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Black Loyalists

When, in 1775, some of the American states rose up in rebellion against the British, there were unforeseen consequences for enslaved people in America. Black soldiers (free and enslaved) fought on both sides in the American War of Independence. But when the British offered freedom in return for military service, large numbers of enslaved men flocked to join them.

Both sides in the war upheld the inhuman institution of slavery for their own enrichment. But they were also desperately short of troops. Because of this, in 1778 Rhode Island - the first state to declare itself free of Britain - voted that slaves who enlisted would be declared 'absolutely free'.

On the British side, the Governor of Virginia, the Earl of Dunmore, had probably begun to explore the question of slave loyalty when news of the Somerset case reached the American colonies. In the summer of 1772 the Virginia Gazette reported (wrongly) that 'all slaves entering England were free'.

Dunmore's Proclamation, 7 November 1775 - opens new window
Dunmore's Proclamation
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Compensation claims by Jane Gibbs and Zacharias Gibbes, 1783 - opens new window
White Loyalists
Claim Compensation
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In 1775, the Colonial Secretary in London declared that 'things are now come to a crisis, that we must avail ourselves of every resource, even to raise the Negroes in our cause'. Dunmore issued a proclamation in November of the same year offering enslaved men of African descent their freedom in return for fighting for the British. In 1779, the British Commander-in-Chief made the same pledge. Given the chance of escape from slavery, many African-Americans fled their masters to enlist.

The units formed by these Black Loyalists included 'Dunmore's Ethiopian Regiment' and a Black mounted cavalry established in Virginia in 1782. Black soldiers took part in active combat, and were used as shock troops. Because of their knowledge of the terrain, some also acted as guides for the British troops, and others fulfilled a variety of roles, working (among other things) as sailors, miners, nurses and labourers.

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When the defeated British withdrew from New York, Charleston and Savannah at the end of the war in 1783, an estimated 60,000 Loyalists went with them, including at least 14,000 Black men. Some went to Nova Scotia, in Canada, or to the West Indies, but most travelled to Britain. They were condemned as traitors by the United States Assembly, which passed an Act of confiscation, depriving both Black and White Loyalists of their property.

The African-Americans arriving in Britain were refugees who had left everything behind, and they frequently found themselves in poverty. A small number of them - the minority who had held some property in America, most of whom were free-born - applied to a new Parliamentary commission for compensation. The registers of the commission record the applications of 47 Black and 5,000 White claimants.

The cases of Peters and Harris- opens new window
Black Loyalists Receive Compensation (148KB)
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The documents show that Black Loyalists were often denied relief - and when they were granted money, the amounts awarded were almost always lower than those given to even the poorest White Loyalists. The commissioners justified their decisions on the grounds that Black claimants rarely had documentary evidence or 'reliable witnesses' to support their claims for compensation, while in many cases White Loyalists were able to provide such proof.

The pension examiners, giving reasons for their judgements in the 'Decision' section of the case records, suggested that 'the Blacks should think themselves fortunate to have gained their liberty…' and cast doubt on their claims to be free-born. It seems that in many cases the commission was suggesting that the freedom granted by Lord Dunmore's proclamation was sufficient reward for Black Loyalists and that they were entitled to nothing more - despite the fact that Black men had risked life and limb for the British Crown, that many had left their families behind, and that many now faced poverty in Britain.

Historians agree that the unsupported Black Loyalists joined the ranks of the poor in England. In 1786 there were more than a thousand of them in London, most of whom were destitute. Some applied for relief to the Black Poor Committee. Perhaps some also took the option of emigrating to Sierra Leone.

The cases of Jackson, Prince and Smithers - opens new window
Black Loyalists'
Claims Refused (299KB)
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References and Further Reading

Fryer, P., Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain, London, 1984

Kaplan, S. and Kaplan, E. N., The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution, Boston, 1989

Norton, Mary Beth 'The Fate of Some Black Loyalists of the American Revolution', Journal of Negro History, 58 (4), 1973, 402-26

Shyllon, F., Black People in Britain 1555-1833, London, 1977

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