Since publication of The Black Loyalist Directory in 1996, the chief component, The Book of Negroes, has become one of the most cited of American Revolutionary primary sources. This new edition salutes The Book of Negroes by using the original title of this famous accounting of Black freedom.
On the surface, The Book of Negroes is a laconic, ledger-style enumeration of 3,000 self-emancipated and free Blacks who departed as part of the British evacuation of Loyalists from New York City in the summer and fall of 1783 for Nova Scotia, England, Germany, and other parts of the world. Created under orders from Sir Guy Carleton (Lord Dorchester), Commander-in-Chief of British forces in North America, to placate an angry George Washington, Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army (USA), who regarded the Black Loyalists as fugitive slaves, The Book of Negroes is, as Alan Gilbert has observed, a “roll of honor.” Such a term is apt because it both reveals the immense courage of self-emancipated Black Americans and free people and serves as a testament to the fact that the English honored the promises that the British army made during the Revolutionary War, which exchanged protection of Black freedom for military service.
The Book of Negroes references “GBCs,” or General Birch Certificates, which were “passports” that allowed Black Loyalists passage on the ships leaving New York harbor. Over three thousand were issued to free men, women, and children. Of those, 1,336 were issued to men; 914, or 30 percent, were issued to women. Over 450 people migrated as a family unit. Young people predominated, but there were people as old as ninety-three. In contrast, there were more infants than older children, an indication of the hopes and aspirations of Black Loyalists uniting as families in occupied New York City. Women with children were common, a participation not generally seen among self-emancipated people but one that occurs frequently in wartime.
At a minimum, the three thousand Black Loyalists represented a sizable portion of Revolutionary War refugees from slavery and accounted for the largest single group of Black self-emancipators from slavery before the Civil War. Reappearance of The Book of Negroes comes at a propitious time. Scholars once considered African American participation to be marginal to American Revolutionary War history. It is now understood to be integral. This powerful shift in the historiography of the American Revolution was already advanced in 1996. The purpose of this new introduction is not to revise the old version, which retains its original strength, but to update it with new insights and directions.
Scholarship employing The Book of Negroes has expanded dramatically in a number of ways. First, scholars, academic and popular, use The Book of Negroes to connect Black roles in the American Revolution with the long African American struggle to gain freedom. Often, Black Loyalism is regarded as a key knot in the long rope of Black American resistance to slavery leading up to the Civil War and the massive escape of so-called contrabands. The Book of Negroes is an invaluable source for genealogists looking for Revolutionary Period relatives and veterans.
Second, studying The Book of Negroes allows an expanded understanding of the importance of Black Loyalism. Maya Jasanoff has labeled their wartime experience as the “Spirit of 1783.” Black Loyalism reveals an evolving understanding of the Black American search for citizenship, political representation, and power in the Atlantic world. Key to this were the differing perceptions of the Patriots who saw the Black Loyalists as escaped property and the English who bestowed them with an emerging vision of citizenship. Eliga Gould expands upon this yawning perceptual gap. When Sir Guy Carleton agreed to provide General George Washington with a list of Blacks embarking from New York City to Nova Scotia and other parts of the world and to investigate American claims of recent escapes from slave owners, he recognized the validity of Patriot property ownership over human beings. Carleton was surely aware that he was exposing the Crown government to legal actions for American losses, claims that lasted into the 1820s. Carleton, influenced by recommendations by General Alexander Leslie of Black courage and valor in the South Carolina campaign, ordered certificates confirming British protection of Black freedom. These “General Birch Certificates,” in Gould’s words, “heralded a new government-level commitment to emancipation.” Couched in terms of national honor and the public faith in the religion of a Christian, Carleton’s determination to protect the Black Loyalists referenced “a higher law of humanity? Gould contends that Carleton was expanding upon the Somerset decision of 1774 that disallowed a British master’s slave ownership on the grounds that slavery was not legal in Britain. Accordingly, occupied New York City and then Canada became “free soil.” Carleton’s actions, designed in part to embarrass the Americans, earned the British the reputation as the best friends of Black aspirants for freedom. I have argued elsewhere that American Blacks held this notion long before.
