As Black History Month celebrates the African-American cultural narrative this February, rarely is it considered that America’s neighbor to the north has a thriving community of Afro-Canadians, descendants of American slaves. Their story is meticulously recorded in “The Inspection Rolls of Negroes,” which is housed in the National Archives in Washington D.C.
When conservator Steven Loew first disassembled the giant pamphlet-like tome, revealing the neat shavings of a quill pen, he was astounded. The delicate ledger was penned by a clerk whose calligraphic writing filled two volumes with thousands of names, ages, physical description and status (either enslaved or free) for each passenger, along with remarks of these new, freed settlers.
“That’s when in your daily work you get that little piece of history that chokes you up. It’s like, ‘Wow, this is amazing’!” said Loew, the Senior Conservator at the National Archives.
The fragile pages of the centuries-old document, which are currently undergoing restoration, tell the harsh reality of African-American slaves who fought for the British Loyalists during the Revolutionary War. They hoped that for betting against the American colonial patriots, they would gain their freedom.
"We have the scenario where George Washington is fighting the British in order to attain freedom for patriots here... but this enslaved person who’s owned by George Washington has fled his master in order to gain freedom from whom the Patriots are attempting to gain their freedom.”
The basic understanding of the American Revolutionary War (1775 – 1783) is the liberation of the American colonies from the tyranny of British rule, but less known is the freedom several thousand African-American slaves gained from the bondage of slavery.
For their loyalty to the British during the war more than 3,000 slaves and freed black people were secured safe passage and their freedom to Nova Scotia, Canada. These African-American British Loyalists became the first settlement of Black Canadians.
According to the Nova Scotia Archives, the 150-page document, more commonly known as "The Book of Negroes," is the only one to have recorded a large quantity of Black Americans in such a detailed scope of work.
“There are some unusual descriptions of people,” said Loew, a veteran conservator for more than two decades. “…’ordinary winch’… Here’s a ‘stout mulatto’, an ‘ordinary fellow’ and a ‘likely fellow.’ And then there’s this curious description ‘On his own bottom”— an inferable reference to the newly freed slave traveling alone.”
The Book of Negroes illustrates an aspect of history that is little known, particularly the contradictions that existed in the very foundation of the American enterprise, which is reflected in the story of each individual listed.
“Here we have Harry Washington …he was a slave of George Washington who became the first president," said Damani Davis, Archivist at the National Archives. “So we have the scenario where George Washington is fighting the British in order to attain freedom for patriots here, in what became the United States, but this enslaved person who’s owned by George Washington has fled his master in order to gain freedom from whom the Patriots are attempting to gain their freedom.”
What is clear, according to Davis, who specializes in the history of African American veterans, is that as the ideals of liberty, freedom and resistance to tyranny were being articulated during this time period, slaves were also internalizing these same principles, and applying them to their own situation.
As the intensity of the rhetoric grew that all men are created equally, the enslaved populations identified with the motivating principles of the revolution, explained Davis, “the irony is that they are going to seek those principles from the British. Because the British offered them freedom,” he added.
What Afro-Canadians would achieve is their freedom nearly a century before the masses of African Americans gained theirs. “The majority of the African-American population was enslaved and that was going to be the story until the Civil War,” said Davis.
While there were freed people during this time they were a minority, based mainly in northern states.
“I think what these records highlight is the reality that the ideals of freedom were ideals that were cherished by the formerly enslaved populations from the beginning.”
The prospect of freedom granted by the British to those who survived battle was widely enticing to the majority enslaved population, but African-Americans who were already free were more prone to support the Patriots, largely based on the promise of land.
But it is the details recorded in The Book of Negroes that are significant, in that they provide more information on, not only a portion of the African-American population during this period, but also on a broader American historical perspective.
“There is more information on these individuals than the multitudes of white Loyalists who evacuated with the British,” said Davis.
Davis concludes that the status of these black Loyalists were so meticulously reported, because after the Treaty of Paris was signed, ending the Revolutionary War, the Patriots wanted the return of their property that was confiscated by the British, and part of that property that was confiscated were the multitudes of slave property that fled to the British lines.
Two other major evacuations of African-American Loyalists departed from ports in Savannah, Georgia and Charlotte, South Carolina, who were dispersed throughout territories within the British Empire. However the most is known of those who left for Nova Scotia.
“These records show the reality and the interconnections that existed, not just between what we now call African-American history, but what also became Afro-Canadian history, also the history throughout the Caribbean because we have all of these things occurring at the same time during the same period, said Davis.”
Still, nearly one-third of the newly settled black Canadians would seek even greater freedoms, and resettle back on the African continent in Sierra Leone.
“I think what these records highlight is the reality that the ideals of freedom were ideals that were cherished by the formerly enslaved populations from the beginning,” Davis concluded.