Despite his repeated attempts to limit the legal scope of the Somerset case, Lord Mansfield’s begrudgingly delivered judgement had repercussions that were broader and more divisive than even he had feared. News travelled rapidly across the Atlantic. Twenty-one American newspapers published forty-three reports between them on the case and Mansfield’s decision. The interpretations of the judgement and the accounts of what was said in court carried by the American papers were just as inaccurate as those that appeared in the British press. In the American colonies, as in Britain, the Somerset judgement came to be widely understood as having effectively outlawed slavery in England. News of the decision emboldened America’s abolitionists and enraged the slave owners, some of whom saw it as another English attack on colonial property rights. Benjamin Rush, the American abolitionist and friend of Granville Sharp, published a pamphlet in Philadelphia celebrating the Somerset case as a first blow struck against slavery, while a letter from a correspondent to a British newspaper, repeatedly reprinted in colonial newspapers, warned that Mansfield’s judgement appeared ‘pregnant with consequences extremely detrimental to those Gentlemen, whose estates chiefly consist in slaves’.1
One of Lord Mansfield’s stated objectives in the case was to avoid interfering in the legal systems of the North American and West Indian colonies. Before issuing his judgement he had even endeavoured to calm the nerves of the West Indian merchants by issuing a statement promising them that the case would have no implications for the trade in slaves. Under the laws of Virginia and Jamaica, Mansfield reassured them, Africans, ‘are goods and chattels, and, as such, saleable and sold’.2 Mansfield had feared that any judgement made on the case of James Somerset risked becoming a precedent that might be used to free all the slaves in England – fifteen thousand of them, according to the lawyers defending Somerset’s owner Charles Stewart.
Almost from the moment news of the judgement reached their shores, colonial slave owners feared that Mansfield’s decision might have a direct impact upon them. Could the decision be limited to England alone? No one seemed sure. The Rhode Island attorney Henry Marchant, in London in 1771, had attended the first hearing in the Somerset case and concluded that the legal team Granville Sharp had assembled to fight for James Somerset’s freedom had developed a legal case so compelling and so rooted in English legal tradition that it could potentially be deployed by lawyers representing slaves in the colonies. He warned his fellow colonists that the case was a ‘plausible pretense’ that might ‘cheat an honest American of his slave’.3 That fear was reinforced in 1774 when an attorney representing a Massachusetts slave who was suing to attain his freedom did indeed cite the Somerset case. The argument he put forward was that in Massachusetts, just as in England, no positive law had been enacted to make slavery legal. In the mid-1770s the colonists increasingly became the authors of their own difficulties on this matter. As they expressed, ever more vocally and stridently, their demands for full English rights they exposed themselves further to English law, and weakened the notion that the law within the empire was effectively federal, with different laws operating in different jurisdictions.
If the Somerset judgement was found to be limited to England the institution of colonial slavery might be safe but even then the slave owners had still lost an important liberty. Even under the most narrow and circumscribed interpretation of the Mansfield judgement it was clear that colonial slave owners could no longer bring their slaves with them when they returned to the ‘mother country’, in many cases the country of their birth. Those who might have planned to settle in England, or, more commonly, reside there while they conducted their business affairs, now understood that their personal and domestic slaves could abscond and, having done so, seek protection from the English courts. Otherwise they might demand wages as recompense for their services, an idea the owners found unconscionable. No matter how they looked at it, the Mansfield judgement represented a loss of liberty. That loss might have been more tolerable had it not been one among a long litany of curtailed liberties and perceived injustices that offended the American colonists by the 1770s. In that atmosphere the Somerset case had political implications far beyond any debates around case law, jurisdiction and precedent. There was no question that the case posed a legal conundrum, but to the planters it was also a political betrayal, regarded by some as a direct attack on the slave system.
For the half a million slaves of the American colonies – who made up around one-fifth of the entire population, and two-fifths of all the black people in the empire – the Mansfield judgement was electrifying news. Rumours and reports swept across the plantations as fast as they had raced across the ocean. The news was transmitted across networks of communication that the whites could neither explain nor control. Some American slaves heard of the judgement from their owners. Like enslaved people across the New World, domestic slaves in the American colonies listened while attending tables and overheard conversations and arguments while going about their work. Although America’s slave owners had done their very best to prevent the spread of literacy among the enslaved, a small minority were able to read the reports; newspapers in the late eighteenth century passed from hand to hand, a single copy being read by numerous people. Some American slaves drew the same conclusions about the case that Mr Dublin of Bristol had; that ‘Lord Mansfield had given them their freedom’. A few decided to risk punishment and retribution and claim that liberty. At the end of September 1773 a slave owner named John Austin Finnie placed an advertisement in the Virginia Gazette reporting the loss of two of his slaves: ‘a Wench, named AMY, of a very black Complexion, about 27 Years old’, and ‘a Fellow, African born, named BACCHUS, about 19 Years of Age [he] speaks somewhat broken [English]’. Finnie claimed to have ‘some Reason to believe they will endeavour to get out of the Colony, particularly to Britain, where they imagine they will be free (a Notion now too prevalent among the Negroes, greatly to the vexation and Prejudice of their Masters)’.4 The following year Gabriel Jones, who owned land and slaves near Augusta, Georgia, placed a similar advertisement in his local newspaper. Jones offered a reward of five pounds for the return of a runaway slave, also named Bacchus. Jones was particularly anxious to see him captured as Bacchus had taken a purse of money and because Jones feared he would ‘attempt to get on board some vessel for Great Britain, from the knowledge he has of the late Determination of Somerset’s Case’.5 It was against this backdrop that the early stirrings of what was to develop into the American Revolutionary Wars began.
There were two revolutions in the American colonies during the 1770s and 1780s.6 In the first, the white colonists rose up against British rule and fought to realize their independence. Without any embarrassment the rebels and patriots of that revolution used the term ‘freedom’ to allude to their political aspirations, and the word ‘slavery’ to describe their exposure to British taxation. Even before the American patriots had issued a Declaration of Independence that professed ‘all men equal’, their hypocrisy had been noted and ridiculed. In 1775 Samuel Johnson, writing from the London town house he shared with Francis Barber, asked, ‘how is it we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?’7 Granville Sharp, still fearful of the dangers of ‘toleration’, warned that ‘American liberty cannot be firmly established without some scheme of general Enfranchisement’, as, ‘The toleration of domestic slavery in the colonies greatly weakens the claim or natural right of our American brethren to Liberty. Let them put away the accursed thing (that horrid Oppression) from among them, before they presume to implore the interposition of divine Justice.’8
American hypocrisy was taken to unparalleled levels by Richard Henry Lee, the Virginian politician who moved the resolution in the Second Continental Congress calling for American independence. In a public parade against the imposition of the Stamp Tax, Lee had a number of banners unveiled which denounced how that most hated of taxes had placed ‘chains of slavery’ around the necks of white American colonists. Lee felt no embarrassment in having his banners carried on the parade by his own slaves and there are no reports to indicate that any of Lee’s fellow Virginians felt any discomfort at the spectacle.9
In the second of America’s eighteenth-century revolutions thousands of enslaved Africans revolted against a form of slavery that was real rather than metaphorical, one enforced with chains that cut into flesh rather than curtailed economic freedoms. The history of the first of these two revolutions has been extensively described and analysed elsewhere, most notably by historians from the nation it spawned. For our purposes it is the second revolution that is of most interest. That parallel revolution was launched by another declaration. It was issued in late 1775, over a year before the Declaration of Independence. The author was John Murray, fourth Earl of Dunmore and the Royal Governor of the colony of Virginia, the largest of the thirteen American colonies, and home to a hundred and eighty thousand enslaved Africans who toiled and suffered on hundreds of tobacco plantations.
In April 1775 a rebellion broke out in Virginia and began to spread across the territory. Lord Dunmore’s strategy was to put down the uprising as fast as possible through ruthless and decisive action. After removing the gunpowder from Williamsburg, the colonial capital, he based himself and his forces on a flotilla of ships on the James River. In May he wrote to his superiors informing them of his next decisive step. He intended to ‘arm my own negroes & receive all others that come to me who I shall declare free’. In November 1775, in a public proclamation that was printed and distributed, Dunmore declared that ‘all indentured Servants, Negroes, or others, (appertaining to Rebels,)’ were to be freed if they were ‘able and willing to bear Arms’. To claim their freedom slaves had to join ‘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’.10 Within two weeks around three hundred slaves had left their masters and made their way to Dunmore’s forces, who were still concentrated on around one hundred ships on the James River. Some managed to reach the British ships in small boats, others waded through the swamps and literally swam to freedom. On board the British ships, they were formed into a new unit: Lord Dunmore’s Royal Ethiopian Regiment. On their shoulders were placed British muskets and onto their new uniforms was sewn a badge bearing a slogan that was extraordinarily and intentionally provocative to the tobacco planters of Virginia – ‘Liberty to Slaves’.
Dunmore calculated that freeing and arming slaves might so shock the rebels that they would back down and submit to the Crown. His actions had the opposite effect. Even before 1775 Dunmore had a reputation for being insensitive and autocratic. Now he was bitterly condemned by the colonists for ‘exciting an insurrection of our slaves’. In a society that had known slave rebellions, placing guns in the hands of black men was transgressing the ultimate taboo. In the minds of some Southern planters Dunmore had turned the rebellion into a fight over the right to hold slaves. The Virginia Gazette was so outraged by the proclamation that it reprinted it in full, with an appended editorial in which the author – probably the patriot John Page – directly threatened the slaves with violent retribution if they dared to abandon their masters and go over to the British.11‘Should there be any amongst the Negroes weak enough to believe that Dunmore intends to do them a kindness, and wicked enough to provoke the fury of the Americans against their defenceless fathers and mothers, their wives, their women and children, let them only consider the difficulty of effecting their escape, and what they must expect to suffer if they fall into the hands of the Americans.’ It concluded, ‘Be not then, ye Negroes, tempted by this proclamation to ruin yourselves . . . I have considered your welfare, as well as that of the country. Whether you will profit by my advice I cannot tell; but this I know, that whether we suffer or not, if you desert us, you most certainly will.’12
To make real on this threat slave patrols were increased in Virginia and the ‘fury of the Americans’ was brutally exacted upon those unfortunate few who were caught attempting to escape. To further intimidate any slaves who might be considering joining the British, the slave owners spread the false rumour that the British intended to sell all those who joined them to the sugar planters of the West Indian islands, where death rates far exceeded birth rates and tropical diseases and the industrial nature of sugar production meant that the life expectancy among the enslaved was disturbingly low.
For all the bloodthirsty vitriol of its editorial, the Virginia Gazette was entirely correct in its assessment of Dunmore’s proclamation. His offer of freedom to the slaves was a selective and self-interested tactic, motivated by military strategy not moral principle. Freedom was on offer only to slaves whose legal owners had joined the rebels, and only to those slaves who were ‘able and willing to bear Arms’, which excluded women and children. The slaves of colonists who stayed loyal to the Crown, who became known as the loyalists, were to remain in chains, and the future of colonial slavery was not to be threatened. The authorities stayed true to this commitment right up until the very end of British rule, when thousands of white loyalists lost their homes but kept their slaves.
Despite the grave threats published in the American newspapers, the enslaved were electrified by the news of Dunmore’s proclamation. An officially sanctioned offer of freedom, issued by a representative of His Majesty’s government just three years after the Somerset judgement, it inevitably generated an unparalleled exodus among the enslaved. The networks of communication that had broadcast news of Somerset’s freedom now carried Dunmore’s words across the Southern plantations; everywhere slaves drew up plans of escape, stole and stockpiled provisions and waited for the right moment to take flight. They gathered in the woods to discuss their options and strategize, black preachers held secret assemblies and everywhere the talk was of Dunmore, freedom and King George. On occasions whole communities – men, women and children – fled from bondage together. One South Carolina planter lost seventy-five slaves who, as well as ‘stealing’ themselves, took their master’s horses. Across Virginia, Georgia and the Carolinas as news of the proclamation spread the scale of the first great migration increased.
