Sunday, April 3, 2011

American Revolutionary War's Dirty Little Secret

Dirty Little Secret


To see the Revolutionary war through the eyes of slaves is to better understand why so many of them fought for the crown


Ten years after the surrender of George III’s army to General Washington at Yorktown, a man known as British Freedom was hanging on in North America. Along with a few hundred other souls, he was scratching a living from the stingy soil around Preston, a few miles northeast of Halifax, Nova Scotia. Like most of the Preston people, British Freedom was black and had come from a warmer place. Now he was a hardscrabbler stuck in a wind-whipped corner of the world between the blue spruce forest and the sea. But he was luckier than most.

British Freedom had title to 40 acres, and another one and a half of what the lawyers’ clerks in Halifax were pleased to call a “town lot.” It didn’t look like much of a town, though, just a dirt clearing with rough cabins at the center and a few chickens strutting around and maybe a mud-caked hog or two. Some of the people who had managed to get a team of oxen to clear the land of bald gray rocks grew patches of beans and corn and cabbages, which they carted to market in Halifax along with building lumber. But even those who prospered—by Preston standards—took themselves off every so often into the wilderness to shoot some birch partridge, or tried their luck on the saltwater ponds south of the village.

What were they doing there? Not just surviving. British Freedom and the rest of the villagers were clinging to more than a scrap of Nova Scotia; they were clinging to a promise. Some of them even had that promise printed and signed by officers of the British Army on behalf of the king himself, that the bearer so-and-so was at liberty to go wherever he or she pleased and take up whatever occupation he or she chose. That meant something for people who had been slaves. And the king’s word was surely a bond. In return for their loyal service in the late American war, they were to be granted two gifts of unimaginably precious worth: their freedom and their acres.

It was, they told themselves, no more than their due. They had done perilous, dirty, exhausting work. They had been spies amid the Americans; guides through the Georgia swamps; pilots taking ships over treacherous sandbars; sappers on the ramparts of Charleston as French cannonballs took off the limbs of the men beside them. They had dug trenches; buried bodies blistered with the pox; powdered the officers’ wigs and, marching smartly, drummed the regiments in and out of disaster. The women had cooked and laundered and nursed the sick; dabbed at the holes on soldiers’ bodies; and tried to keep their children from harm. Some of them had fought. There had been black dragoons in South Carolina; waterborne gangs of black partisans for the king on the Hudson River; bands of black guerrillas who would descend on Patriot farms in New Jersey and take whatever they could, even white American prisoners.

So they were owed. They had been given their liberty, and some of them got land. But the soil was thin and strewn with boulders, and the blacks had no way, most of them, to clear and work it unless they hired themselves or their families out to the white Loyalists. That meant more cooking and laundering; more waiting on tables and shaving pink chins; more hammering rocks for roads and bridges. And still they were in debt, so grievously that some complained their liberty was no true liberty at all but just another kind of slavery in all but name.


But names counted. British Freedom’s name said something important: that he was no longer negotiable property. For all its bleak hardships, Preston was not a Georgia plantation. Other Prestonians—Decimus Murphy, Caesar Smith—had evidently kept their slave names as they had made the passage to liberty. But British Freedom must have been born, or bought, as someone else. He may have shaken off that name, like his leg irons, on one of the 81 sailings out of New York in 1783, which had taken 30,000 Loyalists, black and white, to Nova Scotia, for no one called British Freedom is listed in the Book of Negroes, which recorded those who, as free men and women, were at liberty to go where they wished. It is also possible that British Freedom could have found his way to Nova Scotia in one of the earlier Loyalist evacuations—from Boston in 1776 or from Charleston in 1782. In the frightening months between the end of the war and the departure of the British fleets, as American planters were attempting to locate the whereabouts of escaped slaves, many of them changed their names to avoid identification. British Freedom may just have gone one step further in giving himself an alias that was also a patriotic boast.

