BLACK LOYALISTS OF DIGBY
Paul J. Bunnell, FACG,UE
Who would have thought that during 1775 to 1783 the British offered black slaves freedom from their bondage if they served on their side during the American Revolution, one of the first decisions made to free blacks, nearly one hundred years before Lincoln.
Unfortunately, the deal just wasn't as good as it sounded. They could come only from the rebel side, not the loyalist. They were still allowed to have slaves. Many eagerly signed up hoping to have real freedom, but their first sign of continued separate treatment came when they were all placed in black regiments, kept apart from the whites and, when the war was lost, the settlement arrangements were not as fair as the whites’. Upward of 3,000 black slaves went to the Maritime's in 1783, mostly to Nova Scotia (New Brunswick became a province in 1784). Black loyalists founded the first black communities in Canada, mainly the Digby, Halifax and Saint John, areas with Shelburne having the biggest settlement.
One of the segregated locations for these brave black loyalists was Digby. When land was given out by rank, the lowest ranking white man received 100 acres of land; a black man received 1 acre if he was lucky. Any farmer knew that an existence could not be made on 1 acre of land. Conditions and treatment were horrible. Shock and betrayal fell upon the black loyalists of Digby; Henry Beaverhout, Pompey Benjamin, Yaf Benson, Thomas Bing, Thomas Bird, Demeis Bixon, Henry Brewen, Cornelius Brewer, Jacob Brumel, Joseph Clayton, John Cobas, Lewis Curley, John Custard, Benjamin Davis, Thomas Demerd, Walter Dixon, David Edmun, Samuel Farmer, John Fillis, Henry Floyd, Charles Francis, Samuel Fryer, Bristen and Edward Godfrey, Christian Goety, Francis Griffith, Christopher Halstead and 46 other black loyalists in 1785.
For some strange reason, other areas of Nova Scotia were granting out 50 acres to each black loyalist though still 50 acres short from their white counterparts who received 100. To the south in Shelburne, the first race riot in Canadian history broke out on 26 July 1784 (Benjamin Marston's diary). White loyalists attacked the black loyalists and ran them out of town and pulled down their homes. This lasted for 10 days and after that, 90 black homes were pulled down and most ran out of town.
It wasn't long after this unfair treatment that several leading black loyalists petitioned to take their people back to Africa to create a new life there. Around 1790, Thomas Peters, an ex-sergeant from the war went to London to present a plan to take the black loyalists to the anti-slavery colony of Sierra Leone, located on the west coast of Africa. He returned to Nova Scotia waiting for an answer. John Clarkson of The Sierra Leone Company arrived in Halifax on 7 Oct. 1791. The plan was granted because the company was short of settlers for Sierra Leone so recruitment began mostly in Shelburne where nearly 600 blacks signed up.
The complaints from blacks about Nova Scotia treatment dissipated over the thought of new freedom in Sierra Leone. Land grants were promised and the hopes for a better life for the children of the Black Loyalists were within sight. The large number of Shelburne/Birchtown immigrants sailed on government boats to Halifax, December 1791, to pick up others from Nova Scotia. It is not known how many Digby blacks got on board, but some did. Just under 1200 black loyalists set sail on 15 Jan. 1792.
Conditions there were worse in some cases, and the British government did not keep their promise to provide enough land grants for all. Many settlements sprang up, but heavy losses in population increased the debt they had to pay. So, poverty got the upper hand on many. Immigration continued until 1808. The city of Freetown was built and became the largest city on the west coast of Africa. Over all the failures, one thing bore fruit...... Civil rights was achieved, though in great poverty.
Today, the people of Sierra Leone carry the Nova Scotia black loyalist blood in their veins. After losing their homes twice in their lifetime, they were given a chance to create their own country and in 1961 they achieved independence as a new nation.
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