By the end of 1775 there were three hundred black men in the Ethiopian Regiment. In 1776 enough former slaves had taken up British arms that a second regiment, the Black Pioneers, was formed. From November 1775 to the crushing British defeats of 1781 former slaves fought for their liberty and Britain’s empire. They were there under Dunmore in the early clashes at Kemp’s Landing and Great Bridge, fought just weeks after the formation of the Royal Ethiopian Regiment. Their initial impact upon events might have been far greater had not so many of them been struck down by a great epidemic of smallpox that ripped through the ranks of rebels and loyalists of both races, as those born in the colonies lacked immunity to the disease that was spread by the European soldiers who flooded into the country. A feared unit of former slaves known as the Black Brigade fought at the Battle of Monmouth and conducted a guerrilla war in 1778. They were led by the infamous Colonel Tye, Titus Cornelius, an escaped slave reputed to have been a grizzled early veteran of the Ethiopian Regiment, by then disbanded. At the most bitterly contested battles there were black American men in British red coats fighting, suffering and dying. They fought under the Union flag both in the infantry and the cavalry. Some were deployed as shock troops, infantry who assaulted enemy positions. Many knew the terrain and were therefore invaluable as scouts and guides to the soldiers shipped in from Britain and the mercenaries drafted from the German provinces. In a war that was fought as much on water as on land others served as sailors and as pilots on the ships that patrolled the rivers and supplied the armies. Some became spies behind enemy lines, but it was behind British lines that most worked, as general labourers, blacksmiths, wood-cutters, tailors, nurses and officers’ servants. They dug trenches and prepared defences, they built the camps in which the armies were billeted and were constantly engaged in the task of supplying a force whose supply lines stretched across the Atlantic and over the empire. For all their talk of ‘Liberty to Slaves’, the British forces were largely racially segregated and some of the punishments to which black recruits were subjected, even for petty offences, were at times extreme and excessive. They had escaped slavery but not necessarily the whip.
It should not be forgotten that there were black men on both sides of the Revolutionary War. Those who fought for the patriots must have hoped that the ideals of the Declaration of Independence would, some day, apply to them, but more American slaves concluded that King George was likely to confirm their freedom than George Washington. Yet while George Washington was a slave owner, King George was monarch of a nation that in the 1770s and 1780s was the most prolific slave-trading power in the North Atlantic. That Britain, with her fleets of slave ships and her sugar islands carpeted with plantations, was regarded as the best friend of the slave shows how desperately short of friends Africans in the New World were.
In 1779, General Sir Henry Clinton, the commander-in-chief of the British forces in North America, issued a second proclamation that encouraged thousands more slaves to risk all and flee to the British lines. Clinton’s offer was broader and more comprehensive than that made by Lord Dunmore four years earlier. In order to claim their freedom the slaves had merely to abandon their rebellious masters and cross into British territory. They were not required to bear arms for the British. Over the course of the war, fifty thousand slaves escaped and defected to the British. It was the first mass emancipation in the history of the North American colonies. Yet Clinton’s declaration, like that of Dunmore, was again an act of self-interest rather than moral purpose. Clinton’s aim was not primarily to create new legions of black soldiers; by then an influx into the colonies of thirty thousand Hessian mercenaries had swelled the British ranks. The proclamation of 1779 was an act of economic warfare designed to strip the rebels of their property and destabilize their economy. It was a sign of military frustration.
The rebels and their leaders were appalled by the cynicism of the British tactics and personally aggrieved by their own losses. Slaves belonging to George Washington and James Madison escaped to join the ranks of their enemy, as later did black men and women owned by Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence. Patrick Henry, famous for his great patriotic call to arms, ‘Give me liberty or give me death’, was horrified to discover that several slaves had escaped from his Leatherwood plantation, seizing their own liberty and rejecting the ‘living death’ that was the existence of a plantation slave.13 Many factors motivated the rebellion of the white American colonists but Patrick Henry was not alone in considering Dunmore’s proclamation of 1775 as one of the grievances that justified disloyalty. By ‘encouraging insurrection among our slaves, many of whom are now actually in arms against us,’ Henry ranted, the King had demonstrated himself to be a ‘tyrant instead of the protector of his people’.14 As thousands of slaves fled through the tobacco fields, hid in the forests or slipped along the nocturnal river valleys seeking out the British, there were white colonists so outraged at British actions, and so resentful of Dunmore’s actions, that they rejected their King and took up arms against the Crown. Fear of losing enslaved property and livelihoods built on the foundations of forced labour motivated some loyalists to turn patriot.
Six years after Dunmore’s proclamation British forces were trapped in a ramshackle, makeshift camp at Yorktown. Their position was defended by trenches and redoubts but surrounded by George Washington’s Continental Army and their French allies. Within the British camp were more than a thousand slaves serving with the British forces, both labourers and soldiers, and an unknown number of others were attached to the camp unofficially, working as auxiliaries or merely concentrated around Yorktown having fled to take the British up on their promises of freedom. Yorktown was the Stalingrad of the Revolutionary Wars, a desperate siege that became the critical battle of the conflict. It was a battle fought by black men on both sides. The American army that besieged the British contained around fifteen hundred black soldiers, around a quarter of the entire force.
With the British garrison in Yorktown beginning to starve, and in the face of a concerted artillery bombardment, the British commander Cornwallis, in mid-October, gave the orders that amounted to the biggest betrayal of the black loyalists during the Revolutionary War. After the horses had been slaughtered to prevent their starvation, the unwanted blacks, auxiliaries and camp followers were forcibly driven from Yorktown. To the horror of a number of their white officers they were delivered into the hands of the rebels and their former slave masters, or left trapped in the killing zone between the two armies, where they faced enemy fire or simply starved. John Ewald, a Danish Hessian mercenary fighting for the British, witnessed their plight and described in his diary how under orders he and his comrades ‘drove back to the enemy all of our black friends . . . We had used them to good advantage and set them free, and now, with fear and trembling they had to face the reward of their cruel masters.’15 Later, while on patrol, Ewald came across a group of the abandoned black loyalists. Consoling himself with the thought that the ‘scarcity of provisions’ made ‘this harsh act’ justifiable as a military expedient, he admitted to his diary that ‘we should have thought more about their deliverance at this time.’16
The war did not end at Yorktown but hopes of British victory did. When he received news of the defeat, the Prime Minister, Lord North, was said to have been overwhelmed, as if struck by musket ball in the chest. ‘Oh God, it’s all over,’ he was reputed to have declared. The process, after the fall of Yorktown in October 1781, of bringing the war to an end, agreeing peace terms and evacuating the British forces and the loyalist sections of the colonial population, took two years. It would end in late November 1783, twenty-five months after Yorktown, when George Washington marched down Manhattan while from that island’s southern tip the last British troops stepped into launches and cast off for the armada of British ships in New York Harbor.
For the white loyalists of North America the question after Yorktown was should they stay and take their chances in a new nation, one which they and the British had attempted to smother at birth, or should they leave and seek a new future in another of the King’s dominions? For the black loyalists the choice was far more stark – evacuation or slavery? While founders of the United States discussed their future freedoms and liberties, the British concerned themselves not just with evacuating the white loyalists but also – and perhaps incredibly after Yorktown – with honouring the freedoms they had promised to the black men and women who had rallied to the colours during the war. A number of key British officers set themselves firmly against any repetition of Cornwallis’ betrayal of the black loyalists.
Evacuations of white and black loyalists were arranged from the ports of Savannah in Georgia and Charleston in South Carolina, and land was allocated for them in Canada. White loyalists were evacuated with their slaves who, as their masters had remained loyal to the Crown, had been ineligible to claim freedom under the proclamations of either Dunmore or Clinton. The favoured destination of these Southern loyalist slave owners was East Florida, a territory that had remained loyal to Britain. There they hoped to establish new plantations on virgin pasture and recreate their colonial lifestyles in a conducive climate that was not dissimilar to that of their former homes in Virginia, Georgia and the Carolinas. Other loyalists attempted to do much the same thing by relocating to Jamaica, where there was less unoccupied land available but huge profits to be made from sugar cultivation. The options available to loyalist slave owners had of course been conspicuously narrowed as after the Somerset case even those who owned only a few domestic slaves dared not transport them to Britain even temporarily.
Some of the ships that left Savannah for East Florida in 1782 were in effect slave ships – though mercifully without the full horrors of the slave deck – as the majority of those on board were the property of the white loyalists. Five thousand whites were evacuated from Savannah and ten thousand of their slaves. In many of the ships that carried loyalists from Charleston the pattern was repeated, with slaves easily outnumbering their owners. Whole plantation communities were thereby transplanted from one colony to another. In Charleston, slaves who had been the property of rebels, but who had been seized by the British authorities during the war, were left to be reclaimed by former masters, whom the British regarded as their legal owners. However, those whom the British defined as having ‘rendered themselves particularly obnoxious on account of their attachment and services to the British troops, and such as have had specific Promises of Freedom’ were to be evacuated.17 A team of British inspectors was established to identify former slaves who had come over to the British on the direct promise of freedom and assertions to that effect were tested and challenged. In all, around fifteen hundred black loyalists were evacuated from Charleston. Around a third of them were settled in Nova Scotia in British-ruled Canada.
The last great concentration of loyalists – black and white – was in New York. Ultimately around three thousand former slaves gathered in that city, safe for now under British occupation. It was at this moment that the slave fortress at Bunce Island on the Sierra Leone River re-enters our story. The peace negotiations between Britain and the United States were conducted in Paris towards the end of 1782. The chief British negotiator was Richard Oswald who, since the 1750s, had been the principal owner of Bunce Island. Oswald had generated much of his personal wealth through the sale of slaves imprisoned in the fortress before being shipped to South Carolina. In the American colonies his business affairs were conducted by his close friend Henry Laurens, one of the foremost figures among the rice planters of South Carolina. Slaves from Laurens’ estate were among those who escaped to the British lines following the declarations of Lord Dunmore and then Sir Henry Clinton. Richard Oswald’s employees on Bunce Island marched shiploads of Africans along the stone jetty and onto ships that were received on the other side of the Atlantic by Laurens, who organized their auction in the slave market in Charleston, South Carolina. Each sale of a Bunce Island slave yielded Henry Laurens a 10 per cent commission; the rest of the profits were siphoned back to Oswald. This transatlantic relationship had been plunged into crisis by the rebellion when these two friends and long-term business partners found themselves, suddenly, on opposing sides of the conflict. Their friendship had been placed under even greater pressure when in 1780 Henry Laurens, by then American Minister to the Netherlands, travelled to Europe on a diplomatic mission. His ship was intercepted by a British vessel, and when the draft of a proposed US–Dutch treaty was discovered, Laurens was arrested. Brought to England he was imprisoned in the Tower of London for fifteen months, during which time he received visits from Richard Oswald. Despite the fact that his friend was charged with the rather serious offence of treason, Oswald was eventually able to negotiate his release, obtaining a writ of habeas corpus which was granted on account of Laurens’ alleged ill-health. Oswald then took Laurens before the King’s Bench to arrange bail. The sum of £2,000 was agreed and duly paid by Oswald on Laurens’ behalf. The judge who granted bail happened to be Chief Justice Lord Mansfield.*
In November 1782, when the provisional peace treaty was being negotiated, Laurens was called to Paris to assist Benjamin Franklin, who was leading the United States’ negotiating team. Arriving after negotiations had begun Laurens was too late to influence the primary articles of the treaty. All that remained to be settled, he later noted, were ‘a few points respecting the Fishery and the Loyalists’.18 But Laurens was to have an influence on the peace agreement as he was able to push through a late amendment, which was accepted by the chief British negotiator, who happened to be Laurens’ business partner Richard Oswald. This amendment to Article VII of the agreement, agreed by two close friends and partners in the Atlantic slave trade, concerned the fate of the black loyalists. Inserted literally into the margins, this late amendment prohibited the evacuating British forces from ‘carrying away any Negroes or other property of the American Inhabitants’.19
The terms of the preliminary peace treaty were published in March 1783. The thirty-five thousand white loyalists trapped in New York examined the feeble assurances the British negotiators had managed to wrench from the Americans and with good reason feared for their property and their welfare. The three thousand black loyalists trapped in the city alongside them feared chains and whips. They had survived their flight from slavery, evaded the slave patrols of the Southern states, fought for their liberty in epic battles and now faced the prospect of re-enslavement. They were left despondent and terrified. One, Boston King from South Carolina, described his horror of the terrible prospect of ‘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’.20 When the first slaves had fled from the plantations of Virginia eight years earlier they had joined the British lines in the hope and expectation that Britain would put down the rebellion and win the war. Emboldened by their victory, patriot slave owners crossed through the British lines and came to New York to reclaim their slaves. There were reports of kidnappings and abductions. Black men and women were seized on the streets, bound and gagged and dragged onto waiting ships, as James Somerset and Thomas Lewis had been in London a decade earlier.