Third, understanding Black Loyalism adds greater insight into Canadian history. Tracing the Black Loyalist past has become a cottage industry in Canada with titles about several provinces. Black Loyalism has become a core part of Canadian national history. In part, this is because of the immense pride in and popularity of Lawrence Hill’s Commonwealth Prize–winning novel, The Book of Negroes. Hill employed The Book of Negroes as the central device for his novel, published first in 2007, reprinted in several editions and languages, and converted into a televised mini-series on BET in 2015. The mini-series and coverage of the original Book of Negroes are now staples of Afro-Canadian historical observances.
Fourth, Black Loyalism affected disputes that surfaced in diplomatic relations between Great Britain and its former American colonies, now the United States. This history indicates how, during the Revolutionary and Early National Eras, self-emancipated African Americans were powerfully affecting American politics. At the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, discontented Patriot memories of Black Loyalists roiled American political attitudes toward the British. Throughout the 1780s and during the Constitutional years, Americans expressed bitterness at what they regarded as British theft of their property. Americans raised the loss of thousands of former enslaved people in negotiations. As Gould notes, John Adams described the flight of enslaved people to the British lines in Virginia and South Carolina as comparable to the burning of American ports, the deadly confinement of American prisoners of war in British prison hulks, and the theft of Benjamin Franklin’s library. As minister to England, Adams raised the issue of compensation constantly. Jefferson argued to his London creditors that they should help pay for the losses of his bond people before he took care of his consumer debts.
While Adams fretted about the British position, John Jay, a leading New York lawyer, founder of the New York Manumission Society, and later the first U.S. Supreme Court Justice, strived to clarify the controversy. Jay, the son of a leading Huguenot slave master, and father and uncle of important nineteenth-century anti-slavery advocates, argued in a detailed report to Congress in 1786 that there were three classes of escaped slaves. The first, captured as booty by the British and carried away before the war ended, had been legitimately emancipated; the Americans were not eligible for compensation for them. The second class included those who remained with their owners inside British lines and therefore could not be “carried away.” Nor could the third, encompassing those who had escaped from their masters and were still inside British lines but in American territory when the war ended. Most, if not all those evacuated in 1783, fell into this category. The British had violated the treaty by taking them and owed Patriots restitution. However, Jay argued, angering slaveholders, the treaty was immoral because it called for the re-enslavement of people already freed. The safest recourse for the Americans, he contended, was to cease demanding return of the escaped former slaves and accept monetary compensation from the British. Though upset with Jay, Southerners reluctantly accepted his logic and pushed for cash payments.
Even in 1795, during George Washington’s second term as president, the compensation issue occupied much debate during the negotiations that led to the Jay Treaty. When John Jay, now President George Washington’s special minister to Britain, broached the plan for compensation, the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Grenville, referred to such payments as “odious” as they would break faith with people who were by then legally British subjects. Americans retorted that the British still recognized slavery in their colonies and were at fault for its presence in the United States. That point went nowhere and eventually Jay concluded that insistence upon it would detract from the real concerns of removal of British troops from key forts along the Great Lakes and Northwest and reopening the West Indies trade. Though slave master politicians howled at this omission, Jay would not budge and Washington signed the treaty later that year.
Alexander Hamilton, a fellow member of the New York Manumission Society and now the former Treasurer of the United States, but a deeply influential political voice, created a potent memo defending the treaty. Hamilton argued that although the British had been infamous in “seducing away our Negroes during the war, re-enslaving them would be even more infamous.” As James Oakes brilliantly argues, Hamilton claimed to be speaking according to the Law of Nations. Written during a time, as Eliga Gould shows, when the United States was desperate for status among nations, Hamilton’s viewpoint was highly political. It also introduced an extraordinary argument, that there was “no property in man.” Slaves were not like land, which had to be returned. As human beings, they had a desire to be free and escape from bondage. Britain did not even have the power to take away the freedom the nation had granted to the former enslaved people. For Americans to insist upon re-enslavement was indeed odious. Though James Madison led the opposition to Hamilton’s memo, he avoided direct attack on it and argued for arbitration. By 1796, most American leaders were taking Carleton’s position about national honor, even as they sought compensation.” Initially considered a sell-out, the treaty had enormous success in opening up trade and the Northwest territories for white American land exploitation.
