalists as “the fugitives from these States.”

==Prior to the War==

Slavery in England had never been authorized by statute. It was made illegal at common law by a decision of Lord Mansfield, Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, in 1772, but this decision did not apply in the colonies. A number of cases for emancipation were presented to the English courts. Numerous runaways hoped to reach England where they hoped to be free.

The slaves’ belief that King George III was for them and against their masters rose as tensions increased before the American Revolution; colonial slaveholders feared a British-inspired slave revolt. In early 1775 Lord Dunmore wrote to Lord Dartmouth of his intent to take advantage of this situation.

== Proclamations ==

=== Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation ===

In November 1775 Lord Dunmore issued a controversial proclamation, later known as Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation. Faced with rebellion and short of troops, Virginia’s royal governor called on all able-bodied men to assist him in the defense of the colony, including enslaved Africans belonging to rebels. He promised such slave recruits freedom in exchange for service in the British Army. …I do require every Person capable of bearing Arms, to resort to His MAJESTY’S STANDARD, or be looked upon as Traitors to His MAJESTY’S Crown and Government, and thereby become liable to the Penalty the Law inflicts upon such Offences; such as forfeiture of Life, confiscation of Lands, &c. &c. And I do hereby further declare all indented Servants, Negroes, or others, (appertaining to Rebels,) free that are able and willing to bear Arms, they joining His MAJESTY’S Troops as soon as may be, for the more speedily reducing this Colony to a proper Sense of their Duty, to His MAJESTY’S Crown and Dignity.— Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation, November 7, 1775

Within a month about 800 formerly enslaved African Americans had escaped to Norfolk, Virginia to enlist. It is likely that far more heard the call and would have joined if not for the fear of reprisal.

Outraged Virginia slave owners decreed that runaway slaves would be executed. They also engaged in a smear campaign of the British Army’s promises, saying that slaves who escaped to the British would be sold to sugar cane plantations in the West Indies. Despite this, many slaves were willing to risk their lives for a chance at freedom.

Dunmore’s Proclamation was the first mass emancipation of enslaved people in United States history. The 1776 Declaration of Independence refers obliquely to the Proclamation by citing as one of its grievances, that King George III had ‘excited domestic Insurrections among us’.

After the American Revolutionary War began, a number of British generals issued proclamations calling for Loyalists to free their slaves so that they could join the undermanned British army and bolster its numbers. Among those issuing proclamations were John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore, Governor of Virginia, and Sir Henry Clinton. The Governor of Jamaica, John Dalling, drafted a proposal in 1779 for the enlistment of a regiment of mulattoes and a regiment of Negroes.

=== The Philipsburg Proclamation ===

With the arrival of 30,000 Hessian troops, the need for Black soldiers greatly diminished. Sir William Howe banned the formation of new Black regiments and disbanded his own. But freeing slaves still held value as economic warfare against the rebels. In 1779 Sir Henry Clinton issued the Philipsburg Proclamation. In it he expanded Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation to promise freedom to any escaped slave of a rebel.

The British often returned escaped slaves to Loyalist masters and requested the owner to refrain from punishment. In 1778 the Patriots promised freedom to escaped slaves of Loyalists. Most slaves who escaped to one side or the other ended up being sold back into slavery. During the disruption of war, however, tens of thousands of slaves escaped to freedom; others died from disease and warfare.

== Regiments ==

Lord Dunmore’s proclamation, among others, led to the formation of several Black regiments in the British army. The most notable were Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment and Clinton’s Black Pioneers. Other regiments included the Jersey Shore Volunteers, the King’s American Dragoons, the Jamaica Rangers, and the Mosquito Shore Volunteers. It was also common for Blacks to serve the military in non-combat positions.

===The Royal Ethiopian===

Dunmore organised his 800 Black volunteers into the Royal Ethiopian Regiment. The unit was quickly trained in the rudiments of marching and shooting before engaging in their first conflict at the Battle of Kemp’s Landing. The Patriot militia at Kemp’s Landing was unprepared for the attack and quickly retreated. Next, Dunmore led the Royal Ethiopians into the Battle of Great Bridge. But this time Dunmore was overconfident and he had been misinformed about the Patriot numbers. The Patriot forces overwhelmed the British troops. After the battle, Dunmore loaded his troops onto the British fleet, hoping to take the opportunity to train them better. The cramped conditions led to the spread of smallpox. By the time Lord Dunmore retreated to New York, only 300 of the original 800 men had survived.

===The Black Pioneers and Guides===

The largest Black regiment was the Black Pioneers. (In the military terminology of the day, a “pioneer” was a soldier who built roads, dug trenches, and did other manual labor.) These soldiers were typically divided into smaller corps and attached to larger armies. While not a combat regiment, the Black Pioneers worked to build fortifications and other necessities. They could often be called upon to work under fire. The Pioneers served under General Clinton in a support capacity in North Carolina, New York, Newport, Rhode Island, and Philadelphia. The Black Pioneers did not sustain any casualties because they were never used in combat. In Philadelphia, their general orders to “…attend the scavangers, assist in cleaning the streets & removing all newsiances being thrown into the streets”{Sic} made them essentially laborers, but they freed other soldiers for combat.