While former slaves like Boston King contemplated a life in chains and fended off nightmares of punishment and retribution, George Washington forwarded to his representatives in New York a list of escaped slaves who were believed to be in the city, in anticipation and expectation of their recapture. He added, ‘Some of my own slaves, . . . may probably be in N York . . . I will be much obliged by your securing them, so that I may obtain them again’.21 Washington was right. Hiding in New York were at least three of his former slaves, who had escaped from his Mount Vernon plantation. Among them was Harry Washington, who had served in the Black Pioneers. By 1783 George Washington had already succeeded in recapturing several of his former slaves, some in Philadelphia and others during the grim aftermath of the Battle of Yorktown. The fate of the black loyalists in New York, including those once owned by the future president, was in the end not to be decided by George Washington but by the British commander, Sir Guy Carleton. Carleton did not surrender the black loyalists but followed a procedure similar to that which had been established in Charleston. He set up a system by which they were assessed and registered by a special committee of inquiry. From April to November1783, four British officials and three American representatives gathered each Wednesday at Fraunces Tavern at 54 Pearl Street, in a building that still stands. There they heard the testimonies of the black loyalists, who recounted their escapes from slavery or their service for the British forces. Those whose testimonies were accepted and authenticated were given a certificate of freedom and their name was recorded in a register known as the ‘Book of Negroes’. The two original versions of this document, one recorded by the British officials in New York and another by the Americans, have survived the centuries. Appropriately one resides in London, the other in Washington DC. In them are the names of the three thousand black loyalists of New York to whom the British had promised freedom and refused to hand over to George Washington. In May 1783, when Carleton met Washington, the evacuation of black loyalists to Nova Scotia in British Canada had begun and news had reached the American commander. What Washington did not know was that on the first evacuation fleet from New York were some of his own slaves. At their meeting, the first between the two, Washington accused Carleton of having reneged on the amendment to the Paris Peace Treaty that had been inserted by Henry Laurens and agreed by Richard Oswald the previous year. Carleton’s counter-argument was that as the black loyalists had been freed by the Crown they no longer counted as items of property to be returned or reclaimed. Further, Carleton retorted that ‘delivering up Negroes to their former masters . . . would be a dishonourable violation of the public faith’.22
On 25 November 1783 George Washington, mounted on a grey horse, marched the Continental Army down the length of Manhattan. At 1 pm a cannon was fired to signal the departure of the last British soldiers. Among the very last to leave were the black auxiliaries of the Royal Artillery and the Wagon Master General’s Department. General Washington did not find his slave Harry Washington in liberated New York; he was among the three thousand who had sailed for Nova Scotia. Of the twenty thousand black loyalists who escaped, most were sent there, and Birchtown became, for a while, the largest free black settlement in the Americas. Some of the loyalists who settled there eventually moved again to a settlement just a few miles from Bunce Island; others were sent to the West Indies – Jamaica, Nassau and St Lucia. A few hundred who had mainly been evacuated from New York crossed the Atlantic to Britain.
Most of the black loyalists who left New York did so with nothing more than the clothes on their backs and pitiful bundles of personal possessions. They rightly regarded themselves as fortunate to have survived an eight-year war and, at its messy conclusion, be among those evacuated. That fortune did not, however, alter the fact that they were penniless, without prospects and heading to a nation of which they knew little. They arrived in an England that had a black population that was almost certainly far smaller than the figure of fourteen to fifteen thousand blithely bandied around during the Somerset case. Whatever its size, Britain’s black population had built up over decades; in that context the sudden arrival of the black loyalists constituted a mass migration. It is not clear what the balance was, before this influx, between those in the black population who were slaves or servants and had somewhere to sleep and food to eat, and those who were free but destitute. The arrival of black loyalists clearly shifted the balance in favour of the latter, though perhaps more so in terms of public perception than raw numbers. James Tobin, a slave owner and pro-slavery propagandist, noted that of the black people he saw in the London of 1785, ‘those who are not in livery are in rags’.23
For a small proportion of the black loyalists arriving in Britain there was some hope of official support. In 1783 the British government established the Loyalist Claims Commission, which was charged with recompensing loyalists from the American colonies who had lost their land and property. Both black and white colonists applied but there are conspicuously few black people listed among the successful claimants. Those who had been free men before the revolution had the best hope, although many had their claims rejected as they lacked documentary evidence. Among those who were successful was a former slave from Virginia named Shadrack Furman, who was awarded a pension of £18 a year. The commission heard how he had worked providing provisions for the British forces. Captured by American patriot troops, Furman had been questioned about British troop movements, tortured for information and sentenced to five hundred lashes. During his ordeal he had also been struck about the head with an axe. As Furman said in his own petition, written in the third person, this ordeal had ‘left him almost dead in the Field’. Although, somehow, he had survived, Furman explained that he had, ‘lost his Eye Sight, and the use of one of his Legs by a stroke of an axe they gave him, and his Health is otherwise so much impaired from the wounds in his Head received from them.’ Furman concluded his petition asking the commissioners to take his ‘Case into Consideration and as your Petitioner and wife are from a comfortable Situation in Life reduced to the lowest Ebb of poverty and Distress on account of his Loyalty and attachmt. to His Majesty.’ By the time, in 1788, Shadrack Furman was awarded a pension he had already spent four years living on the street begging and playing the violin.24 Although his £18 a year will have saved him from destitution, it was a small amount compared to many of the pensions awarded to white loyalists, who were rarely awarded less than £25; many received much more.
Also among the black loyalists who landed in London in the 1780s was Benjamin Whitecuffe of New York, who had volunteered to spy for the British during the revolution. Captured by American patriot troops he was strung up from the gallows and was slowly asphyxiating when he was miraculously cut down and saved by passing British soldiers. By a convoluted route, which included being captured by privateers and serving in the navy in Gibraltar, Whitecuffe reached London. He had a white English wife and together they were just about managing to survive financially. Another loyalist who had fought in the Black Pioneers was Peter Anderson. Before the war he had made a living as a sawyer but had been press-ganged into Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment. Anderson had seen the very worst of the Revolutionary War and was a survivor of the siege of Yorktown. He had subsequently been captured by the patriot forces, from whom he had escaped to re-join the British. He had made it all the way to London, only to be left on the streets to starve. Anderson told the commissioners, ‘I endeavour’d to get Work but cannot get Any I am Thirty Nine Years of Age & am ready & Willing to serve His Britanack Majesty While I am Able But I am realy starvin about the streets, Having Nobody to give me A Morsal of Bread & dare not go home to my Own Country again’.25 The commissioners were on the brink of dismissing Anderson’s account of his war service as far-fetched and unbelievable, and for that reason rejecting this claim, when Lord Dunmore himself intervened and vouched for everything Anderson had said. He was awarded £10. John Provey had been enslaved to a lawyer in North Carolina and had fought with the Black Pioneers. In his petition to the commission he described himself as ‘an entire Stranger in this Country illeterate and unacquainted with the Laws Thereof’. Rather than compensate him for his military service the commissioners suggested that Provey should feel fortunate to have come to ‘a much better Country where he may with Industry get his Bread & where he can never more be a slave’. John Provey’s supposed fortune did not change the fact that he and his white English wife Ann and their mixed-race daughter were destitute and desperate.26
Half of all the black claimants were rejected. Furman and others were successful in part because they had certificates of loyalty signed by their former employers. Others were awarded pensions or payments largely because British officers were able to vouch for their military service, but many lacked any form of documentation relating to the property they had lost as a result of the rebellion or the services they had performed for the Crown. The deeper problem, however, was that most of the black loyalists had been slaves before the revolution. They had not lost items of property but had been items of property. They had gained their liberty through the service they had provided to the nation; that they were now destitute and hungry was regarded as an unfortunate reality, but one that it was felt fell beyond the scope of the commission. With nowhere else to turn for assistance and little chance of finding work, these former soldiers and self-emancipated slaves, who had crossed an ocean to reach the mother country, now swelled the ranks of London’s black poor. As well as those who had fought under British colours came former servants and slaves from the lost colonies who had been released from service amidst the ruptures of the revolution. There were also free black men and women who had left the colonies to escape the violence and uncertainty of the war. In London, which is where almost all of them clustered, they mingled with former domestic slaves of long residence in Britain, some of whom had followed James Somerset’s example and abandoned their masters. With them on the streets were a handful of well-known black street entertainers, celebrated charismatic beggars, ‘characters of the street’ as they were later to be called. Alongside them were an unknown number of black sailors and a small number of lascars – Indian or Asian sailors who like their African shipmates were waiting for employment on a ship that might take them home, or at least to the next port. They were, together, the flotsam and jetsam of the Atlantic world, refugees from the first of the two empires that Britain was to build then lose between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries. Huddled around the base of the slender, seven-faced sundial at Covent Garden in St Giles’, or seeking out shelter in the docks or in the slums around Mile End, they fought their battles now against hunger rather than the American rebels.
The scale of the new influx was small, perhaps between one and two thousand – some sources suggest fewer than one thousand – arriving in a city of more than six hundred thousand people. But the black poor were a highly visible minority, marked out by their race and their poverty. With no home parish in which to seek Poor Law relief and with no families to offer them shelter, they were in deep distress, begging on the street. Both alien and burdensome, their public suffering was a reminder of Britain’s recent and humiliating defeat and an extremely uncomfortable demonstration of the nation’s disloyalty to men who had flocked to the flag and risked their lives for the idea of British freedom. They were, for these reasons, not just an inconvenience but, to some extent, also an embarrassment.
The winter of 1785–86 was unusually cold in the capital. The black loyalists, their clothes turned to rags, were increasingly emaciated and now struggled to keep warm; there are reports of some deaths. That January the Public Advertiser complained of the terrible betrayal of men who had ‘served Britain’ and ‘fought under her colours’, but who ‘are now left to perish by famine and cold, in the sight of that people for whom they have hazarded their lives, and even (many of them) spilt their blood . . . And shall these poor humble assertors of [Britain’s] rights be left to the agonies of want and despair, because they are unfriended and unknown?’27 Around the same time this community, now defined and almost officially categorized as ‘the black poor’, became the belated focus of a flurry of energized compassion. A committee made up of wealthy businessmen was established to address the problem. At its head was Jonas Hanway, a prosperous if somewhat eccentric veteran of a number of philanthropic endeavours. A fervent opponent of the drinking of tea and an enthusiastic proponent of the carrying of umbrellas, Hanway had recently focused his charitable attention upon the plight of fallen women, the care of foundling children and the health of young chimney sweeps. He, like Granville Sharp, was an early prototype of the moralizing philanthropists who were to tackle many of Britain’s most pressing social issues and moral causes in the coming century. This being late-eighteenth-century London, the Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor inevitably assembled, for their first meetings, in a coffee shop, Batson’s in the City of London, opposite the Royal Exchange. The men of charity who joined Hanway made their own donations and then set about fundraising. By the end of January they were in a position to begin to distribute food to the black poor. Among those who donated to the appeal was Samuel Hoare, the Quaker abolitionist whose son Prince was to write the biography of Granville Sharp. But also contributing his time and money was John Julius Angerstein, a slave owner who saw no contradiction between donating money for the benefit of the black poor and keeping other Africans in chains on the plantations. Another contributor was Thomas Boddington, again a slave owner. The Prime Minister, William Pitt, contributed as did the Duchess of Devonshire. Also involved at this early stage, though not a member of the committee, was Granville Sharp himself. The bulk of the money that was used to assist the black poor, however, came from the government.
By February there were two hundred and ten people seeking relief from the committee. Food was provided from a baker’s on Wigmore Street and at two London public houses, the Yorkshire Stingo in Marylebone, which has long been associated with London’s black population, and the White Raven at Mile End to the east. At both establishments the black poor were provided with broth as well as bread. Those who had succumbed to the cold and fallen sick were sent to hospital; some were dispatched to St Bartholomew’s, where Jonathan Strong had recovered his health in the 1760s. A few of the sailors were found berths on ships, and thereby taken off the streets. In the cold of a London winter, clothing was needed as urgently as food, and clothes along with shoes were gathered and distributed. By April 1786 the number reliant on the relief from the committee had reached four hundred and sixty. Small payments of sixpence a day were being distributed in addition to food. How many of the recipients were former American loyalists it is impossible to tell, but a proportion of them were certainly members of the pre-existing, marginalized black underclass into which the veterans had been absorbed.
While the immediate sufferings of the black poor were to some extent alleviated by the distribution of food, clothes and charity there was no obvious long-term solution. Britain in the 1780s was in deep recession. Unemployment was shockingly high and the land enclosure in the countryside brought increasing numbers of poor and uprooted rural people to London, where they too were struggling to find work and sustenance. The black poor, as both aliens and newcomers, were firmly at the end of the queue for the little work available in the capital. They were also in competition for employment with hundreds of thousands of British sailors and soldiers who had been demobilized at the end of the American Revolutionary War. Of the forty-five claimants who presented their cases before the Loyalist Claims Commission only a handful suggested that they had had any paid employment while in England, and they probably represented the better educated and more highly skilled portion of the black loyalist population.28 When set against that economic backdrop it was clear that there was little prospect of the black poor finding jobs and security. They were likely to remain a visible and persistent social problem and an unwelcome reminder of military defeat and apparent national ingratitude.