Whichever route he had taken, and whatever trials he was enduring, British Freedom’s choice of name proclaims something startling: a belief that it was the British monarchy rather than the new American republic that was more likely to deliver Africans from slavery. Although Thomas Jefferson, in the Declaration of Independence, had blamed “the Christian King” George III for the institution of slavery in America, blacks like British Freedom did not see the king that way at all. On the contrary, he was their enemy’s enemy and thus their friend, emancipator and guardian.

Tens of thousands of African-Americans clung to the sentimental notion of a British freedom even when they knew that the English were far from being saints in respect to slavery. Until 1800, when its courts decisively ruled the institution illegal, there were slaves, as well as free blacks, in Nova Scotia, and there were hundreds of thousands more in the British Caribbean. Nonetheless, in 1829 one of the first militant African-American emancipationists, David Walker, wrote from Boston in his Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World that the “English” were “the best friends the coloured people have upon earth. Though they have oppressed us a little and have colonies now in the West Indies which oppress us sorely—Yet notwithstanding [the English] have done one hundred times more for the melioration of our condition, than all the other nations of the earth put together.” White Americans, on the other hand, with their posturing religiosity and their hollow cant of freedom, he consigned to the lowest reaches of hypocritical infamy.

Whether the British deserved this reputation as the most racially broad-minded among nations and empires is, to say the least, debatable. ut during the Revolutionary War there is no question that tens of thousands of Africans, enslaved in the American South, did look to Britain as their deliverer, to the point where they were ready to risk life and limb to reach the lines of the royal army. To give this astounding fact its due means being obliged to tell the story of Anglo-American conflict, both during the Revolution and after, in a freshly complicated way.

To be sure, there were also many blacks who gave the Patriots the benefit of the doubt when they listened and read of their war as a war for liberty. If there was a British Freedom, there was also a Dick Freedom—and a Jeffery Liberty—fighting in a Connecticut regiment on the American side. Blacks fought and died for the American cause at Concord, Bunker Hill, Rhode Island and finally at Yorktown (where they were put in the front line—whether as a tribute to their courage or as expendable sacrifices is not clear). At the Battle of Monmouth in New Jersey, black troops on both sides fought each other. But until the British aggressively recruited slaves in 1775 and 1776, state assemblies, even in the North, as well as the multistate Continental Congress, flinched from their enlistment. In February 1776 Congress instructed Washington that, while free Negroes might be retained, no more should be enlisted. Slaves, of course, were to be excluded from the Continental Army set up by Congress.

By contrast, the proclamation of John Murray, Lord Dunmore, the last Colonial governor of Virginia, from HMS William on November 7, 1775, unequivocally promised outright liberty to all slaves escaping from Rebel plantations, reaching British lines and serving in some capacity with the army. The promise was made from military rather than humanitarian motives, and for every British Freedom who lived to see it kept, there were many more who would be unconscionably betrayed. Yet from opportunist tactics, some good might still arise. Dunmore’s words, sanctioned by the British government and reiterated by Generals William Howe and Henry Clinton (who extended the definition of those entitled to liberty to black women and children), took wing in the world of the slaves, and they themselves took off, in their tens of thousands, shortly after.

Seeing the Revolutionary War through the eyes of enslaved blacks turns its meaning upside down. In Georgia, the Carolinas and much of Virginia, the vaunted war for liberty was, from the spring of 1775 to the late summer of 1776, a war for the perpetuation of servitude. The contortions of logic were so perverse, yet so habitual, that George Washington could describe Dunmore as “that arch traitor to the rights of humanity” for promising to free slaves and indentured servants.

Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, a Pennsylvania Lutheran pastor, knew what he was talking about when he wrote that the black population “secretly wished the British army might win, for then all Negro slaves will gain their freedom. It is said that this sentiment is universal among all the Negroes in America.” And every so often truth broke through the armor of Patriot casuistry. In December 1775, Lund Washington wrote to his cousin George of both blacks and indentured servants, who were departing from the Washington properties at speed, that “there is not a man of them but would leave us if they believ’d they could make there [sic] escape.... Liberty is sweet.”

