|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'.
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.
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.
Black Loyalists Receive Compensation
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.
Claims Refused (299KB)
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,