There were those in London, including some figures on the committee, who just wanted them gone, and cared little about their long-term prospects. By the 1780s the defenders of slavery had begun a campaign of racist propagandizing that lasted until the 1830s. By the time the committee was formed, Edward Long’s influential History of Jamaica, with its hysterical warnings about the dangers of racial mixing, had been in print for twelve years. The view that the presence of black men in Britain would lead to a form of racial pollution was gaining currency. As the idea took hold, fuelled by pro-slavery pamphlets and satirical cartoons that lampooned black people, it was not just the sight of black men reduced to vagrancy that disturbed many wealthy Londoners, but the sight of black men with white wives and mixed-race children that stuck in their throats. Unlike the slaves dressed in livery who opened the doors of fashionable West London homes, or the little black pageboys in feathered Ottoman turbans making tea for their mistresses, the black poor were regarded as a threat rather than a novelty.
If British society in the 1780s could find no work and no place for the black poor then other solutions had to be identified. Resettlement was one option. Hanway suggested it as early as March 1786.29 But there were those among the black poor who wanted the government to transport them to another country, where they might find work, or be given access to land that offered a chance of self-sufficiency. Some proposed returning to the former American colonies as free men. Others wanted to settle in the West Indies or Nova Scotia, where they would join the three thousand black loyalists already there who, unbeknownst to the black poor of London, were suffering from lack of opportunity and economic exploitation by white settlers. Even as the worst of the winter weather abated, the black poor remained fully aware how bleak their immediate prospects in Britain were and that the relief from the committee upon which they had come to rely would be only temporary. Once again the only alternative to slavery offered to black people in Britain was starvation. If so, some form of transportation and resettlement seemed a better option.
The man with the plan was one Henry Smeathman: adventurer, botanist, amateur entomologist and – tragically for the black poor – amoral con artist. Smeathman’s links to Africa began a decade and a half earlier when he was dispatched to coastal Sierra Leone by Joseph Banks of the Royal Society. It was 1771, the year Banks’s mother was working with Granville Sharp to defend the abducted slave Thomas Lewis. Smeathman had been asked by Banks to collect plant specimens for the fast-expanding collection at Kew. He spent much of his time and did most his work on the Banana Islands, off Sierra Leone, and there he diversified, studying the insects of the region as well as its flora. Among the places Smeathman frequented during his time in Africa was the slave fortress on Bunce Island, where he was entertained by the slave-traders. He returned to England, gave some lectures and then moved to Paris and wrote a book, Some account of the termites, which are found in hot Climates, which, unsurprisingly, was not one of the bestsellers of the age. Smeathman’s hard labours in those hot climates, and his concerted efforts to insert himself into London’s scientific elite, had earned him the nickname ‘Mr Termite’, but not much else. By 1786 he was short of options. He was forty-four years old, his health had been severely damaged by long-term exposure to tropical diseases and his creditors were closing in. But the plight of the black poor, and the sudden and pressing need to identify a land upon which they might be resettled, allowed Smeathman to place himself at the centre of significant events, win the confidence of the great and the good and make some money.
In February 1786 he wrote to the Committee for the Black Poor, outlining what he called his ‘Plan of a Settlement to be made near Sierra Leona’. In this short pamphlet he proposed a scheme by which he personally would undertake to ‘remove the burthen of the Blacks from the public for ever’, by transporting London’s ‘troublesome Blacks back to Africa’. To win over the men of the committee Smeathman presented to them an almost entirely fictitious version of Sierra Leone. This imaginary land bore little resemblance to the country he had lived in and travelled across in the early 1770s. Smeathman described the deadly and storm-prone coastline as ‘one of the most pleasant and feasible countries in the known world’, a land so benign and welcoming the settlers could be housed all year round in simple huts, which would offer ample shelter. In this most benevolent of climates they would live comfortably and eat well, as the natural fecundity of the region was such that livestock bred ‘with a rapidity unknown in these colder climates’. ‘Such are the mildness and fertility of the climate and country’, Smeathman brazenly assured the committee, ‘that a man possessed of a change of cloathing, a wood axe, a hoe, and a pocket knife, may soon place himself in an easy and comfortable situation . . . it is not necessary to turn up the earth more, than from the depth of two or three inches, with a slight hoe, in order to cultivate any kind of grain.’30 These bumper crops would be supplemented by the unlimited numbers of wild game that supposedly wandered through the nearby forests and the incalculable stocks of fish in the rivers of the region.
There were, in the 1780s, a handful of written sources that offered more cautious and balanced assessments of the soil, landscape and climate of Sierra Leone but these were brushed aside as Smeathman won over his audience with a ceaselessly upbeat assessment of his scheme and its chances of success. As this intoxicating vision was unfolded, the fact that it came from a man who had lived in the region gave his words credibility and substance they did not deserve. To further entice the committee, he spun them the fiction that his proposed settlement of former slaves would, almost instantly, become a going economic concern. As the settlement was to be established on such fertile soil, cash crops produced by the settlers could repay potential future investors in the region and turn the settlers themselves into a happy and well-off peasantry. Furthermore this new outpost of British philanthropic colonialism would become a bridgehead from which the Grain Coast of Africa could be opened up to British commerce. Smeathman’s pitch had everything. It fused philanthropy with commerce and he sweetened the deal with some vague mumblings about Christianity. It also promised to spare well-to-do Londoners from the embarrassing inconvenience of having to walk past black veterans who had fought for their country only to be reduced to freezing beggars, sitting in rags on the street and slowly dying. The way Smeathman put it, there was nothing not to like. In a final flourish he sealed the deal and silenced any lingering doubts by offering to lead the expedition and settle on the coast of Sierra Leone himself, with the black poor. It was a masterful piece of salesmanship and a reprehensible act of deception.
Henry Smeathman knew exactly what the real dangers of Sierra Leone were. He had watched his own assistant, the Swedish botanist Anders Berlin, succumb to a tropical fever – probably malaria – and die within just a few months of arrival. He himself had been repeatedly struck down by tropical maladies and had never fully recovered. He knew of the terrible storms that raked the coastline, of the inundations that came during the rainy season, and of floods that poured off the mountains and which were capable of stripping away topsoil and devastating crops. Most damningly of all, he had, just one year earlier, offered a full and frank assessment of the dangers of Sierra Leone when speaking to another committee.
Here the history of Britain’s black population and her criminal underclass momentarily come together. In May 1785 a House of Commons committee had been gathering evidence to determine the best site on which to establish new penal colonies. The loss of the American colonies, as well as being an acute national embarrassment, had created an immediate and practical problem. It was to those now lost colonies that Britain had exported her convicts. Almost everyone who mattered agreed that penal servitude in distant colonies was a preferable (and cheaper) option than building more prisons, and it had long been thought that the sight of chain gangs in British fields would be an unacceptable insult to the natural freedoms which Englishmen regarded as their birth right. The chain gang was regarded as a feature of French Catholic tyranny that was entirely alien and repellent to British sensibilities; unless of course the men in chains were black slaves in the West Indies. In the 1780s, therefore, the search was on for a new location in which Britain could establish her penal colonies and to which she could disgorge her criminals. Most eyes turned to Africa, which in the 1780s was regarded as a continent of great promise and untapped potential. All sorts of schemes for African settlement, many of them utopian and impractical in nature, were proposed.31 One of the suggested sites for a convict settlement was an island off the coast of the Gambia, not far from Sierra Leone, and Henry Smeathman was brought before the committee as an expert witness. To this committee Smeathman described Sierra Leone not as some earthly paradise but as a death trap. If convicts were settled there, he told them, ‘not one in a Hundred would be left alive in Six Months’.32 Smeathman’s testimony helped spare the convicts miserable deaths on the coast of West Africa, and another scheme to settle them on the equally fatal shore of Namibia – later dubbed the Skeleton Coast – was abandoned when the Royal Navy’s HMS Nautilus returned from a fact-finding mission.33 Eventually all African options were discounted and the convicts of Georgian Britain were loaded aboard the First Fleet and dispatched to Botany Bay, making the colonization of Australia a bizarre and unintended consequence of the loss of America, and the unsuitability of Africa.
In 1786 nobody on the Committee for the Black Poor thought to dig out Smeathman’s earlier testimony, nor investigate why the House of Commons committee had rejected the Gambia as a possible site for a penal colony. When Smeathman was questioned by the Committee for the Black Poor about earlier attempts to settle on the West African coast, all of which had been derailed by tropical fevers, he brushed aside these concerns by claiming that settlers of those previous ventures had succumbed to tropical sickness because of their own ‘intemperance’ and their failure to follow proper medical procedures.
The illusory Eden that Smeathman presented to the committee in 1786 was strictly for their consumption. He knew where he was going and planned – while there – to get rich. During his time in Sierra Leone in the 1770s Smeathman – when not sick with fever – had looked upon the region not just as a field of entomological study but as virgin pasture on which he might, one day, establish his own plantations. It was commercial opportunity rather than scientific investigation, or any genuine desire to assist the black poor of London, that inspired him to return. He imagined himself growing wealthy from sugar or cotton, planted in African soil and tended by African hands. These were the crops that had made so many of his countrymen rich and on his return to London, in the hope of luring in an investor or two, he had proposed such schemes to anyone who would listen. In one of those proposed schemes he had suggested that a new form of labour might be pioneered in Sierra Leone, in which captives bought direct from slave ships on the West African coast would be set ‘free’ on the their own continent. However, in order to pay back the cost of their purchase, these supposedly free men and women would be forced to work on British plantations. Smeathman called it ‘Redemption’. It looked suspiciously like a form of temporary slavery, or of indentured labour.34 Smeathman had completely failed to find financial backers for any of his schemes, but had never stopped nursing dreams of returning to West Africa as a planter. The ‘Plan of a Settlement to be made near Sierra Leona’ that he presented in 1786 was in fact a reworking of one of those earlier commercial schemes. Unexpectedly, and for him fortunately, the crisis of the black poor had suddenly put him in a position to revive those ambitions. He now had the ear of the great, the good and the very rich and he finally persuaded two London merchants to invest in his side project, a scheme to cultivate cotton in Sierra Leone. This was the man into whose care the black poor were to be delivered.
By spring 1786 Smeathman had addressed all problems and allayed all fears. The committee was sold and on 17 May a proposal outlining the scheme was submitted to the Treasury. The cautious civil servants were not overly enthusiastic about Sierra Leone as a site of settlement, but they deferred to the judgement of the committee. The plan then went to the Commissioners of the Navy, who approved it the same day. The Treasury then agreed to find the funds and Henry Smeathman’s ‘Plan of a Settlement’, with all its fatal overconfidence and bluster, was given state sanction and state funding. The Treasury was to bear the costs of the scheme, paying £14 for each person settled and providing them with three months’ worth of food, as well as tools, clothes, medicines and some building materials. After three months it was hoped the settlers would have completed their huts and be on the verge of harvesting their first crops.
With the Treasury on board the pace of events increased rapidly. Smeathman was appointed ‘Agent for the Settlement’, and offices were established at 14 Cannon Street in London. Over the spring and into the summer of 1786 preparations moved at an incredible pace. Ships to carry the settlers were promised by the Navy Board. The Treasury proved to be more generous than expected and additional funds were given to pay for tools and equipment. Private donations were also gathered. Granville Sharp offered twenty-five guineas of his own money to buy gifts that might appease the local African kings.35 The plan was for the ships to sail in the autumn. This would spare the black poor another winter in London and ensure that they were settled before the arrival of Sierra Leone’s rainy season in May, one of the few climactic realities of the region the existence of which Smeathman had admitted.
In the meantime there were numerous issues to address. Firstly the black poor, refugees from one continent who had become destitute on another, needed certain reassurances before they were willing to travel to a third continent, and there forge an entirely new society. For one thing they were aware that Sierra Leone lay at the centre of the slave trade. To convince them of the wisdom of settling on a coastline patrolled by the slave ships of numerous nations, it was agreed that each settler would be provided with a parchment certificate confirming them as a free citizen of the ‘Colony of Sierra Leone’. How much protection these parchments might be was debatable but they kept the scheme on track for now.