The founding fathers were themselves candid about the extent of the disappearance of their slaves, not least because so many of them experienced serious personal losses. Thomas Jefferson, who had seen his own attempt to incorporate a paragraph attacking slavery in the Declaration of Independence stricken out by Congress, lost 30 of his own during the few weeks in the spring of 1781, when Lord Cornwallis’ troops were not far from his home, Monticello. He believed—and the judgment of most modern historians concurs—that at least 30,000 slaves had escaped from Virginia plantations in attempts to reach the British lines. The same went for the rest of the South.

The story of this mass flight, aptly characterized by historian Gary Nash as the Revolutionary War’s “dirty little secret,” is shocking in the best sense, in that it forces an honest and overdue rethinking of the war as involving, at its core, a third party. This third party of African-Americans, moreover, accounted for 20 percent of the entire population of 2.5 million Colonists, rising in Virginia to as much as 40 percent. When it came to the blacks caught up in their struggle, neither side, British nor American, behaved very well.


But in the end, as British Freedom and multitudes like him appreciated, it was the royal, rather than the republican, road that seemed to offer a surer chance of liberty. Although the history that unfolded from the entanglement between black desperation and British paternalism would often prove to be bitterly tragic, it was, nonetheless, a formative moment in the history of African-American freedom.

It was among the Loyalist Africans that some of the earliest free Baptist and Methodist churches were created in and near Shelburne, Nova Scotia; there too that the first whites to be converted by a black preacher were baptized in those red rivers by the charismatic minister David George. The first schools expressly for free black children were opened in the Loyalist diaspora of Nova Scotia, where they were taught by black teachers like Catherine Abernathy in Preston and Stephen Blucke in Birchtown. In Sierra Leone, where more than a thousand of the “Nova Scotians” ended up after journeying back across the Atlantic, this time as persons not property, the American blacks experienced for the first time (and all too ephemerally) a meaningful degree of local law and self-government. It was another first when an elected black constable, the ex-slave Simon Proof, administered a flogging to a white sailor found guilty of dereliction of duty.

The history of black loyalism, however, is much more than a catalog of “firsts.” The story also gives the lie to the stereotype of the Africans as passive, credulous pawns of American or British strategy. Whether they opted for the Patriot or for the Loyalist side, many of the blacks, illiterate or not, knew exactly what they were doing, even if they could never have anticipated the magnitude of the perils, misfortunes and deceits that would result from their decision. Often, their choice was determined by a judgment of whether, sooner or later, a free America would be forced to honor the Declaration of Independence’s principle that the birthright of all men was liberty and equality; or whether (in the South especially), with the spectacle of runaways being hunted down and sent to labor in lead mines or saltpeter works, fine-sounding promises were likely to be indefinitely deferred. It was not a good sign when enlistment incentives offered to white recruits in Georgia and South Carolina included a bounty of a free slave at the end of the war.

Throughout 1773 and 1774 the tempo of reported runaways gathered ominous momentum from New York to Georgia. Escapes were now imagined to be the prelude to a concerted rising. In New York concern about illicit “assemblies” of Negroes was so serious that instructions were issued to apprehend any blacks appearing in any sort of numbers after dark. To the jumpier Americans it did not bear contemplating what might happen should the slaves, especially in the Southern plantation Colonies, take it into their head that the vaunted liberties of Old England somehow applied to them. In the Virginia Gazette, one of many advertisements offering rewards for the recapture of runaways mentioned a Gabriel Jones and his wife, said to be on their way to the coast to board a ship for England, “where they imagine they will be free (a Notion now prevalent among the Negroes greatly to the vexation and prejudice of their Masters).”

Now where could slaves get such absurd ideas? Another advertisement supplies the answer. One Bacchus, it seems, in Augusta County, Georgia, ran away, leading his master to believe that he too might head for a port, there “to board a vessel for Great Britain from the knowledge he has of the late determination of the Somerset case.”

What was this? Did slaves read law reports? How could it be that a judgment rendered in June 1772 by Lord Chief Justice Mansfield in the court of the King’s Bench in the case of a runaway African, James Somerset, recaptured by his master, could light a fire in the plantations?

