By Isaac Saney
(January 15) – Today is the 225th anniversary of the beginning of one of the most significant and dramatic chapters in the historic efforts of Africans in the Americas to reconnect with – indeed, return to – Africa. It was – and is also – a profound example of the active and conscious historical agency of the oppressed and exploited in their struggle to assert their democratic rights and achieve self-determination.
On January 15th, 1792 15 ships departed from Halifax, Nova Scotia for Sierra Leone carrying 1,196 Black Nova Scotians, some 540 families. These courageous souls were part of the wave of the more than 3,500 of people of African descent – the Black Loyalists – who arrived in the Maritimes in the early 1780s in the wake of the American War of Independence. In return for their freedom, the Black Loyalists had served with the British military.
In the wake of the British defeat, more than 35,000 refugees – the Loyalists – arrived in Nova Scotia, with the Black Loyalists accounting for approximately 10 per cent of that number. Facing a series of broken promises of land and freedom in Nova Scotia, suffering from disenfranchisement and segregation (including the July 26th, 1784 “race riot” in Shelburne), the Black Loyalists “voted with their feet” and set sail for Sierra Leone. Previously, they had petitioned Nova Scotia’s colonial government to no avail.
The various Black Loyalist communities then decided to send a representative – Thomas Peters – to London to make their case. It was in London, during his interaction with abolitionists that Peters learned of the possibility of leaving Nova Scotia and going the Sierra Leone.
Such was the importance of their labour to Nova Scotia (skilled artisans and craft-persons reduced to a pool of cheap labour) that several obstacles were put in their path by the colonial authorities. For example, Thomas Peters, a key – if not the key – organizer of the emigration, was beaten; disinformation was spread that the departing Black Loyalists would be re-enslaved in Africa, and proof was demanded that each emigrant was free of debt and not enslaved. In extreme cases, the documents were falsified to ensure people could not leave. This reflected the colonial concern to retain the services of skilled labourers at the lowest possible wage level.
The painting – View of the Colony of Sierra Leone Previous to the Transports Being Discharged, March 16, 1792 – depicts the ships that transported the Black Loyalists just after all the passengers had disembarked and all the supplies unloaded.