To persuade more of the black poor to sign up, Jonas Hanway selected eight leaders whom he dubbed ‘corporals’ but who worked more like recruiting sergeants, convincing others to sign on for resettlement. We know a little more about the black poor through them. All the corporals were in their twenties, thirties or early forties. The youngest, John William Ramsey, was a seaman born in New York and only twenty-four. The oldest men, both forty, were John Cambridge and William Green; they were former servants. One, John Lemon, was a lascar from Bengal and two others had been born in Africa. The rest were American or from the West Indies.36
In early July, with preparations racing ahead, Henry Smeathman suddenly died. Appropriately enough, given his blasé dismissal of the tropical diseases of Sierra Leone, he may well have succumbed to the long-term effects of a fever he had caught there. His death was put down to what was called a ‘putrid fever’, which probably meant malaria.37 Smeathman’s demise was a belated opportunity to forestall disaster. With Mr Termite no longer around to spin fantasies his motives and his financial probity were called into question; Smeathman, it appeared, had been less than punctilious in his distribution of payments to the black poor. In the light of this, his rosy assessment of Sierra Leone was momentarily questioned. Alternative locations for the black colony in the Americas that had been discounted were now reconsidered by Hanway and others. A month before Smeathman’s death the second chairman of the committee, Benjamin Johnson, fell so ill that he fled London for his country home and two months after Smeathman’s demise the elderly Jonas Hanway passed away.38 Had anyone been on the lookout for bad portents they were not in short supply, but instead a replacement for Smeathman, Joseph Irwin, was appointed and the scheme limped on.
Among the voices that were raised in defence of Sierra Leone, in the absence of Smeathman, were those of the black poor themselves. Some of the corporals selected to lead them had, as much as anyone on the committee, been inspired by Smeathman’s vision of an African Eden. Some may have been romantically attracted to the idea of returning to the continent of their ancestors.39 Delegations of the black poor now approached Granville Sharp to get his support for Sierra Leone, and the post-Smeathman panic subsided. Even some of the Indian lascars seem to have been committed to Sierra Leone as their final destination. It was at this point that Sharp became more actively involved in the settlement scheme. Despite the Somerset judgement, slave owners did still attempt to seize and transport black men and women to the West Indies to be sold as slaves and Sharp was still from time to time called upon to extract writs of habeas corpus from the judges and rush to the assistance of imprisoned Africans. In the summer of 1786 he saved a man named Henry Demane, plucking him from the ship in which he was being held captive at the very last minute. Having rescued him, Sharp persuaded him to become one of the prospective settlers.
The Sierra Leone scheme survived Smeathman’s death because it was broad enough and vague enough for men of widely opposing views to find comfort in it, and it was sponsored and supported by a wide spectrum of opinion. To Granville Sharp and others of an anti-slavery bent, it was a unique opportunity to build a new society dedicated to ancient English principles and freedoms. Sharp believed that a black settlement founded on free labour, self-reliance and Christianity would become a practical demonstration of an alternative system of trade with Africa that was economically as well as morally superior to the slave trade and slavery. For those who simply did not like the presence of poor black people on the streets of the capital, it was a means of removing at least some of the unwanted black people who offended them, and thereby also reduce levels of racial mixing, which they found especially troubling.
In October three ships were assigned to the mission, the Belisarius, the Atlantic and the Vernon. They anchored off Deptford in the Thames and awaited their passengers. It was now that the enthusiasm of some of the would-be colonists began to wane. Very few had been born in Africa; like the corporals selected to represent them, most were North American or West Indian, yet the committee was convinced that their best chances of a successful future were to be found on an entirely unfamiliar ‘home’ continent. Some of the black poor made it clear that if they were to leave England they would prefer to go to Nova Scotia or the West Indies. To encourage them to go and to accept Sierra Leone as the only viable destination, the committee, during the summer of 1786, attempted to make the weekly allowances they had been paying since February dependent upon their agreeing to resettlement. In June some rejected the payment rather than sign on for resettlement and there was much disagreement and changing of minds. The committee and the government together made various moves to pressure them. The committee asked members of the public to stop giving charity to black beggars and the vagrancy laws were deployed to make their lives on the streets even more difficult. The question of how voluntary the scheme was is a controversial one, long debated by historians. While there was certainly some attempt at coercion there was also, at certain times, palpable enthusiasm for the project among members of the black poor, an increasingly organized and vocal community. Some were literate, and they did not simply submit to the committee’s plan; they negotiated terms and sought reassurances. Interest in the scheme had even begun to spread beyond the black loyalists. Some of those who wanted to leave for Sierra Leone were former domestic slaves who had been brought to Britain before the 1780s, but who could see no future for themselves in London and were inspired by the vision of an African settlement. Sections of the black poor may have been reconciled to the scheme by the growing prominence of Granville Sharp. If so they will have been further comforted when they learnt that the man appointed to the role of commissary, in charge of the mission’s supplies and stores, was the former slave Olaudah Equiano. A former sailor himself and an educated and respected figure, he was perfect for the role. This was the highest-ranking position to which a black Briton had ever been assigned by the British state.40
The doubts of the black poor and the organizational paralysis that followed the deaths of Smeathman and Hanway meant that the scheme, which had progressed so rapidly in the spring and early summer, suffered a series of crippling delays. This ensured that the original timetable which had been agreed between the committee and the navy collapsed. By September 1786, almost a thousand people were in receipt of charity from the committee. The government was meeting most of the cost in the hope that the majority of them would agree to resettlement in Sierra Leone. Nearly seven hundred had signed on, but by November, a month after the scheduled departure, only two hundred and fifty-nine were on board the transport ships. While they waited in the Thames, the committee was making final arrangements and attempting to cajole and convince others to join them. One factor that made this more difficult was that in the same months another armada was being assembled on the southern coast of England. At Portsmouth the ships of the First Fleet were making their preparations to carry the first convict colonists to Botany Bay. Rather unhelpfully there were those in the press who compared the two schemes, and a rumour spread that the black poor were to be sent not to Africa but to Botany Bay, along with the criminals. There was some logistical crossover between the schemes – surplus clothes gathered for the black poor were sent to the convicts – and the belief grew that the plan for an African settlement and the creation of the Australian penal colony were connected. The general public was fascinated by both projects and press reports linking and comparing the two schemes had an unfortunate and destabilizing effect on members of the black poor, many of whom were already having second thoughts about resettlement. They were even warned against the scheme by Lord George Gordon, the infamous rabble-rouser and hero of the London mob who instigated the Gordon Riots of 1780.41
To make matters worse, those who had signed up and were on board the ships at Deptford were living in terrible conditions, subsisting on inadequate naval rations of salted food. Conditions in the ships were comparable to those in the hulks, the dreaded floating prisons, which did little to quell rumours that they were bound for a convict station. As the winter of 1786–87 came on, the situation at Deptford became even more desperate. Although it was not an exceptionally cold winter, temperatures started to drop in September and November was one of the coldest on record. Sickness cut a swathe through the people on board. Even at this late stage the black poor appear to have still been lacking warm clothes and perhaps as many as fifty of them died while the ships lay at anchor. Others abandoned them, preferring to take their chances on the streets. Among those who succumbed to fevers on board was John Provey, who had served in America with the Black Pioneers, only to have his petition to the Loyalist Claims Commission rejected. With no pension or prospects, Provey, his white English wife Ann and their daughter Louisa had agreed to be resettled in Sierra Leone and signed an agreement to that effect.42 But both John and Louisa died, leaving Ann to travel to Africa widowed and bereaved.
The conditions on board the ships were inexcusably bad. There was a lack of beds and bedding; wood for stoves seemed always to be in short supply, as did drinking water and candles. Olaudah Equiano became suspicious that Joseph Irwin, Smeathman’s replacement, was siphoning off money intended for the care of the black poor and he resented the high-handed treatment meted out to them by both Irwin and the Reverend Patrick Fraser, whom Granville Sharp had appointed as missionary for the Sierra Leone settlement, after having categorically refused to accept the appointment of preachers from any of the Nonconformist denominations. Equiano wrote to Otobah Cugoano, another famous and literary black Londoner, detailing the misuse of funds and mistreatment of the settlers. When Equiano’s letter made its way into the press there was a bitter dispute between him and Irwin. Captain Thomas Boulden Thompson of HMS Nautilus, which was to accompany the black poor to Africa, believed that Irwin was incompetent but in a row between a black man and a white man, Equiano was almost bound to lose. It was decided that Equiano was a disruptive influence who had poisoned the minds of the black poor, who had become ‘troublesome and discontented’ as a result of his intrigues. He was dismissed and put ashore at Plymouth. Later he was awarded £50 in compensation by the Admiralty.
By 22 January the last of the settlers had been assembled and once again the records speak, giving us a glimpse of who the black poor were. On board the three ships were four hundred and eighteen passengers. By Equiano’s reckoning there were two hundred and ninety black men, forty-one black women, seventy white women, six white children and eleven black children, some of whom, like Louisa Provey, were the mixed-race offspring of inter-racial couples. Accompanying them were thirty-eight white men in various roles – supervisors, doctors, missionaries and craftsmen. There was also one courageous private passenger. The lists for the three ships were drawn up, with each person listed under one of various headings. The category that has most surprised historians is ‘White Women married to Black Men’. It used to be believed that these women were prostitutes who had been gathered up at Wapping and forced to marry the black men on the ships. As unwanted and reviled as the black poor they too, it was said, had been transported to Sierra Leone. The original source of this interpretation is an account by Anna Maria Falconbridge, the wife of the abolitionist campaigner Alexander Falconbridge, who visited Sierra Leone in 1791. We shall hear more of Mrs Falconbridge later. In her letters, which were later published as a travel account, she described coming across ‘seven of our country women, decrepid with disease, and so disguised with filth and dirt, that I should never have supposed they were born white’. Falconbridge then recounted a conversation she claimed to have had with one of the women in which she was told that ‘the women were mostly of that description of persons who walk the streets of London, and support themselves by the earnings of prostitution; that men were employed to collect and conduct them to Wapping, where they were intoxicated with liquor, then inveigled on board of a ship, and married to Black men, whom they had never seen before; that the morning after she was married, she really did not remember a syllable of what had happened over night, and when informed, was obliged to inquire who was her husband . . . “to the disgrace of my mother country, upwards of one hundred unfortunate women, were seduced from England to practice their iniquities more brutishly in this horrid country”.’43
Falconbridge’s assertion that the women who had travelled to Sierra Leone as the wives of the black settlers had effectively been press-ganged went unquestioned for many years. Yet it is extremely doubtful when considered in context. As Simon Schama has pointed out it is hardly credible that a man as pious and principled as Granville Sharp, who had overseen every tiny detail of the Sierra Leone mission, would, at the last minute, have agreed to the transportation to his Province of Freedom of sixty to seventy London street prostitutes,44 while the historian Norma Myers points out that as the ships carrying the black poor were delayed by several months there was surely ample time for any press-ganged prostitutes to effect their escape. Another practical problem with Falconbridge’s account is that the ships carrying the black poor were never anchored at Wapping, and given the vast scale of Georgian London’s sex industry it would have taken a far larger armada of ships to have even begun to clear the city of its sex workers; the numbers transported to Sierra Leone, even if they all had been prostitutes, would have hardly scratched the surface.
Falconbridge’s account perhaps speaks of a mindset in which prostitution was the only conceivable, or at least the only palatable, explanation as to why white women might enter into relationships with black men. The more obvious, more domestic and mundane reality, that Anna Maria Falconbridge found inconceivable, is that these poor white women had married these equally poor black men and together, despite their poverty, they were attempting to build families and secure a livelihood. The black poor had after all been in London for three years, and were for the most part men in their twenties and thirties. As the parish registers of many London churches testify and as the prints of Hogarth graphically illustrate, the Georgian poor did not allow poverty to stand in the way of romance or pour cold water on the fires of lust.
By cross-checking the columns of names on the passenger lists for the ships, Belisarius, Atlantic and Vernon, the inter-racial couples are revealed. There are forty-four in total.45 Eliza Benn was likely the wife of Isaac Benn, Jane Working the wife of William Working, Sarah Needham the wife of John Needham. Elizabeth and Peter Ornfield are recorded as leaving England with their son William Ornfield, who like other mixed-race children was categorized in the passenger list under the heading ‘Black Children’. It seems equally likely that Sarah Cambridge was the wife of John Cambridge, one of the appointed ‘corporals’, and another of the ‘corporals’, John Lemon, the lascar from Bengal, is listed as travelling to Africa with his white wife Elizabeth, neither of them having any obvious connection to the continent on which they hoped to make their new home. What the passenger lists demonstrate is that this London community of the late eighteenth century, although categorized by the rich and influential as the ‘black poor’, was in reality inter-racial, made up of recent immigrants and those born and bred in Britain, their mixed-race children what we today incongruously call second-generation immigrants. Their ragged clothes and sunken cheeks aside, these multi-racial, multi-ethnic London families – African, West Indian, North American, Asian, mixed-race and white – will have looked very much like thousands of families who have made their homes in the London of the early twenty-first century.
