Detail from a painting showing a member of the Ethiopian Regiment fighting American rebels

When the Americans rebelled in 1775, Lord Dunsmore, the last British Governor of Virginia, called all loyal men – including Black slaves – to fight for the King. The Black recruits, who formed the Ethiopian Regiment, fought bravely in the early months of the American Revolution.

John Singleton Copley
Tate Gallery Art Resource
c. 1781
Oil on canvas
2515 x 3658 mm
N00733
© 2008, Tate Gallery Art Resource. All Rights Reserved.


During the American Revolution, one man was especially feared by the rebels. He was Colonel Tye, leader of the ferocious Black Brigade. He earned the rank of “colonel” not from the British, but from the men who fought beside him in an elite commando force.

Tye was among the 800 Blacks who responded to the Governor of Virginia’s call to arms in 1775. The last thing Lord Dunsmore wanted, he said, was to declare war. But with American rebels firing on British ships, he had no choice. In a startling innovation, he included “Negroes” in his appeal for men. Dunsmore formed the Blacks into their own company, trained them and gave them uniforms embroidered with the words, “Freedom to Slaves.” On December 10, 1775, the former slaves marched to war. Tragically, within weeks, battle and disease had reduced them to just 300 men. Colonel Tye survived to 1780, when he too died of his wounds.

The British promised slaves their freedom in return for loyalty. Some slaves joined the army. Others fled to British-held cities, such as New York, where they supported the cause as civilians until the final defeat of the British. In 1 Read More

During the American Revolution, one man was especially feared by the rebels. He was Colonel Tye, leader of the ferocious Black Brigade. He earned the rank of “colonel” not from the British, but from the men who fought beside him in an elite commando force.

Tye was among the 800 Blacks who responded to the Governor of Virginia’s call to arms in 1775. The last thing Lord Dunsmore wanted, he said, was to declare war. But with American rebels firing on British ships, he had no choice. In a startling innovation, he included “Negroes” in his appeal for men. Dunsmore formed the Blacks into their own company, trained them and gave them uniforms embroidered with the words, “Freedom to Slaves.” On December 10, 1775, the former slaves marched to war. Tragically, within weeks, battle and disease had reduced them to just 300 men. Colonel Tye survived to 1780, when he too died of his wounds.

The British promised slaves their freedom in return for loyalty. Some slaves joined the army. Others fled to British-held cities, such as New York, where they supported the cause as civilians until the final defeat of the British. In 1783, as some 30,000 Loyalist refugees trailed wearily north, 3,550 former slaves went with them. These new arrivals formed the first free Black community in Canada.

BLACK LOYALIST EXPERIENCE. NATIONAL HISTORIC EVENT OF CANADA. DESIGNATED 1993. PLAQUE: BIRCHTOWN, NOVA SCOTIA

WANT TO KNOW MORE?
Visit “Black Loyalists, Black Communities in Nova Scotia,” an online exhibit produced by the Museum of Nova Scotia and featured on the Virtual Museum of Canada site.


© 2008, Virtual Museum of Canada. All Rights Reserved.

Black settlers travelling by wagon near Halifax

Some 3,550 Black Loyalists – those who fought for or supported Britain during the American Revolution – came to the Nova Scotia as free men and women in 1783 and took up small parcels of land. After the War of 1812, another small influx of freed Blacks arrived from the United States.

Robert Petley
Library and Archives Canada
c. 1835
Watercolour over pencil on wove paper laid down onto card
1938-220-1 / C-115424
© 2008, Library and Archives Canada. All Rights Reserved.


Canada was not the happy ending the Loyalist immigrants wanted. More than 2,000 Black Loyalists came to southeastern Nova Scotia and started to build a town, which they called Birchtown. Hardly had they begun, however, than a mob of violent white men arrived on a drunken spree, knocked down their shelters and beat an elderly preacher within an inch of his life. The violence continued for ten days and left Birchtown in ruins.

The problem was work. In 1783, when the Black Loyalists landed at Roseway Harbour, they were given land a few miles from the Loyalist town at Shelburne. Winter was coming on. The settlers worked frantically to build log shanties. Some literally dug holes in the ground and covered them with trees and moss to create shelters. They were hungry and cold. The British had promised food, but with 30,000 white Loyalists at the head of the list, there was not enough to go around. Grants to white settlers also nibbled away at the land given to Black Loyalists.

