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

Soldiers at the siege of Yorktown
Soldiers at the siege of Yorktown Wikimedia Commons

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.

By contrast, the proclamation of John Murray, Lord Dunmore, the last Colonial governor of Virginia, from HMS William on November 7, 1775, unequivocally promised outright liberty to all slaves escaping from Rebel plantations, reaching British lines and serving in some capacity with the army. The promise was made from military rather than humanitarian motives, and for every British Freedom who lived to see it kept, there were many more who would be unconscionably betrayed. Yet from opportunist tactics, some good might still arise. Dunmore’s words, sanctioned by the British government and reiterated by Generals William Howe and Henry Clinton (who extended the definition of those entitled to liberty to black women and children), took wing in the world of the slaves, and they themselves took off, in their tens of thousands, shortly after.

Seeing the Revolutionary War through the eyes of enslaved blacks turns its meaning upside down. In Georgia, the Carolinas and much of Virginia, the vaunted war for liberty was, from the spring of 1775 to the late summer of 1776, a war for the perpetuation of servitude. The contortions of logic were so perverse, yet so habitual, that George Washington could describe Dunmore as “that arch traitor to the rights of humanity” for promising to free slaves and indentured servants.

Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, a Pennsylvania Lutheran pastor, knew what he was talking about when he wrote that the black population “secretly wished the British army might win, for then all Negro slaves will gain their freedom. It is said that this sentiment is universal among all the Negroes in America.” And every so often truth broke through the armor of Patriot casuistry. In December 1775, Lund Washington wrote to his cousin George of both blacks and indentured servants, who were departing from the Washington properties at speed, that “there is not a man of them but would leave us if they believ’d they could make there [sic] escape.... Liberty is sweet.”

The founding fathers were themselves candid about the extent of the disappearance of their slaves, not least because so many of them experienced serious personal losses. Thomas Jefferson, who had seen his own attempt to incorporate a paragraph attacking slavery in the Declaration of Independence stricken out by Congress, lost 30 of his own during the few weeks in the spring of 1781, when Lord Cornwallis’ troops were not far from his home, Monticello. He believed—and the judgment of most modern historians concurs—that at least 30,000 slaves had escaped from Virginia plantations in attempts to reach the British lines. The same went for the rest of the South.

The story of this mass flight, aptly characterized by historian Gary Nash as the Revolutionary War’s “dirty little secret,” is shocking in the best sense, in that it forces an honest and overdue rethinking of the war as involving, at its core, a third party. This third party of African-Americans, moreover, accounted for 20 percent of the entire population of 2.5 million Colonists, rising in Virginia to as much as 40 percent. When it came to the blacks caught up in their struggle, neither side, British nor American, behaved very well. But in the end, as British Freedom and multitudes like him appreciated, it was the royal, rather than the republican, road that seemed to offer a surer chance of liberty. Although the history that unfolded from the entanglement between black desperation and British paternalism would often prove to be bitterly tragic, it was, nonetheless, a formative moment in the history of African-American freedom.

It was among the Loyalist Africans that some of the earliest free Baptist and Methodist churches were created in and near Shelburne, Nova Scotia; there too that the first whites to be converted by a black preacher were baptized in those red rivers by the charismatic minister David George. The first schools expressly for free black children were opened in the Loyalist diaspora of Nova Scotia, where they were taught by black teachers like Catherine Abernathy in Preston and Stephen Blucke in Birchtown. In Sierra Leone, where more than a thousand of the “Nova Scotians” ended up after journeying back across the Atlantic, this time as persons not property, the American blacks experienced for the first time (and all too ephemerally) a meaningful degree of local law and self-government. It was another first when an elected black constable, the ex-slave Simon Proof, administered a flogging to a white sailor found guilty of dereliction of duty.

The history of black loyalism, however, is much more than a catalog of “firsts.” The story also gives the lie to the stereotype of the Africans as passive, credulous pawns of American or British strategy. Whether they opted for the Patriot or for the Loyalist side, many of the blacks, illiterate or not, knew exactly what they were doing, even if they could never have anticipated the magnitude of the perils, misfortunes and deceits that would result from their decision. Often, their choice was determined by a judgment of whether, sooner or later, a free America would be forced to honor the Declaration of Independence’s principle that the birthright of all men was liberty and equality; or whether (in the South especially), with the spectacle of runaways being hunted down and sent to labor in lead mines or saltpeter works, fine-sounding promises were likely to be indefinitely deferred. It was not a good sign when enlistment incentives offered to white recruits in Georgia and South Carolina included a bounty of a free slave at the end of the war.

Throughout 1773 and 1774 the tempo of reported runaways gathered ominous momentum from New York to Georgia. Escapes were now imagined to be the prelude to a concerted rising. In New York concern about illicit “assemblies” of Negroes was so serious that instructions were issued to apprehend any blacks appearing in any sort of numbers after dark. To the jumpier Americans it did not bear contemplating what might happen should the slaves, especially in the Southern plantation Colonies, take it into their head that the vaunted liberties of Old England somehow applied to them. In the Virginia Gazette, one of many advertisements offering rewards for the recapture of runaways mentioned a Gabriel Jones and his wife, said to be on their way to the coast to board a ship for England, “where they imagine they will be free (a Notion now prevalent among the Negroes greatly to the vexation and prejudice of their Masters).”

Now where could slaves get such absurd ideas? Another advertisement supplies the answer. One Bacchus, it seems, in Augusta County, Georgia, ran away, leading his master to believe that he too might head for a port, there “to board a vessel for Great Britain from the knowledge he has of the late determination of the Somerset case.”

What was this? Did slaves read law reports? How could it be that a judgment rendered in June 1772 by Lord Chief Justice Mansfield in the court of the King’s Bench in the case of a runaway African, James Somerset, recaptured by his master, could light a fire in the plantations?

Mansfield had set Somerset free, but had taken pains not to make a general ruling on the legality of slavery in England. However, the “Negro frolicks” in London celebrating the court decision had swept legal niceties aside. Across the Atlantic word spread, and spread quickly, that slavery had been outlawed in Britain. In 1774 a pamphlet written under the name “Freeman,” published in Philadelphia, told American slaves that they could have liberty merely by “setting foot on that happy Territory where slavery is forbidden to perch.” Before the Patriots knew it, the birds had already begun to fly the coop.

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