The Belisarius, Atlantic and Vernon finally sailed out of the Thames in January 1787, a full four months behind schedule. The first stop was Portsmouth, where they rendezvoused with their escort, HMS Nautilus. After a further outbreak of fever and a terrifying encounter with a winter storm in the Channel that forced them to regroup in Plymouth, they finally set sail for Africa in early April, by which time 411 of the original 456 remained. On 10 March, after a difficult month at sea, the little flotilla slipped into Africa’s greatest natural harbour, at the mouth of the Sierra Leone River. Ahead of them, in the far distance, they saw the hazy peaks of the Sierra Leone mountains, named by Portuguese sailors in the fifteenth century. The coastline was green and verdant, fringed with white sand beaches that remain some of the loveliest in Africa. In a century during which around seven million people had been shipped from Africa in chains and shackles, the three ships carrying the black poor of London were uniquely heading in the opposite direction, taking former New World slaves, along with their white wives and mixed-race children, back to Africa. This strange, hopeful community of free peoples had arrived to establish a settlement that Granville Sharp had grandly dubbed the Province of Freedom.
They landed in the sheltered harbour of the peninsula that sits near the mouth of the Sierra Leone River. The landing site was called Frenchman’s Bay. This was immediately remedied and Frenchman’s Bay became St George’s Bay. Almost as rapidly, a treaty was agreed with King Tom of the Koya Temne people, who, after a thirteen-gun salute from HMS Nautilus and a short period of negotiation, ‘sold’ the settlers a twenty-square-mile block of territory upon which they built their settlement. King Tom, a coastal king and subsidiary ruler with limited power, happily agreed to the transaction, partly because he disavowed the European notion of land-ownership. With long experience of trading with Europeans, and fluent in the pidgin Portuguese of the Grain Coast, King Tom was not some befuddled innocent, but a player in the Atlantic world economy. In his mind what he sold the colonists was merely permission to settle. In return he received the usual jumble of goods, some functional, others impractical luxuries. King Tom’s haul on this occasion included 130 gallons of rum, some clothes and hats. Sharp, in a later letter, derided the payment as ‘a trifling expense’.46
In the weeks that followed, parcels of land were cleared of trees and scrub, huts built and a Union flag raised. The pioneers called their little settlement Granville Town in honour of Sharp. HMS Nautilus remained at anchor to offer the settlers some protection. When, some months later, Granville Sharp received the first reports of their arrival and early progress he enthusiastically informed his supporters of their purchase of ‘twenty miles square of the finest and most beautiful country (they all allow) that was ever seen! The hills are not steeper than Shooter’s Hill [in London]; and fine streams of fresh water run down the hill on each side of the new township; and in the front is a noble bay, where the river is about three leagues wide: the woods and groves are beautiful beyond description, and the soil very fine. So that a little good management may, with God’s blessing, still produce a thriving settlement.’47
What Sharp wanted to create in Sierra Leone was not merely a refuge for those unfortunates among the poor of London who happened to be both destitute and black. In a letter written in 1789 he described the establishment of his Province of Freedom as the culmination of his life’s work, the climax of a providentially ordained personal mission that had begun two decades earlier, on the day in 1765 when he had happened upon Jonathan Strong, sitting beaten and bloodied, outside his brother’s surgery in Mincing Lane. Sharp wrote of how his mission had demanded that he had, ‘with indefatigable labour, for above twenty-two years, and at a great expense, asserted and maintained the glorious principles and foundations of the English Law (and having thereby, through the blessing and providence of God, prevented slavery from taking root in England)’. After winning that sacred struggle he had now ‘obtained from Government a tacit permission to plant the same noble privileges even in Africa itself, that the new settlement might be truly deemed a Province of Freedom’.48
To ensure the settlement was the true realization of this sacred mission, Sharp had provided the settlers with a book, which he had entitled A Short Sketch of Temporary Regulations (until better shall be proposed) for the Intended Settlement on the Grain Coast of Africa, near Sierra Leona.At 226 pages it was a pretty long short sketch. It was in effect his blueprint for the new form of government that the black settlers were to establish. After a long preface, heavy with biblical quotations, the Short Sketch described this new society. It was to be steeped in the traditions of English common law, in which, after his victory in the Somerset case, Granville Sharp had fathomless conviction. The social structure that he proposed for the black settlers was based upon his own interpretation of ‘Frankpledge’, an Anglo-Saxon communal social structure that had existed in England and Denmark in the early Middle Ages. The Province of Freedom was to be a society in which households were responsible collectively for order and justice. Citizens were organized into groups of households, each ten persons strong, and were bound to one another and obliged to ‘the protection and preservation of their common freedom.’49 There was to be a ‘publick Exchequer’, which was to administer the economy of the settlement, and all unoccupied land was to be common land. Overlaid onto this archaic social structure was a regime of ceaseless prayer and Christian worship. Sharp’s Short Sketch contained a chapter on regulations for the collection and expenditure of public revenue, and another on agrarian law. There was also an appendix listing numerous ‘Short Forms of Prayer for various Occasions, with Previous Exhortations’. There was even guidance on diet, which repeatedly stressed the importance of temperance. Among the early chapters was one outlining the system of free labour that the settlers were to adhere to. ‘Human Labour is more essential and valuable than any other article in new settlements’, Sharp wrote, and to sanctify it further he ordained that work was to become a medium of exchange as well as a means of personal betterment. Sharp had a form of currency printed; each note came replete with verses from the Bible and was, in theory, redeemable for a certain number of days’ work. There were also to be limitations on indentured servitude and a demand that fugitive slaves who fled to the settlement be ‘protected and allowed to purchase Land,’ through their own labour.50 Sharp’s fervent religiously inspired detestation of slavery burns through numerous pages. In his section on Redemption from Slavery, Sharp insists that ‘no person can retain, or sell or employ, a slave within the bounds of the settlement.’51
There was much in Sharp’s Temporary Regulations that was commendable; this, after all, was a blueprint for self-rule and equality drafted at a time when millions of Africans in the New World occupied a chattel status akin to that of livestock. However, that settlement had been established, on the advice of the late Henry Smeathman, just twenty miles from the slave fortress at Bunce Island. The colonists were able to stand on their allotted plots within the Province of Freedom and watch slave ships slip up and down the Sierra Leone River, carrying trade goods to the chiefs and traders inland, and returning with hundreds of fellow Africans, chained and terrified, on their lower decks. The British slave ships that cruised along the shore travelled, as the settlers themselves had done, under the protection of the warships of the Royal Navy. Not only had they set themselves up within one of the centres of the Atlantic slave trade, they had done so in one of the boom decades of that trade. There was so much slave-trading activity on the Sierra Leone River in the late 1780s partly because the end of the American Revolutionary War, in which so many of the settlers had fought, allowed Europe’s slave-traders to focus on business rather than worry about enemy vessels. Around eighty thousand Africans were carried across the Atlantic to lives of slavery each year during the peak decade of the 1780s. Had they not been so heavily burdened by the tasks of building homes, planting crops and trying to survive, the settlers of the Province of Freedom might have had time to contemplate the mountain of contradictions upon which the whole scheme teetered. On a peninsula protruding into one of the great highways of the Atlantic slave trade, a few hundred refugees from British slavery in North America were attempting to recreate the social structures of Northern Europe in the Middle Ages. Yet while they in their little clearing debated the complexities of Danelaw, just twenty miles away the traders of Bunce Island lived an existence that was no less surreal.
The ruins of the fortress belie its former luxury: this was also a mansion. By 1787 Bunce Island was owned and run by the firm of John and Alexander Anderson. They were the nephews of Richard Oswald, the British slave-trader and diplomat who, just five years earlier, had negotiated the terms of the Paris Peace Treaty, ending the Revolutionary War. The traders who worked for the Anderson brothers lived on the upper floors of the agents’ house at the centre of the fortress. There they sat drinking their rum and wine on a broad, shaded wooden veranda that offered them great sweeping views across the river. In the afternoons they played golf on their own two-hole golf course on the southern side of the island. At night they slept in rooms on the upper floors of the agents’ house, entertained by concubines selected from the enslaved women ferried to the island by the local African and Afro-European traders. Below them, behind the stone walls of the open air slave yards, hundreds of captives, men, women and children, sat in the darkness, bewildered and terrified. Compared to the dismal realities of Bunce Island, Granville Sharp’s naive utopianism seems harmless. Sadly for the settlers it was anything but, as in the climate of Sierra Leone, Sharp’s pious naivety, combined with the cynical dishonesty of the late Henry Smeathman, proved deadly.
The four months the expedition had wasted lying in the Thames had not only exposed the settlers to another English winter, it had ensured that they had arrived in Sierra Leone at the worst possible time of year. The rainy season started within two weeks of their arrival. Much of what they had planted in their newly marked-out fields was washed away, along with much of the topsoil, which had been left vulnerable to erosion by clearing away the natural vegetation.52 Large areas of the peninsula quickly became waterlogged. The crops that were not drowned by the rains were consumed by pests and moulds. The heat was debilitating, especially to men and women most of whom had known only the temperate climates of the North American colonies. The forests in which Henry Smeathman had suggested the settlers might effortlessly hunt local game turned out to be impenetrable jungles, dark thickets of tangled vines. The settlers thought they had seen the worst of it when, in June, the skies turned an angry grey, the temperatures dropped and a series of tropical storms and gales hammered into the coastline, one after another. Water cascaded down the mountains that had appeared so benign on their arrival and dirty rivulets spread their tendrils across the settlement. The miserable huts the settlers had begun to build were saturated by constant rain and then ripped apart by the high winds. The tents with which they had been supplied were similarly obliterated, and when they made improvised tents from old sails they too were overwhelmed and offered little protection. But the land was not just hostile; it was pestilential. Soon after their arrival the residents of Granville Town began to fall ill. The tropical diseases that just one year earlier Henry Smeathman had claimed were easily preventable started to take their toll. Millions of mosquito larvae swarmed and multiplied in the pools of water left by the rains and swarms of insects emerged. Many of those afflicted with tropical conditions like malaria were further fatally weakened by an outbreak of dysentery, and the death toll rose. In the middle of September HMS Nautilus returned to Britain, as had always been planned. By the time she weighed anchor, one hundred and twenty-two of the settlers who had stepped ashore in May were dead.
Men who had survived the smallpox outbreaks that had decimated the black regiments of the Revolutionary War, or lived through the epic bombardments and unpardonable betrayal of Yorktown six years later, died of fevered dehydration in half-completed, mildewed huts, in a pitiful clearing by the Sierra Leone River. The late Mr Smeathman’s betrayal of the black loyalists, delivered albeit from the grave, compared even to that of Cornwallis at Yorktown.
Rather than attempt to build the utopia outlined in Sharp’s Short Sketch of Temporary Regulations, the settlers threw themselves desperately into the trading economy of the Grain Coast. They gathered the tools with which the Committee for the Black Poor had imagined they would build this New Jerusalem and bartered them for food with the local Temne people and with the slave-traders of Bunce Island. The white supervisors who had control over the settlement’s supplies did best out of these sales.
The letters that Granville Sharp wrote from London and the correspondence he received from the settlers plot the decline of the scheme and the well-being of the settlers. As letters from the colonists reached him in London, Sharp dashed off a string of correspondence to his supporters and financial backers that reveal the alarming intelligence he was receiving and his own desperate misery about the fate of the settlers.53 By October 1787, six months after the settlers had arrived, Sharp was complaining of being in receipt of ‘melancholy accounts of my poor little ill-thriven swarthy daughter, the unfortunate colony of Sierra Leone’. But at this stage he was still able to convince himself that the scheme had a chance of success. In July 1787 Abraham Elliott Griffith, one of the black poor who had survived the epidemics and pestilence, wrote to Sharp. ‘I am sorry, and very sorry indeed, to inform you, dear Sir,’ he began, ‘that this country does not agree with us at all and without a very sudden change, I do not think there will be one of us left at the end of a twelvemonth. Neither can the people be brought to any rule or regulation, they are so very obstinate in their tempers. It was really a very great pity ever we came to this country, after the death of Mr. Smeathman; for we are settled upon the very worst part. There is not a thing, which is put into the ground, will grow more than a foot out of it . . . quite a plague seems to reign here among us. I have been dangerously ill myself, but it pleased the Almighty to restore me to health again and the first opportunity I have, I shall embark for the West Indies.’54
When the news from Sierra Leone became even more bleak, Sharp, in one of his least admirable moments, blamed the failure of the settlement not on the many impracticalities of the scheme, but on the easy target of alcohol, thereby falling back on the same excuse Henry Smeathman had deployed when explaining away the failure of every previous scheme to settle the region. Writing in January 1788, Sharp acknowledged that the four-month delay in leaving England had ‘fatally postponed their arrival on the coast till the rainy season commenced’, which he accepted had allowed ‘dreadful fevers and a great mortality’ to cut a swathe through the settlers. So calamitous had been their arrival, Sharp conceded, that the settlers had not even had ‘time to prepare sufficient shelter and accommodation for themselves at their landing’. But he convinced himself that while all that was true, ‘the greatest blame of all is to be charged on the intemperance of the people themselves; for the most of them (both Whites and Blacks) became so besotted during the voyage, that they were totally unfit for business when they landed, and could hardly be prevailed on to assist in erecting their own huts. Besides, the distempers occasioned by their intemperance carried off a large proportion of them before they reached the coast; so that the climate of Africa is by no means chargeable with the mortality’.55 Sharp maintained that the land would yield crops with ‘very little labour’. Even in the wake of so much bad news and evidence to the contrary he remained dedicated to the fanciful (and in the circumstances self-indulgent) belief that if the settlers would only commit to following his regulations ‘they would become the freest and the happiest people on earth’.56 The puritanical, fanatical aspects of Sharp’s nature that had made him such an effective and belligerent campaigner against slavery in England in the 1760s and 1770s now blinded him to the deadly calamity that was being played out three thousand miles away in a doomed settlement named in his honour.