Northern political figures carried Hamilton’s reasoning further. James Hillhouse of Connecticut added that the 1783 treaty clause requiring return of self-emancipated enslaved people violated natural law and that the British had no legitimate right to return people who had been emancipated. Moreover, the Black Loyalists (though he did not use that term) had escaped to a country where there was no slavery and so therefore the British and their Nova Scotia subjects had to refuse to give them up. As there was no racial exception to principles of fundamental human equality, Canada had become free soil. Unsurprisingly, Southern plantation owners objected, but the arguments of Hamilton and Hillhouse made antislavery political in the early Republic.
This dispute carried into the War of 1812 era when the British navy welcomed nearly 5,000 enslaved Black Virginians onboard and carried them off to Nova Scotia. Once again, Americans and British quarreled during treaty-making about compensation for losses to slave masters. Ultimately the two nations invited the Czar of Russia to arbitrate. That monarch awarded some damages to the Americans but generally upheld the British position. The Americans received £250,000 as a sop from the British. What came out of this decades-long dispute were concepts of “no property in man; the legitimacy of military emancipation for enslaved people, and a powerful linkage of military service with citizenship.”
Fifth, the British government’s invitation to enslaved Blacks during the American Revolution to leave their masters for freedom inside its military forces expands the history and definition of abolitionism, the Underground Railroad, and Black migration for a better life. The history of Black Loyalist self-emancipation, supported by Carleton’s recognition of their rights, reaffirms Manisha Sinha’s observation that Black escapes from enslavement are the core of the abolitionist movement. Further, as indicated in the original introduction to this book, Black Loyalists shaped a unique, freedom-seeking politics, the extent of which scholars are just now understanding. The strong presence of women among the Black Loyalists, more than a third of the total, is an early example of Black female politics, recently illuminated by Martha Jones.
Generally, the Underground Railroad is viewed as resulting from the actions of local, benevolent individuals or families. In this case, a British colonial official and, later, chief military officers extended promises of freedom and succor in a rough exchange for some kind of service. The Book of Negroes offers the most extensive list of female self-emancipation. Historians generally regard Black flight from slavery as the action of young adult males. However, The Book of Negroes lists many Black women who escaped their masters or came as free people to join the British effort. Their actions give rise to a number of questions about wartime and the Underground Railroad. What was the importance of the invitation by a recognized, state military force on the decisions of Black men and women to leave their enslavers? How important was the succor that the British military offered to Black women escaping from slavery with their children? Was the possibility of a legal marriage in New York City, where Anglican and Methodist churches performed services for Black couples, an attraction? How important was the Black enclave on Manhattan Island to the formation of Black community, church, and political organization?
Sixth, examination of the people enrolled in The Book of Negroes demonstrates the significant opportunity for wartime flight afforded to Black women and their children. As Karen Cook-Bell has brilliantly uncovered, enslaved and free Black women seized upon the proximity of the British lines to secure new or enlarged freedoms, find paid work, meet partners with whom they could build families recognized by English law and religious ritual, and, in the case of Rose Fortune, become community leaders and entrepreneurs. While Black women rarely were more than a small fraction of Black fugitives from slavery during times of peace, the Revolutionary tumult created opportunities for flight. Black women seized upon them.
Last, The Book of Negroes has global dimensions. While the majority of Blacks leaving New York City in 1783 traveled to Nova Scotia, a number went to Great Britain, Germany, and other parts of the world. Cassandra Pybus has found that Black Loyalists ventured as far as India and Australia while Roger Buckley uncovered units of Black Loyalists who enlisted in the imperial British army and fought in India and the West Indies. As scholars expand the story of runaways to encompass the world, The Book of Negroes offers good evidence of how enslaved American people gained their freedom by leaving for distant parts of the globe.
From The Book of Negroes, edited by Graham Russell Gao Hodges and Alan Edward Brown, with permission of Fordham University Press.