Mansfield had set Somerset free, but had taken pains not to make a general ruling on the legality of slavery in England. However, the “Negro frolicks” in London celebrating the court decision had swept legal niceties aside. Across the Atlantic word spread, and spread quickly, that slavery had been outlawed in Britain. In 1774 a pamphlet written under the name “Freeman,” published in Philadelphia, told American slaves that they could have liberty merely by “setting foot on that happy Territory where slavery is forbidden to perch.” Before the Patriots knew it, the birds had already begun to fly the coop.

29 comments:

  1. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kmo9oBJJXr8&feature=relmfu

    ReplyDelete
  2. I do agree with all the ideas you've offered in your post. They are very convincing and can certainly work. Still, the posts are too short for novices. May just you please lengthen them a little from next time? Thanks for the post.

    My web page: Cheap NFL Jerseys

    ReplyDelete
  3. I'm very happy to find this website. I wanted to thank you for your time due to this wonderful read!! I definitely loved every little bit of it and i also have you saved to fav to see new stuff on your blog.

    Look into my webpage: Cheap Jerseys

    ReplyDelete
  4. I'm not sure why but this blog is loading incredibly slow for me. Is anyone else having this issue or is it a issue on my end? I'll check
    back later and see if the problem still exists.

    My web site; Abercrombie Fitch Belgique

    ReplyDelete
  5. Very good website you have here but I was curious if you knew of
    any message boards that cover the same topics talked about here?
    I'd really like to be a part of online community where I can get feedback from other experienced individuals that share the same interest. If you have any suggestions, please let me know. Appreciate it!

    Here is my site; Michael Kors Canada

    ReplyDelete
  6. I'm pretty pleased to uncover this web site. I want to to thank you for your time for this wonderful read!! I definitely appreciated every bit of it and i also have you book marked to see new things in your website.

    my web-site Nike Air Max Pas Cher

    ReplyDelete
  7. I every time spent my half an hour to read this weblog's articles daily along with a cup of coffee.

    Feel free to visit my web blog :: Abercrombie and Fitch

    ReplyDelete
  8. You really make it seem so easy with your presentation but I find this matter to be really something which I think I
    would never understand. It seems too complicated and extremely broad for me.
    I'm looking forward for your next post, I will try to get the hang of it!

    Feel free to surf to my page; Abercrombie Bruxelles

    ReplyDelete
  9. My partner and I absolutely love your blog and find the majority of your post's to be what precisely I'm looking for.

    can you offer guest writers to write content for you personally?
    I wouldn't mind composing a post or elaborating on a few of the subjects you write in relation to here. Again, awesome web site!

    Take a look at my page; Helpful Resources

    ReplyDelete
  10. I am not certain the place you're getting your info, however good topic. I must spend some time learning more or figuring out more. Thank you for wonderful information I used to be searching for this info for my mission.

    Check out my blog post: Gucci Scarpe

    ReplyDelete
  11. Excellent blog here! Also your web site loads up very fast!
    What web host are you using? Can I get your affiliate link to your host?
    I wish my site loaded up as quickly as yours lol

    Look at my webpage - Authentic Sidney Crosby Jersey

    ReplyDelete
  12. I am extremely impressed with your writing skills as well as with the layout on your blog.
    Is this a paid theme or did you modify it yourself?
    Anyway keep up the excellent quality writing, it is rare to see a great blog like this one
    today.

    my web-site - Evgeni Malkin Jersey

    ReplyDelete
  13. Good day I am so excited I found your weblog,
    I really found you by accident, while I was searching
    on Digg for something else, Anyhow I am here now and would just like to
    say thank you for a fantastic post and a all round
    exciting blog (I also love the theme/design), I don’t have time to browse it all at the moment but I have saved it and also added your RSS feeds, so
    when I have time I will be back to read a lot more, Please do keep up the great
    work.

    Also visit my blog post ... Michael Kors Outlet

    ReplyDelete
  14. Hi there, this weekend is pleasant in support of me, for
    the reason that this moment i am reading this great informative
    paragraph here at my home.