Still, the Black settlers were optimistic. Many were artisans, skilled in carpentry, barrel-making, iron work and other trades. They were willing to labour for low wages and, when they w Read More

Canada was not the happy ending the Loyalist immigrants wanted. More than 2,000 Black Loyalists came to southeastern Nova Scotia and started to build a town, which they called Birchtown. Hardly had they begun, however, than a mob of violent white men arrived on a drunken spree, knocked down their shelters and beat an elderly preacher within an inch of his life. The violence continued for ten days and left Birchtown in ruins.

The problem was work. In 1783, when the Black Loyalists landed at Roseway Harbour, they were given land a few miles from the Loyalist town at Shelburne. Winter was coming on. The settlers worked frantically to build log shanties. Some literally dug holes in the ground and covered them with trees and moss to create shelters. They were hungry and cold. The British had promised food, but with 30,000 white Loyalists at the head of the list, there was not enough to go around. Grants to white settlers also nibbled away at the land given to Black Loyalists.

Still, the Black settlers were optimistic. Many were artisans, skilled in carpentry, barrel-making, iron work and other trades. They were willing to labour for low wages and, when they went to Shelburne, they found work. White workers couldn’t compete and turned to violence. In fact, there was little money in Shelburne. All the Loyalists were poor, and people gradually drifted away. Without land, food or work, some Blacks actually sold themselves back into slavery to survive.


© 2008, Virtual Museum of Canada. All Rights Reserved.

The Sierra Leone Company was a scheme to return freed slaves to Africa.

There was little room -- economic or social -- for freed slaves in Europe and North America, and most of the free Blacks lived in poverty. In Britain, some well-meaning abolitionists came up with a plan to return former slaves to Africa. They called their enterprise the Sierra Leone Company, and they advertised widely for settlers.

Nova Scotia Archives

Paper
© 2008, Nova Scotia Archives & Records Management. All Rights Reserved.


The year was 1790. Thomas Peters of Birchtown stood on the deck of a ship and watched the coast of Nova Scotia disappear in the distance. He had a mission. Peters was on his way to England with orders to contact the directors of the Sierra Leone Company and say to them: “The Black people of Nova Scotia want to go home.”

Somewhere in their blood, their music and in a dozen half-forgotten languages, American slaves – even illiterate, third- or fourth-generation slaves – had always remembered Africa. They had heard about a group of well-meaning British abolitionists – the Sierra Leone Company – that had set up a colony for former slaves on the coast of Africa. They did not know how troubled that colony was, plagued by the resentment of local peoples, bullied by the company and situated next door to slave traders who were continuing their inhuman work. To many Canadian Blacks, Africa seemed to offer a possible future.

Peters came back from England with an invitation, but the Black community of Nova Scotia split on whether to accept it or not. In the end, a third of them decided to leave Canada. In 1791, 1,196 former slaves &ndas Read More

The year was 1790. Thomas Peters of Birchtown stood on the deck of a ship and watched the coast of Nova Scotia disappear in the distance. He had a mission. Peters was on his way to England with orders to contact the directors of the Sierra Leone Company and say to them: “The Black people of Nova Scotia want to go home.”

Somewhere in their blood, their music and in a dozen half-forgotten languages, American slaves – even illiterate, third- or fourth-generation slaves – had always remembered Africa. They had heard about a group of well-meaning British abolitionists – the Sierra Leone Company – that had set up a colony for former slaves on the coast of Africa. They did not know how troubled that colony was, plagued by the resentment of local peoples, bullied by the company and situated next door to slave traders who were continuing their inhuman work. To many Canadian Blacks, Africa seemed to offer a possible future.

Peters came back from England with an invitation, but the Black community of Nova Scotia split on whether to accept it or not. In the end, a third of them decided to leave Canada. In 1791, 1,196 former slaves – around half from Birchtown – set sail from Halifax. Sadly, that group included most of Birchtown’s leaders, and the settlement was much weakened as a result. As for the African colonists, once again there was no happy ending.


© 2008, Virtual Museum of Canada. All Rights Reserved.

Learning Objectives

After reading, viewing and listening to media files in the Learning Object, students will be able to:

• think about the choices slaves had to make – either to fight, flee or remain in slavery;

• identify the factors that led to the failure of the first Black settlement;

• consider the dilemma of whether to stay in a failing community or travel to an unknown destination in Africa; and

• recall the promises the British made to the Black Loyalists and explain why these promises were not all kept.


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