Curious incarnations of charity and exploitation
“I began to feel the happiness of liberty, of which I knew nothing before, altho’ I was much grieved at first, to be obliged to leave my friends, and reside among strangers.” Boston King, Memoirs of the Life of Boston King, A Black Preacher, 1798
For the British, the transatlantic slave trade was a mega business. A world domination kind of business. A heart of the economy, city building, financial steroids kind of business. Insurance, legal fees, investment, shipbuilding, assets, debt, labour and rent — with huge, huge profit. Cities like Bristol, Glasgow, Liverpool, London and Southampton — all built beyond recognition on this. Exchange slaves in the Americas for coffee, cotton, dyewood, rum, sugar and tobacco. Bring that back to Britain. Build factories in places like Birmingham, Cardiff, Manchester and Sheffield to make textiles, guns, ammunition, tools and kettles. Sail that back to Africa and exchange it all for more slaves; then do it all again. Modern Britain, as we know it, grew out of this.
And yet, just as this trade was at its all-time peak, a small settlement was founded along the west coast of Africa, also funded by British investment, to be a free town of self-ruling freed slaves.
This settlement went on to grow and grow — turning first to colony then protectorate headquarters and now national capital. The continent’s first western style doctors and lawyers were trained here, at a university that became known as the Athens of West Africa. But horrific civil war, major disease outbreaks and chronic, expanding poverty have also reigned. This place is Freetown, now the capital of Sierra Leone and home to around 1.1 million people.
How did this city begin right when the British slave trade was at its peak? How were these two ventures, seemingly so different, capturing minds (and money) at the same time?
This is the first of a four part series that unpacks the founding of Freetown. The story will ultimately take us to North America, to the Caribbean, to France, to Britain and of course to West Africa. The city is the product of revolutions, poverty, destitution, un-kept promises, slavery, Christianity, endeavour, charity, business and the mass movement of people looking for a plot of land to call their own.
The story begins
We start by travelling back to 1775, to the shores of Britain’s Thirteen Colonies of North America — to the Colony of the Dominion of Virginia, to be specific.
Groups of men are starting to unlawfully gather. They are firing onto the property of the King’s loyal subjects. They are building themselves into an army, ready to destroy the law-abiding subjects of this great Colony. They must be stopped! At least, that’s how His Majesty’s Lieutenant and Governor General, John Dunmore, saw it. It was, after all, the early days of the American Revolutionary War.
And Dunmore was terrified. He declared martial law. All who did not join the Loyalists (loyal to the King, that is) were setting themselves up for the confiscation of their land and for death.
Ultimately, things would not go his way. On the 4th of July 1776, the Patriots (or Rebels, depending on your stance) declared the United States of America an independent nation, and over the next seven years overcame the Loyalists.
But there is another part of this revolution which often goes unmentioned. And this is the part that takes us all the way to Freetown.
In a surprise addition to Dunmore’s proclamation of martial law, he declared:
“all indented Servants, Negroes, or others, (appertaining to Rebels,) free that are able and willing to bear Arms, they joining His Majesty’s Troops as soon as may be, for the more speedily reducing this Colony to a proper Sense of their Duty, to His Majesty’s Crown and Dignity.”
For slaves this meant: escape your plantation captivity and fight for us, and we will declare you free.
At first the proclamation only had power in Virginia. But it was successful. Dunmore quickly enlisted between 500 and 800 escaped slaves to fight for him. Together they became known as his Ethiopian Regiment, and other Loyalists took notice. By 1776 the deal was in place as standard policy throughout the Thirteen Colonies. One way or another, escaped slaves started to reach the Loyalist front line and form their own regiments — the Black Pioneers, the Black Brigade, the Jersey Shore Volunteers, the King’s American Dragoons, the Jamaica Rangers, the Mosquito Shore Volunteers and perhaps many more.
This was not uncontroversial among Loyalists. At one point General Howe (then the Loyalist Commander in Chief), feeling calmed by the arrival of 30,000 Hessian (German) mercenaries to support him, banned the formation of new black fighting regiments and discharged his own black troops.
