In 1775, John Murray, the Earl of Dunmore and governor of Virginia, issued a proclamation to his colony. In it he declared “all indentured Servants, Negroes, or others, (appertaining to Rebels,) free that are able and willing to bear Arms, they joining His MAJESTY’S Troops as soon as may be, for the more speedily reducing this Colony to a proper Sense of their Duty.” The War of Independence had just begun and Britain needed all the help it could get to fight the troops of the Continental Congress. Shortly after Dunmore’s Proclamation, the British extended this opportunity for freedom throughout their soon-to-be former colonies. By war’s end, in 1783, nearly 3,500 people had seized this opportunity. With Britain’s loss, these now refugees were evacuated to Nova Scotia where they came to be known as “Black Loyalists.” The enduring institution of slavery and poor treatment there, however, led nearly half to leave again, founding the new free colony of Sierra Leone in west Africa.
This module brings together two journal articles with divergent perspectives about whether the term “loyalist” is the best way to conceive of these migrants. In “The Black Loyalist Myth in Atlantic Canada” Barry Cahill suggests that many of these people decided to join the British cause not because they were loyal to the British crown but rather because they sought to flee their captivity. In “Myth, History and Revisionism,” James St. G. Walker responds to Cahill’s claims suggesting that the term “loyalist” is not nearly as ahistorical as Cahill suggests.
- Barry Cahill, “The Black Loyalist Myth in Atlantic Canada,” Acadiensis, vol. 29 no. 1 (Autumn 1999): 76-87.
- James St. G. Walker, “Myth, History and Revisionism: The Black Loyalists Revisited,” Acadiensis, vol. 29 no. 1 (Autumn 1999): 88-105.