By September 1788 only a hundred and thirty of the original settlers were left alive. Sharp was aggrieved by the loss of life but what shocked him most profoundly was that some of the desperate settlers, and a number of the white functionaries sent out to help them build their Province of Freedom, had fled to Bunce Island and there sought safety and employment among the slave-traders. A few became slave-traders of sorts themselves, or at least handmaidens to the process – working as clerks in the fortress or on the repair of ships in Bunce Island’s own dockyard. Among those who found refuge were Charles Tacitus, Henry Estwick and Richard Collins, three white men who had been dispatched to Sierra Leone to perform various functions. In November 1789 Sharp wrote from London, ‘It gives me great concern to find, by these letters, that Mr. Tacitus, Captain Estwick, and Mr. Collins, have deserted the Province of Freedom, in order to enter into the Slave Trade. By the laws of the settlement, they have forfeited, of course, every right and claim they had to any share in it; and I hope you will be careful that none of them be ever permitted to return’.57Another ‘deserter’ was Patrick Fraser, the white chaplain. As Sharp had received reports of Fraser’s extreme ill-health he was more understanding in his case. Safe and fed behind the walls of the slave fortress, Fraser recovered from tubercular fever and began to offer his ministries to the slave-traders. They were more interested in women and rum, so he attempted also to minister to the slaves. The defection that clearly most shocked and hurt Sharp was of Henry Demane, the former slave whom he had saved from being transported to the West Indies in the summer of 1765. The news that a man he had released from chains was now fixing collars and shackles onto the necks and legs of others brought out all of his fiery religiosity. In a furious letter of late 1789 he demanded that Demane, ‘who, I am informed, is now a great man on the Bulam shore, and a dealer in Slaves’, be reminded ‘of the joy he felt when he saw two men, sent with a writ of Habeas Corpus, so exactly in time (most providentially) to rescue him . . . Remind Mr. Henry Demane of his own feelings under the horrors of slavery, when he turned his face to the mast of the ship (into which he was trepanned by his wicked master), and formed a resolution, as he afterwards confessed, to jump overboard that very night, rather than submit to a temporary slavery for life; but he is now in danger of eternal slavery!’58
What finally ended the social experiment and destroyed the Province of Freedom was not malaria nor the lure of an easier life as a slave agent on Bunce Island but an accident. When a stray shot was fired by a young marine from the crew of the visiting HMS Pomona, the thatched roof of a hut in a nearby Temne village caught fire, and the whole settlement was razed. Fighting then broke out between the British forces and the Temne, which lasted several days. After the confrontation had abated, King Jimmy, the successor to King Tom who had agreed to the settlement back in early 1787, sent his men to burn to the ground what little was left of Granville Town and drive out the last surviving settlers. It was December 1788 and the people were given three days to evacuate. To make their failure complete the canoes that came to rescue them were those of the slave-traders of Bunce Island. After this calamity Sharp wrote to William Pitt, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, who had supported the scheme from the outset, to admit that only around seventy of the settlers remained alive and that about ten of them were making their living working for the slave-traders. The rest attempted to build a new settlement upstream from the slave fortress. ‘If they are neglected much longer’, Sharp warned, ‘they must perish and fall into the snares of their enemies, the neighbouring slave-dealers, by whose machinations their misfortunes have been occasioned, and the advantage of opening a free and honest trade with the internal parts of Africa . . . will be irrecoverably lost’.59
To those Londoners who, unlike Granville Sharp, cared little about opening free and honest trade in Africa, and had merely wanted the black poor brushed off the streets, the Sierra Leone scheme had been a limited success. Once the three transport ships had set sail for Africa, the Committee for the Black Poor had dissolved itself and its members had moved on to the next philanthropic cause. Granville Sharp had sunk over £1,700 of his own money into the scheme and remained resolutely convinced that on the Grain Coast of Africa – a land upon which he never had and never would set foot – a model community might yet be created that could demonstrate that there was an economically viable alternative to the vast, hyper-profitable slave economy of the Atlantic world.
Perhaps the most extraordinary feature of any of the improbable settlements that were established by Britain on various continents in the last years of the eighteenth century is that anything came of any of them. That so many of the convicts of the First Fleet survived their journey and their first years in Australia, and that Britain was able to establish working penal colonies, and then a viable settler society, on a largely uncharted continent ten thousand miles away is entirely remarkable. Almost as incredible is the fact that the site on which the black poor of late Georgian London attempted to forge their Province of Freedom is not today some anonymous patch of coastal forest but lies instead beneath the sprawling concrete and corrugated-iron metropolis of modern Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. Perhaps this stunning peninsula, jutting out into a near-perfect natural harbour, was always destined to become the site of a city but the process that created modern Freetown had its roots in the failure of the Province of Freedom.
Even before King Jimmy had driven the last of the settlers out of Granville Town, the man in whose honour that little settlement had been named had been industriously planning further waves of settlement and organizing missions of resupply. Unable to draw further on the Sharp family’s own wealth, he came together with others to create the St George’s Bay Company in 1790, quickly reorganized into the financially more robust Sierra Leone Company, a joint-stock company – one of the great innovations of the age. Among its investors were some of the men with whom Sharp had already established the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade – William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson, and James Phillips. The company promised to develop future settlements on the Grain Coast and to provide financial returns to its investors from the settlers’ crops. Article 2 in the founding documents of the company read, ‘The Object for which Sierra Leone Company is instituted is the establishment of a trade with Africa on the true principles of Commerce, carrying British manufacturers and other articles of traffick and bringing back African produce in exchange’.60
Again sugar and cotton, the two great slave-produced, monoculture crops of the age, were notionally favoured. Sharp and his abolitionist colleagues hoped that sugar grown by free black settlers in Sierra Leone would do more than merely generate profits. They imagined that it might play a part in the boycott of slave-produced sugar that was proposed by Thomas Clarkson, an ethical alternative to the millions of tons of sugar that streamed incessantly off the ships of the triangular trade. Future settlers might trade with the inland peoples up the rivers of the region, offering British products in return for the legitimate produce and raw materials of Africa – dyewoods, ivory and other commodities. This exchange was also envisaged as a means by which the dominance of the trade in human beings could be undone. More and more schemes for settlement in Sierra Leone were beginning to resemble aspects of Henry Smeathman’s plan for commercial colonization. Sharp was willing to accept this new commercialism so long as the principles of liberty remained central to the administration of the settlement and the lives of any future settlers. Article 3 of the company’s founding document read: ‘The Proprietors of the present company are fully persuaded that if proper means are taken and prosecuted with diligence and perseverance, the Continent of Africa will furnish commodities for the support of an extensive and increasing Commerce, without resorting to the miserable expedient of selling the inhabitants as slaves in order to furnish a return . . .’61
In 1791 the company sent a commercial agent to Sierra Leone to negotiate with the Temne king and persuade the survivors of Granville Town to return to their plots and begin planting crops. The man chosen was Alexander Falconbridge, who had worked as a surgeon on slave ships but after a profound crisis of conscience had renounced the slave trade. In 1788 he had published his damning and graphic Account of the Slave Trade on the Coast of Africa, one of the early and most harrowing of the anti-slavery tracts that Britain’s abolitionists published in the last decades of the eighteenth century. Falconbridge travelled to Africa with his wife Anna Maria and his brother William on a ship that was bound ultimately for Bunce Island and was owned by the Anderson brothers, the proprietors of the fortress. With inexcusable haste William Falconbridge, shortly after arriving in Sierra Leone, betrayed his brother, abandoned their philanthropic mission and joined the slave-traders on Bunce Island.62
From his desk in London, Granville Sharp received only intermittent letters and reports from Sierra Leone. From these flickering snapshots he struggled to comprehend exactly what had become of the settlers. How many had survived, and of those who had been spared the attentions of the mosquito and the rage of King Jimmy, how many might yet become reliable, Christian settlers in a newly constituted Province of Freedom? But with so few of the original emigrants reportedly alive – between seventy and eighty, Sharp was informed – new blood was needed.
The settlers who risked their lives in the second attempt to create a Province of Freedom in Africa were, like their unfortunate predecessors, black loyalists, men and women who had escaped from New York, Charleston and Savannah in the early 1780s. The bulk of those who had been evacuated in the dying months of the Revolutionary War had found themselves not on the streets of London but settled on the cold, empty plains of Nova Scotia, in British North America. There three thousand of them had settled. In 1783 they had been promised not just freedom but also land but in the majority of cases that solemn promise had been broken. The best land in Nova Scotia was distributed to the white settlers, while many of the plots that were awarded to black loyalists were on marginal farmland, difficult to cultivate and impossible to cultivate profitably. They struggled to farm on these bleak, stone-strewn fields, often without the necessary agricultural tools and equipment, which were in short supply. Some were forced to abandon their unprofitable plots and become indentured servants to white settlers, selling their labour and to some extent their liberty, for an agreed number of years. It was an existence that was uncomfortably redolent of the slavery they had done so much to escape. Black Nova Scotians were also subject to taxation while being denied representation. They were the victims of routine prejudice and lived uneasily in a territory into which the white settlers had brought over a thousand black slaves. Slavery remained legal in British colonial territories right up until the 1830s. Like free black people in the North of the United States, the black Nova Scotians also lived in fear of the kidnapping gangs who seized the unwary, bundled them onto ships and trafficked them to the plantations of the Southern United States and the West Indian islands.
Towards the end of 1790 one of their number, Thomas Peters, a former slave from North Carolina and a veteran of the Revolutionary War, persuaded two hundred black loyalist families to award him power of attorney. Peters, who had risen to the rank of sergeant during the war, travelled to London carrying with him a list of complaints and a petition from the black loyalists demanding the land that had been promised to them. Peters’ plan was to present the petition to William Grenville, the Home Secretary. To gain access to these exalted circles Peters hunted down his former commander-in-chief, Sir Henry Clinton, the author of the second proclamation offering freedom to slaves. It was through Clinton, it seems, that Peters was introduced to several members of Parliament and, eventually, to Granville Sharp. At some point during Peters’ time in London – and here the records are frustratingly vague – it was decided that the misfortunes and unhappiness of the black Nova Scotians might be ameliorated if they agreed to form the second wave of settlers to Sierra Leone.
Every black loyalist willing to travel to Sierra Leone was promised twenty acres of land and free transportation. The new settlement was to be built upon the ruins – both physical and conceptual – of the Province of Freedom and Sharp remained determined that the new society was to be committed to his original principles, as much as its new commercial system would allow. Living as they were through an age in which innate freedoms and natural rights were being enshrined in proclamations, declarations and constitutions, in both Europe and the Americas, Sharp and his abolitionist allies were carried along by the passions of their times. In this, their second draft of a black settler society, women householders were to vote alongside men in the election of public officials, racial prejudice in the selection of public servants was to be legislated against and all children were to attend school; this in a time when universal education and suffrage were a distant aspiration among social reformers in Britain.63 Yet for all this the settlers were to be ruled over by a white governor who was himself to be answerable to a board of directors in London, all of them white.
