In November 1775, Virginia Governor Lord Dunmore, hoping to bolster the British war effort, encouraged slaves and indentured servants of the Patriots to join His Majesty’s army. Many did so. When the British evacuated their army from Boston to Halifax in 1776, a “Company of Negroes” was part of the entourage. British Commander-in-Chief Sir Henry Clinton extended the policy of appealing to African Americans in his Phillipsburg Proclamation of 1779 in which he offered security behind British lines to “every negro who shall desert the Rebel Standard.”
Although estimates of the number of runaway slaves who found their way to the British lines vary, scholars suggest a conservative figure of 20,000 men, women, and children. A significant number of African American men saw military service, joining the Ethiopian Regiment (whose motto was “Liberty to Slaves”), the Black Pioneers Corps, or the Black Cavalry or by attaching themselves in various capacities to other regiments or to Royal Navy vessels. Others plied their trades or worked as domestics and common labourers in civilian settings behind British lines. A few free African Americans also supported the British cause. In addition, African Americans, both enslaved and free, were captured in British raids on Patriot strongholds, and ended up in British hands. In his book on the Black Loyalists, historian James Walker argues that “the over-riding motive of the escaped slaves, and the one that was shared by free Blacks who became Loyalists, was for security in their freedom.”
For the African Americans who made a desperate bid for freedom, the war brought untold hardship. Many lost their lives as participants in the fighting or in the battle against dreaded diseases such as smallpox and typhoid, which raged through British military encampments. In many cases, runaways were recaptured when Patriots regained the upper hand. Historian Cassandra Pybus estimates that only 12,000 of the 20,000 runaway slaves survived an early death and avoided re-enslavement.
At the end of the war, slaves who claimed their freedom were in a vulnerable position. They had little wealth and nowhere to go to escape the long arm of their former owners. Although George Washington argued that all slaves who at any time had been owned by Americans must be left behind when the British evacuated their last stronghold in New York, British Commander-in-Chief Sir Guy Carleton insisted that the Dunmore and Phillipson proclamations be honoured to the extent that African Americans allied with the British before 30 November 1782 be recognized as technically free. Carleton’s argument carried the day after he agreed to American representation on a board to examine any departing former slave whose status might be challenged by an owner.
Meanwhile, Brigadier General Samuel Birch issued certificates to any African American who could prove minimum residence requirements and refugee status under the Phillipsburg declaration. The General Birch Certificates, greatly prized by those who received them, guaranteed freedom to the holder and permission to go to Nova Scotia or elsewhere. From April to November 1783 the board overseeing embarkation heard claims and Carleton’s “Book of Negroes” swelled with the names, age, description, and other pertinent details of 2744 free African Americans, who were included in the migration to Nova Scotia. Only 14 cases were disputed, nine in favour of slave masters.
The total numbers of free Black Loyalists who moved to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick is difficult to determine. In addition to those registered in New York, many others found their way to the region without being documented. There is no record of the number of African Americans evacuated from Boston in 1776 who stayed in the Maritimes, nor do we know how many of the thousands of Black Loyalists sent to Florida and the West Indies later moved to the region. What is clear is that at least 10 percent of the free Loyalists who moved to the Maritimes (roughly 3500) were of African descent.
Not all African Americans in the Loyalist migration were free men and women. Loyalists brought their slaves with them and slavery as an institution continued in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick well into the nineteenth century. Again, the numbers are hard to calculate because documents often used the words “slave” and “servant” interchangeably. Scholars estimate that about 1500 enslaved people moved to the Maritimes as a result of decisions made by their Loyalist masters. How many slaves settled in New Brunswick has yet to be determined.
African Americans had lived in the Maritime region since the early days of French settlement in the sixteenth century but their numbers reached less than 200 in 1775. Whether enslaved or free, the approximately 5000 African Americans who moved to the Maritimes as a result of the American Revolutionary War laid the foundations for deeply-rooted African communities in the region.