But other Loyalists viewed the deal as an economic weapon. Encouraging slaves to flee constituted an attack on the plantations — significant sources of income for the Patriots. In 1779, with the Revolutionary War in full force, Henry Clinton issued the Philipsburg Proclamation. This expanded Dunmore’s promise and offered freedom to any slave of a Patriot (there was no such deal available for the Loyalists’ slaves) who could escape, anywhere in the Thirteen Colonies, whether they served the Loyalist army or not.
Thomas Jefferson, then Virginia’s representative in the Continental Congress, lost 30 of his own slaves to this exodus. He believed that in Virginia alone as many as 30,000 slaves escaped plantations. And the same was happening everywhere. In all, it is thought that between 80,000–100,000 slaves escaped plantations during the war. Nowhere near this number are recorded as reaching Loyalist lines. For many, lives may have taken a very different direction to what you will read below.
There are, unsurprisingly, only a very small number of first-hand accounts of what this period was like for an escaped slave. Two that we do have, however, will also end up in Freetown: David George and Boston King . All quotes from either of them are taken from the two related footnotes.
David George was born in Essex County, Virginia, to parents who had been captured and brought from Africa. The first work he did was fetching water and carding cotton. As he grew older he was “sent into the field to work about the Indian corn and tobacco”. He had “four brothers and four sisters who, with [himself], were all born in slavery”. In telling his story, the main thing he describes about the plantation was the harsh punishment and whipping. “Master’s rough and cruel usage was the reason for my running away.” He refers to seeing his siblings whipped and being whipped himself. But the most painful was seeing his mother whipped to the point that, he suspects, she died. He doesn’t know for sure, because at this point he fled, never to see or hear from her again.
He was on the run for nearly three years, travelling over 800 miles before his master finally gave up chase and sold him on. He had joined groups of travelling whites and Indians, including one named Blue Salt, who took him “into the woods to his [Blue Salt’s] camp where they had bear meat, turkeys and wild potatoes.” George was eventually bought by a Mr Gaulfin, of whom he talks with affection. They stayed together in South Carolina for what may have been nearly a decade. A pastor started preaching regularly at one of Mr Gaulfin’s mills, where David was baptised and eventually became an Elder within the congregation.
And this brings us back to 1775, the year when, over in Virginia, Dunmore would make his proclamation. When the war reached Mr Gaulfin’s land the Ministers were no longer allowed to come among the blacks, in case they gave away too much knowledge. Left without a pastor, George began preaching to the congregation, which increased to a regular thirty or more. Together, in that same year, they founded South Carolina’s Silver Bluff Baptist Church. This is the first black congregation on record in the present-day United States.
But the war got harsher. The Loyalists took the surrounding area and Mr Gaulfin, a Patriot, departed town (leaving his slaves behind). Battle continued all around, with George and his congregation in the cross fire. At one point he and his wife were thrown in prison, at another a cannon ball crashed through the stable in which they were living. Just as one siege quietened, George came down with smallpox. His wife had managed to find precious paid work, washing for the loyalist General Clinton (that same Clinton who would go on to make the Philipsburg Proclamation). With a little income for basic maintenance, George recovered. After yet more near misses of recapture and return to slavery, George and his wife raised enough money to buy their passage to Charlestown, a Loyalist stronghold.
A second escaped slave to have left us a written record of this time is Boston King, who starts his recollections from when he was a 16-year-old, so we know nothing about his early childhood. Again, he appears to have been most aggrieved by the severe punishments he would receive as a slave, sometimes rendering him unfit for work for weeks on end. It was also a punishment related incident that left him “determined to go Charles-Town, and throw myself into the hands of the English.” Bear in mind however, he was dictating this for an English audience.