    Also visit my webpage Oakley Holbrook

    ReplyDelete
  15. Greetings! I've been following your site for some time now and finally got the courage to go ahead and give you a shout out from New Caney Tx! Just wanted to say keep up the great work!

    Here is my web-site; Cheap Louis Vuitton Handbags

    ReplyDelete
  16. I don't know if it's just me or if everyone else encountering issues with your website.
    It appears as though some of the text in your content are running off the screen.
    Can somebody else please comment and let me know if this is
    happening to them too? This might be a problem with my browser because
    I've had this happen before. Thank you

    my web page: Abercrombie Pas Cher

    ReplyDelete
  17. I’m not that much of a online reader to be honest but your
    blogs really nice, keep it up! I'll go ahead and bookmark your website to come back down the road. Many thanks

    Also visit my web blog; http://slc-wireless.com

    ReplyDelete
  18. Excellent article. Keep writing such kind of info on your page.
    Im really impressed by it.
    Hello there, You've done a great job. I will definitely digg it and for my part suggest to my friends. I'm confident
    they will be benefited from this website.

    Stop by my blog :: Louis Vuitton Outlet

    ReplyDelete
  19. It's difficult to find educated people for this subject, however, you seem like you know what you're talking about!
    Thanks

    Have a look at my blog post Louis Vuitton Bags

    ReplyDelete
  20. I am really glad to glance at this blog posts which consists of lots of valuable data,
    thanks for providing such data.

    Stop by my homepage: Louis Vuitton Handbags Outlet

    ReplyDelete
  21. Hey there! I realize this is sort of off-topic but I needed to ask.
    Does running a well-established blog such as yours require a lot of work?

    I am brand new to writing a blog but I do write in my journal daily.
    I'd like to start a blog so I can share my personal experience and thoughts online. Please let me know if you have any suggestions or tips for brand new aspiring bloggers. Appreciate it!

    Also visit my web-site :: http://slc-wireless.Com/

    ReplyDelete
  22. Valuable information. Fortunate me I discovered your website by accident, and I am
    shocked why this coincidence didn't came about in advance! I bookmarked it.

    Here is my site :: Air Jordan Pas Cher

    ReplyDelete
  23. I'd like to find out more? I'd want to find out more
    details.

    Here is my web page extra resources

    ReplyDelete
  24. It's an awesome piece of writing designed for all the online users; they will take advantage from it I am sure.

    My web-site :: More Help

    ReplyDelete
  25. After looking into a handful of the blog posts on your site, I truly like your
    way of blogging. I added it to my bookmark website list and will be checking back soon.
    Please visit my website as well and tell me how you feel.


    Here is my blog post - Nike Air Max

    ReplyDelete
  26. If some one wishes expert view regarding blogging after that i recommend him/her to pay a quick visit this webpage, Keep up the fastidious work.


    Here is my site: Nike Blazers

    ReplyDelete
  27. Hello! This is my first visit to your blog! We are a
    collection of volunteers and starting a new initiative in a community in
    the same niche. Your blog provided us valuable information to work on.
    You have done a outstanding job!

    Also visit my web page - Billige Nike Free

    ReplyDelete
  28. Howdy just wanted to give you a quick heads up and let you know
    a few of the images aren't loading correctly. I'm not sure why but I think
    its a linking issue. I've tried it in two different browsers and both show the same outcome.

    My blog; Cheap Jerseys

    ReplyDelete
  29. Undeniably believe that which you stated. Your
    favourite reason appeared to be on the net the
    easiest factor to be aware of. I say to you, I certainly get
    annoyed at the same time as people consider concerns that they just do not understand about.
    You controlled to hit the nail upon the top and also defined
    out the whole thing with no need side-effects , people
    could take a signal. Will likely be again to get more.
    Thank you

    Check out my homepage - Louis Vuitton Handbags

    ReplyDelete

There was an error in this gadget

HOME

HOME
Click here to return to the US Slave Home Page