To lead the recruitment of the Nova Scotians, and to ensure that the new colony lived up to its creed, the company appointed a ‘Conductor’. The man chosen was twenty-seven-year-old John Clarkson. Another veteran of the American Revolutionary War, he was a member of the recently formed Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade and the younger brother of Thomas Clarkson, the moral leader of the British abolitionist movement and a man about whom we shall hear more later. The company appear not to have considered offering this post to Thomas Peters, despite the fact that he had the confidence of hundreds of his fellow black loyalists, had won the support of British parliamentarians and the abolitionist elite and had been the spark that had ignited the whole scheme.64
In 1791 John Clarkson left his fiancée Susan Lee behind in England and travelled to Nova Scotia with Thomas Peters. Together they began a tour of all the regions in which the black loyalists had been settled. Speaking from the stages of meeting houses, from the pulpits of the black churches and while seated around the tables of poor black men and women in their own simple homes they promoted the new Sierra Leone scheme. Thomas Peters’ reputation for integrity and John Clarkson’s much commented upon personal charm rapidly began to win over the loyalists; William Wilberforce had advised Clarkson to refer to them as ‘Africans’, as it was more respectful than ‘blacks’ or ‘negroes’. Peters and Clarkson were able to promise that every man who emigrated would be awarded twenty acres of land, every woman ten and five for each child. They assured the black Nova Scotians that in Sierra Leone they would be free from the racial prejudice that disfigured their life chances in British North America. In a little over three months they convinced 1,196 black men, women and children to commit to their second migration in a decade. This was around eight times the number the company had imagined might be induced to migrate.
That so many were willing to abandon their lives in Nova Scotia for an uncertain future in Sierra Leone reveals how little faith they had that their treatment in British North America was likely to improve. Not only were they were prepared to cross the ocean in search of a better life, they were, in some cases, willing to abandon the freeholds they held on land granted to them in Nova Scotia. Among this more fortunate section of the black loyalists was Harry Washington, one-time slave of George Washington, by then President of the United States. Harry Washington had been listed in the Book of Negroes and was one of the 405 former slaves who had been evacuated from New York on board the L’Abondance in July 1783. In 1791 his name was listed in another register which recorded the names of the settlers leaving Birchtown for Sierra Leone, along with his wife Jenny. Between them they were abandoning two lots of land in Birchtown, their house and forty acres of farmland. The couple carried with them to their new lives their portable possessions – an axe, a saw, a pickaxe, three hoes and two muskets – and a little of their furniture. Having been born in Africa and sold into American slavery, this last journey represented a form of return for Harry Washington, the third great migration of his life. The same was true for around one-third of the new settlers.
The fleet that sailed from Halifax, Nova Scotia, on 15 January 1792 was five times the size of the armada which had carried the black poor of London to Sierra Leone. On board the fifteen ships were whole families as well as lone individuals. Seven weeks later, and after a terrible storm-tossed crossing, they landed in St George’s Bay, as the black ‘Londoners’ had done four years earlier. On their way into the mouth of the Sierra Leone River they had passed a slave ship out of Bristol heading inland to collect its cargo, a harsh reminder that they were travelling up one of the superhighways of the Atlantic slave trade.65
Over the course of several days the ships carrying the new settlers appeared one by one on the horizon and slipped into the Sierra Leone River. The settlers came ashore, landed their supplies and began to explore what remained of the original Granville Town. The settlement was overgrown and partially reclaimed by the bush. The settlers had been promised that a team of white administrators under Alexander Falconbridge would have prepared the site for their arrival and they were appalled to discover that almost nothing had been done. So they set about the enormous task of building their new settlement almost from scratch. This was not to be a wholesale resurrection of the old Granville Town. The new settlement was to be larger and more extensive. It was named Freetown – literally free town; a settlement in which former slaves could forge a free existence. On arrival John Clarkson discovered his own freedoms had been somewhat curtailed. Correspondence from England informed him that he had been appointed superintendent to the settlement and would therefore not be returning to England to marry his fiancée.
The birth of Freetown was as difficult and arduous as the attempt to create Granville Town had been. The new settlers struggled to disinter the site of the great entanglements of elephant grass that had colonized the old clearings. As they did, the plots slowly emerged and black loyalists who had been evacuated from Charleston, Savannah and New York Harbor a decade earlier finally received the land that had been promised to them by the British Crown; seven years late and on a different continent. Thomas Peters, the spokesman of the landless and dissatisfied loyalists, received a plot of nine acres. He had had to cross the Atlantic three times in order to secure it. As they settled down to work they forged a community through regular communal meetings, or palavers. They assembled together, sitting on the hard, dark brown earth under the shade of a huge cotton silk tree. That cotton tree is not the one that stands in the centre of modern Freetown, spreading its branches across an intersection of five converging roads – that is believed to have been closer to the harbour. The present tree, however, ancient and imposing, has become the spiritual as well as the physical centre of Freetown and the symbol of Sierra Leone. It appears on the 10,000 leone banknote and Sierra Leoneans gather there to mark significant national events.
The appointment of Clarkson as superintendent to the settlement meant the marginalization of Thomas Peters, who was given no official role despite having been the instigator of the whole project. Tensions between the two men culminated in a dramatic and very public confrontation in April 1792. At a tense public meeting under the cotton tree, Clarkson prophesied, rather melodramatically, that ‘one or other of us would be hanged on that tree’ before the dispute between them was settled.66 We only have Clarkson’s account of what happened but it appears that to prevent Peters from forming what would have amounted to a parallel administration, Clarkson persuaded the settlers en masse to side with him, by casting Peters as the agent of discord and division, forces that he warned would be the undoing of the settlement. The outcome of this clash was that Thomas Peters was even further sidelined. Just three months later he died feeling that he had been as mistreated and betrayed in Sierra Leone as he had been in Nova Scotia.
The existence of modern Freetown is proof that ultimately the Nova Scotians were able to establish a lasting settlement, but they suffered the same trials and losses that had overwhelmed the black poor of London. High summer temperatures, heavy rains in the long and cold rainy season and tropical diseases all wrought death and devastation upon them. Two hundred died from disease in the first year and the rainy season in 1792 was said to be worse than that of 1787, which had been the death of so many of the black ‘Londoners’. One night a leopard found its way into one of their tents and had to be driven off and on another occasion a baboon attempted to seize one of the children. These losses were partially compensated by the incorporation into the new settlement of the survivors of Granville Town and made easier to bear as their initial numbers were greater.
A few of the Nova Scotians who signed up to settle on the banks of the Sierra Leone River did so despite the fact that it was from that river that they had been sold into slavery. One of them, John Gordon, who had been held captive in Bunce Island, after several years settled in Freetown accidentally encountered the man who had kidnapped and sold him. Having become a Methodist preacher in North America, Gordon forgave the slave-trader as he had come to regard his own enslavement as a necessary part of a divine plan that had led to both his conversion and his return to his motherland. Other former slaves encountered their lost relatives; one woman, Martha Webb, saw her mother among a group of slaves being led away in chains and frantically arranged to pay to have her released.67 Africans who were being pursued by the kidnappers and slave-traders sometimes sought refuge in the new Freetown, as did sailors from British ships, who had themselves often been press-ganged, and were desperate to escape. From time to time enraged ship’s captains came into the town looking for deserters. The slave-traders of Bunce Island looked upon the settlers of Freetown with the same distrust with which they had regarded the population of the Province of Freedom. John Clarkson declined offers to drink and dine at the grand agents’ house on Bunce Island.
After eighteen months Clarkson finally left the colony. He named the harbour from which he departed Susan Bay after the fiancée to whom he was returning. It still carries the name but has sadly degenerated into one of Freetown’s most desperate slums, home to migrants pushed out of the inland provinces by the disastrous civil war of the 1990s. Clarkson’s replacement as governor, William Dawes, had, rather inauspiciously, been an official in the convict station at Botany Bay; the two settlement projects, one in Africa the other in Australia, were it seems destined to be further intertwined. With the departure of Clarkson and the appointment of Dawes tensions between the settlers and the company director in London reached new heights. The settlers drafted a petition to protest against the rule of Mr Dawes, who they claimed ‘seems to wish to ruin us just as bad as if we were all Slaves’. The grievance that ran deepest among the Nova Scotians was the company’s insistence that they pay quit-rents on the land allocated to them; this company policy was in direct contravention of the assurances that had been given to the black loyalists by Clarkson and Peters in 1791. The new rents in effect made the people of Freetown sharecroppers, forced to perpetually service a debt they would never pay off and to rent land that would never be theirs in freehold. The move was bitterly resented and resolutely resisted. Tensions ran so high that there was effectively a rebellion. A group of black loyalist men who had already rebelled against slavery in North America, and fought with arms for their rights to freedom in the Revolutionary War, marched out of Freetown and took up positions on a bridge on the outskirts of the settlement. They had, so they believed, the support of the local Temne people and they aimed to overthrow company rule and challenge imperial authority. The rebellion divided the people of Freetown; half supported it, half did not. Events were decided in an armed confrontation at the bridge. The leaders of the rebellion were killed in action, others were captured and in a few cases hanged. Others, who had supported the rebellion, were banished from the colony and had no choice but to clear new plots on isolated shore regions of the Freetown peninsula. Among the exiles was Harry Washington. It was twenty years since he had escaped from the Mount Vernon plantation. After his banishment there is no further record of him.
The grave of Harry Washington, like those of Thomas Peters and their fellow settlers, lie somewhere beneath modern Freetown. No graves and no structures built during those early waves of settlement have survived the passage of two centuries and even the exact sites and dimensions of the Province of Freedom and of the Nova Scotian settlement are unclear. The memory of those years are preserved only in the documents held in the National Archives and through the names that appear on the map of modern Freetown. The narrow bay to the north of the ancient cotton tree in the centre of the city is known as Susan’s Bay, named for John Clarkson’s long-suffering fiancée. The promontory that defines the eastern limits of Susan’s Bay is called Falconbridge Point, dedicated to the memory of Alexander Falconbridge, the committed abolitionist but hapless company administrator who died while in Sierra Leone having drunk himself to oblivion. The names of the black settlers are not commemorated on street signs but are recalled in another way. The Nova Scotian settlers who survived the establishment of the settlement built themselves homes in a style reminiscent of the colonial architecture of North America. These large, wooden, two-storey houses stood on substantial stone foundations and rapidly became a feature of the city of Freetown. The last of them still exist along the narrow streets of central Freetown. Many are patched up with corrugated iron, their outwards-facing boards coated in bright but blistered paint. As the city has expanded and the population increased more of these old board houses have been sold and demolished to make way for grander concrete buildings of three or four storeys, better able to accommodate large families. As the forests have been cut back on the Freetown peninsula the economic rationale for building in hardwood has evaporated. Wood that has to be transported from the interior is more expensive than concrete, and in difficult economic times the cost of maintaining these old homes, with their links back to the founders of the city, has proved too much for many families.
Another echo from those formative years is the St John’s Maroon Church, which stands on one of the city’s main roads. It was founded by yet another influx of settlers. In 1800 the Nova Scotians and perhaps the last few of the London black poor were joined on their peninsula by around five hundred Maroons, former slaves from Jamaica. The Maroons were a people of Ashanti heritage who had escaped from slavery, established their own settlements up in the mountains and fought two wars against British forces. After the Second Maroon War the defeated Maroons of the town of Trelawny were transported to Nova Scotia and from there they too were shipped across the Atlantic and drawn into the experiment being played out on the coast of Africa. Their little whitewashed church stands not far from the waterfront in Freetown and their descendants still live in the city, part of a so-called Krio population made up of people of various heritage. Respectable, pious and passionately dedicated to education and self-improvement they seem too gentle a people to be the descendants of the slave rebels whose guerrilla warfare against the British forces remains legendary in Jamaica. The younger generations of Freetown Maroons have themselves become settlers, they are part of a Krio diaspora that has clusters across Britain and the United States.
Freetown today is largely a product of subsequent waves of settlement, of which we shall hear more later, and there is perhaps nowhere in Africa upon which the energy and optimism of the British abolitionist impulse has been so deeply inscribed into the local geography and demography. To reach Susan’s Bay the visitor passes along the broad thoroughfare upon which the Maroon church stands, passing smaller side streets whose names read like a who’s-who of nineteenth-century British politics. Each is named in honour of a prime minister, abolitionist or politician – Percival Street, Walpole Street, Bathurst Street, Wellington Street and Liverpool Street, after the Prime Minister Lord Liverpool. One of the last streets before Susan’s Bay is Wilberforce Street.
Freetown was never a dumping ground for unwanted black people. Although the establishment of the Province of Freedom went disastrously wrong and although the treatment of the Nova Scotian settlers was never free from racial bias these schemes of settlement were relatively well funded and for the most part well meaning – in the mind of Granville Sharp they were intended to be almost utopian. The descendants of those early settlers, who form portions of the Krio population, are a people whose identities have been profoundly shaped by British slavery and by popular British opposition to slavery, a political and moral impulse that became one of the defining issues of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Living in their colonial-style wooden homes, imported from another lost British colony or gathered in the Maroon church they are a people who are as much a part of what we term ‘black British history’ as any community in Brixton, Toxteth or St Paul’s.