He doesn’t tell us from where he escaped, or how he first reached the Loyalist line. But, like David, and no doubt many other escaped slaves, he caught smallpox. Smallpox is one of the most contagious and deadly airborne diseases ever known to humankind. It has been wiping out communities since the Ancient Egyptians were building pyramids and was one of the most devastating diseases brought to the Native Americans by the Europeans. Intriguingly, it can only be carried by humans. This means that its spread traces a 3,500-year global web of direct person-to-person contact from ancient North Africa and East Asia, through to David George and Boston King (and many others) during the American Revolutionary War, finally ending 200 years later, in 1975, with the two-year-old Rahima Banu in Bangladesh (the last person known to have been naturally infected with the virus).
After a long and hard recovery, Boston joined one of the black regiments. On numerous occasions he was separated from it — either because they had to make a rapid departure while he was out collecting supplies, or because he had been sent ahead to convey messages to other Loyalist forces. This was a dangerous business. While roaming with the Loyalist regiments he was constantly under threat of Patriot attack — but at least there was a little strength in numbers. While out on his own he was at even greater threat of recapture and a return to slavery. Eventually, he made it to New York (another Loyalist stronghold).
Then, in around 1782/1783, the war started to calm. According to King, this
“diffused universal joy among all parties, except us, who had escaped from slavery and taken refuge in the English army; for a report prevailed at New-York, that all the slaves, in number 2000, were to be delivered up to their masters, altho’ some of them had been three or four years among the English.”
2000 people, with stories similar to George and King, promised that if they escaped Patriot plantations they would be free, were now hearing rumours that they were to be handed back into slavery.
“This dreadful rumour filled us all with inexpressible anguish and terror, especially when we saw our old masters coming from Virginia, North-Carolina, and other parts, and seizing upon their slaves in the streets of New-York, or even dragging them out of their beds. Many of the slaves had very cruel masters, so that the thoughts of returning home with them embittered life to us. For some days we lost our appetite for food, and sleep departed from our eyes.”
At the end of 1782 (and again at the beginning of 1783 — once in America, and again in Paris) the Treaty of Paris was signed. This ended the Revolutionary War and acknowledged the United States as an independent sovereign nation. One article in particular is likely to have set the fire under this terrifying rumour:
“…his Britanic Majesty shall with all convenient speed, and without causing any Destruction, or carrying away any Negroes or other Property of the American inhabitants, withdraw all his Armies, Garrisons & Fleets from the said United States, and from every Post, Place and Harbour within the same”.
But there was a trick. As the Loyalists were preparing to evacuate New York, they called on all escaped slaves to make their case for freedom. Those that were eligible under one of the proclamations were given a certificate availing the holder with official permission “to go to Nova Scotia, or wherever else he may think proper.” And with that, they could board a ship and leave.
It seems that Carleton chose to consider these groups of escapees as free at the time of the Paris Treaty, and so not captured in the language of Article Seven. This infuriated the Patriot General George Washington. In return, Carleton agreed that plantation owners who could prove they had lost slaves should receive some financial compensation. In case future compensation might be necessary, all black passengers were registered as they boarded the ship, with a short description to determine value. This has become known as the Book of Negroes, and is today an online searchable database.
It didn’t include everyone however. We know from David George’s memoirs that from Charlestown he took passage to Halifax, but I can’t find him in the Book. Boston King, on the other hand, can be found registered onboard HMS L’Abondance on the 31st July 1783, at the tender age of 23.
Departure from New York began as early as October 1782. Among the first 501 Loyalists to sail to Nova Scotia were 56 escaped slaves. By November 1783 around 27,000 Loyalists, including at least 2,831 escaped slaves, had followed.
This mass exodus of refugee loyalists went in various directions. While the majority went north to Nova Scotia, others went east, to Britain. But the reason for starting this story here is because, for many of the black loyalist refugees (including both David George and Boston King) this was the start of their journey to Freetown, and of their role in its foundation.
In part two we will follow those who went to Britain. A cold and hard welcome awaited, and, with this, an inability to establish viable livelihoods led to a rather strange suggestion: perhaps these people would be better off elsewhere? Somewhere with a slightly warmer climate and, perhaps, the possibility of new trade for Britain along the West African coast?