===The Black Brigade===

The Black Brigade was a small combat unit of elite commandos, led by a veteran of Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment named Colonel Tye. The title Colonel was not an official military designation, as Blacks were not then formally commissioned as officers. Instead, such titles were permitted in an unofficial capacity. Tye, a former slave, and the Black Brigade were the most feared Loyalists in New Jersey, which was his home territory. They participated in several raids from 1778 at the Battle of Monmouth to 1780. Tye was wounded in the wrist during a raid on a patriot militia leader. Within weeks he died from gangrene.


Many Blacks were denied entry into regular units because of racism or distrust by British and Loyalist officers. Many joined the irregular Associators (also known as Refugees), where they often served in mixed-race units.

==Postwar treatment==

When peace negotiations began after the Battle of Yorktown, a primary issue of debate was the fate of Black British soldiers. Although General Cornwallis abandoned his Black troops to re-enslavement, many other British commanders were unwilling to do the same. Loyalists who remained in the United States wanted Black soldiers returned so their chances of receiving reparations for damaged property would be increased. But British military leaders fully intended to keep the promise of freedom made to Black soldiers despite the anger of the Americans.

In the chaos as the British evacuated Loyalist refugees, many American slave owners attempted to recapture their former slaves. Some would capture any Black, including those born free before the war, and sell them into slavery. The US Congress ordered George Washington to retrieve any American property, including slaves, from the British, as stipulated by the Treaty of Paris (1783).

Since Sir Guy Carleton intended to honor the promise of freedom, the British proposed a compromise that would compensate slave owners, and provide certificates of freedom to any Black person who could prove his, plus the right to be evacuated to one of the British colonies. The group of refugees who arrived in Nova Scotia were the greatest number of people of African descent to arrive there at any one time. One of their settlements, Birchtown, Nova Scotia was the largest free African community in North America for the first few years of its existence.

Black Loyalists found the northern climate and frontier conditions in Nova Scotia difficult, and were subject to discrimination by other Loyalist settlers, many of them slaveholders. The land given to the Black Loyalists was the most rocky and hard to cultivate compared to that given to White Loyalists. In 1792, the British government offered Black Loyalists the chance to resettle in a new colony in Sierra Leone, Africa. The Sierra Leone Company was established to manage its development. Half of the Black Loyalists in Nova Scotia, nearly 1200, departed the country and moved permanently to Sierra Leone. They set up the community of Freetown.

In 1793, the British transported another 3,000 Blacks to Florida, Nova Scotia and England as free men and women. Their names were recorded in the Book of Negroes by General Carleton.

Not all were as lucky. In the South, blacks were seen as easy targets, and planters often ignored their claims of freedom. Many British officers and Loyalists saw them as spoils of war. When Britain ceded Florida to Spain, many of the freedmen who had been transported there from the United States were left behind when the British pulled out.


Many descendants of Black loyalists have been able to track their ancestry by using General Carleton’s Book of Negroes.

===Nova Scotia===

Between 1776 and 1785, around 3,500 Blacks were transported to Nova Scotia from the United States, part of a larger migration of about 34,000 Loyalist refugees. This massive influx of people increased the population by almost 60%, and led to the establishment of New Brunswick as its own colony in 1784. Most of the free Blacks settled at Birchtown, the largest Black township in North America at the time. The indentured servants and newly freed slaves mostly settled in the town of Shelburne.

Among the descendants of the Black Loyalists are noted figures such as Rose Fortune, a Black woman living in Nova Scotia who became a police officer and a businesswoman. The Canadian opera and concert singer, Measha Brueggergosman (née Gosman), is a New Brunswick native and descendant of a Black Loyalist through her father. Her paternal four-times-great-grandfather and grandmother left the United States and settled in Shelburne with their first child, born free behind British lines in New York.


The Black Loyalist settlement of Birchtown, Nova Scotia was declared a National Historic Site in 1997. A seasonal museum commemorating the Black Loyalists was opened in that year by the Black Loyalist Heritage Society. A memorial has been established at the Black Loyalist Burying Ground. Built around the historic Birchtown school and church, the museum was badly damaged by an arson attack in 2008 but rebuilt. The Society began plans for a major expansion of the museum to tell the story of the Black Loyalists in America, Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone.[[

===Sierra Leone===

Sympathy for the former black soldiers who had fought for the British stimulated support for the Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor. This organization backed the settlement of the black poor from London to the colony of Sierra Leone in West Africa. About half the Black Loyalists in Nova Scotia were given passage there as well. Today their descendants are known as the Sierra Leone Creole people, or Krios. They live primarily in the Western Area of Freetown, Sierra Leone.

Black Loyalists from the American South brought their languages, such as Gullah and African American Vernacular English, to Freetown; their lingua franca was a strong influence on their descendants, who speak Krio. Many of the Sierra Leone Creoles or Krios can trace their ancestry directly to their Black Loyalist ancestors. One of George Washington’s slaves, Henry Washington, escaped to British lines, and went to Nova Scotia. He later migrated to Freetown, where he became the leader of a rebellion against colonial rule. His descendants are part of the Creole population, who make up 5.8% of the total.

== Notable Black Loyalists ==

* David George
* Boston King
* John Kizell
* John Marrant
* Cato Perkins
* Thomas Peters
* Colonel Tye
* Henry Washington

==In popular culture==

* The saga of the Black Loyalists inspired Lawrence Hill’s 2007 novel The Book of Negroes (published as Someone Knows My Name in the United States). It won the 2008 Commonwealth Award for Fiction.
* M.T. Anderson’s 2008 young-adult novel The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves details the life of young Octavian Nothing, who joins Lord Dunmore’s Royal Ethiopians.