Dirty Little Secret | History | Smithsonian

Dirty Little Secret

To see the Revolutionary war through the eyes of slaves is to better understand why so many of them fought for the crown

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Ten years after the surrender of George III’s army to General Washington at Yorktown, a man known as British Freedom was hanging on in North America. Along with a few hundred other souls, he was scratching a living from the stingy soil around Preston, a few miles northeast of Halifax, Nova Scotia. Like most of the Preston people, British Freedom was black and had come from a warmer place. Now he was a hardscrabbler stuck in a wind-whipped corner of the world between the blue spruce forest and the sea. But he was luckier than most.

British Freedom had title to 40 acres, and another one and a half of what the lawyers’ clerks in Halifax were pleased to call a “town lot.” It didn’t look like much of a town, though, just a dirt clearing with rough cabins at the center and a few chickens strutting around and maybe a mud-caked hog or two. Some of the people who had managed to get a team of oxen to clear the land of bald gray rocks grew patches of beans and corn and cabbages, which they carted to market in Halifax along with building lumber. But even those who prospered—by Preston standards—took themselves off every so often into the wilderness to shoot some birch partridge, or tried their luck on the saltwater ponds south of the village.

What were they doing there? Not just surviving. British Freedom and the rest of the villagers were clinging to more than a scrap of Nova Scotia; they were clinging to a promise. Some of them even had that promise printed and signed by officers of the British Army on behalf of the king himself, that the bearer so-and-so was at liberty to go wherever he or she pleased and take up whatever occupation he or she chose. That meant something for people who had been slaves. And the king’s word was surely a bond. In return for their loyal service in the late American war, they were to be granted two gifts of unimaginably precious worth: their freedom and their acres.

It was, they told themselves, no more than their due. They had done perilous, dirty, exhausting work. They had been spies amid the Americans; guides through the Georgia swamps; pilots taking ships over treacherous sandbars; sappers on the ramparts of Charleston as French cannonballs took off the limbs of the men beside them. They had dug trenches; buried bodies blistered with the pox; powdered the officers’ wigs and, marching smartly, drummed the regiments in and out of disaster. The women had cooked and laundered and nursed the sick; dabbed at the holes on soldiers’ bodies; and tried to keep their children from harm. Some of them had fought. There had been black dragoons in South Carolina; waterborne gangs of black partisans for the king on the Hudson River; bands of black guerrillas who would descend on Patriot farms in New Jersey and take whatever they could, even white American prisoners.

So they were owed. They had been given their liberty, and some of them got land. But the soil was thin and strewn with boulders, and the blacks had no way, most of them, to clear and work it unless they hired themselves or their families out to the white Loyalists. That meant more cooking and laundering; more waiting on tables and shaving pink chins; more hammering rocks for roads and bridges. And still they were in debt, so grievously that some complained their liberty was no true liberty at all but just another kind of slavery in all but name.

But names counted. British Freedom’s name said something important: that he was no longer negotiable property. For all its bleak hardships, Preston was not a Georgia plantation. Other Prestonians—Decimus Murphy, Caesar Smith—had evidently kept their slave names as they had made the passage to liberty. But British Freedom must have been born, or bought, as someone else. He may have shaken off that name, like his leg irons, on one of the 81 sailings out of New York in 1783, which had taken 30,000 Loyalists, black and white, to Nova Scotia, for no one called British Freedom is listed in the Book of Negroes, which recorded those who, as free men and women, were at liberty to go where they wished. It is also possible that British Freedom could have found his way to Nova Scotia in one of the earlier Loyalist evacuations—from Boston in 1776 or from Charleston in 1782. In the frightening months between the end of the war and the departure of the British fleets, as American planters were attempting to locate the whereabouts of escaped slaves, many of them changed their names to avoid identification. British Freedom may just have gone one step further in giving himself an alias that was also a patriotic boast.

Whichever route he had taken, and whatever trials he was enduring, British Freedom’s choice of name proclaims something startling: a belief that it was the British monarchy rather than the new American republic that was more likely to deliver Africans from slavery. Although Thomas Jefferson, in the Declaration of Independence, had blamed “the Christian King” George III for the institution of slavery in America, blacks like British Freedom did not see the king that way at all. On the contrary, he was their enemy’s enemy and thus their friend, emancipator and guardian.

Tens of thousands of African-Americans clung to the sentimental notion of a British freedom even when they knew that the English were far from being saints in respect to slavery. Until 1800, when its courts decisively ruled the institution illegal, there were slaves, as well as free blacks, in Nova Scotia, and there were hundreds of thousands more in the British Caribbean. Nonetheless, in 1829 one of the first militant African-American emancipationists, David Walker, wrote from Boston in his Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World that the “English” were “the best friends the coloured people have upon earth. Though they have oppressed us a little and have colonies now in the West Indies which oppress us sorely—Yet notwithstanding [the English] have done one hundred times more for the melioration of our condition, than all the other nations of the earth put together.” White Americans, on the other hand, with their posturing religiosity and their hollow cant of freedom, he consigned to the lowest reaches of hypocritical infamy.

Whether the British deserved this reputation as the most racially broad-minded among nations and empires is, to say the least, debatable. But during the Revolutionary War there is no question that tens of thousands of Africans, enslaved in the American South, did look to Britain as their deliverer, to the point where they were ready to risk life and limb to reach the lines of the royal army. To give this astounding fact its due means being obliged to tell the story of Anglo-American conflict, both during the Revolution and after, in a freshly complicated way.

To be sure, there were also many blacks who gave the Patriots the benefit of the doubt when they listened and read of their war as a war for liberty. If there was a British Freedom, there was also a Dick Freedom—and a Jeffery Liberty—fighting in a Connecticut regiment on the American side. Blacks fought and died for the American cause at Concord, Bunker Hill, Rhode Island and finally at Yorktown (where they were put in the front line—whether as a tribute to their courage or as expendable sacrifices is not clear). At the Battle of Monmouth in New Jersey, black troops on both sides fought each other. But until the British aggressively recruited slaves in 1775 and 1776, state assemblies, even in the North, as well as the multistate Continental Congress, flinched from their enlistment. In February 1776 Congress instructed Washington that, while free Negroes might be retained, no more should be enlisted. Slaves, of course, were to be excluded from the Continental Army set up by Congress.

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