Why did African Americans join the British Army during the American Revolution?

A Black Loyalist in John Singleton Copley's Death of Major Pierson (1782)

During the nineteenth century, freed enslaved Africans in the North designated March 5th a holiday to commemorate the sacrifice of Crispus Attucks. Attucks, who worked as a sailor, had been the first person killed in the long conflict over the question of colonial independence during what has become known as the Boston Massacre in 1770. In the North, among abolitionists his life demonstrated how intertwined Black lives were with the founding of the American republic. They added evidence of Attucks’s sacrifice as well as the sacrifice of many more free and enslaved African patriots to the ledger of proof of African America’s loyalty and as a rationale for the ending of the system of enslavement. [1]

Military service has been traditionally offered as a demonstration of both patriotism and the obligation to return such favors with the benefits of citizenship. Although the abolitionists were right to affirm the sacrifices of a veritable segment of the African American community, more people of African descent actually fought on the side of the British army. It is likely for this reason that many of the subsequent episodes of enslaved people’s repression came to fruition. Unlike other “Loyalists,” a sizable segment of those who fought for the British, and most importantly their descendants, remained to incur the wrath of the victorious American rebels.

The History of British Abolitionism

It is useful to begin to understand the context by briefly reviewing the history of British abolitionism. The moral fervor around the brutality and horrors of the Middle Passage led to a movement by abolitionists in the eighteenth century to outlaw the Atlantic Slave Trade. These exposés were based upon both religious and economic arguments, but perhaps most of all they were part of a liberal natural rights logic that asserted humans were born with certain inalienable rights. Enslavement, inasmuch as it was crystallized by the treatment of human beings as property, was a negation of this very logic. As the contradictions sharpened, those who had invested much political and economic capital into the system began to withdraw their support at varying levels.

This was the context that gave rise to Somerset v. Stewart, where an enslaved African that had been transported to the English mainland had sued for his freedom based on English common law. Lord Mansfield, the judge who decided the case, had been influenced by the arguments of the abolitionists, and eventually awarded freedom to the plaintiff, James Somerset. This decision sent shockwaves throughout the British Empire—especially the American colonies. But it signaled to the enslaved that the British could serve as a vehicle to remove the thumb of their enslavers, much like the Spanish had done during the eighteenth century. [2]

The Impact of Somerset

Lord Mansfield

According to historian Gerald Horne who has continued the arduous process of rewriting this history, Somerset signaled to the colonists that the British may not provide the same level of support to the institution of enslavement and westward territorial expansion. The Seven Years War was the opening salvo in the conflict that dealt prominently with these two concerns. Not only was it ominous that it appeared that the British would push a proto-abolitionist policy where the enslaved were concerned, there were also concerns that they might be eventually be armed as had been done in other parts of the empire. These rumblings would impact the ways that the colonists articulated their grievances with Great Britain. As Horne points out, they had been increasingly attracted to the North American mainland because of its relative security from kinds of revolts that had been taking place in the Caribbean throughout the eighteenth century. The rumors from Britain were thus a step too far. [3]

Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation

Virginia was ground zero for much of the political debates and decisions regarding the colonies. It was here where much of the political systems that would define America would be created. By 1775, as the colonists began to fear the incursions of the British, revolutionary sensibilities had already emerged there. It seemed imminent that a more thoroughgoing conflict was on the horizon as militias began to form. It is important to note that this revolutionary fervor was not universal. There was a large swath of colonists who remained loyal to the union. These Loyalists sought to ensure the continuity of British rule, as many of them were direct beneficiaries of their control.

To fortify British rule, Lord Dunmore, the governor Virginia, decided upon a shrewd tactic. By this period, Virginia had erected a one of the largest slave economies in the Americas, with forty percent of its population made up of bondsmen. As a result it had experienced sporadic revolts and varying levels of marronage. [4] Seizing upon this opportunity and facing the risings of a veritable militia of patriots, Dunmore declared in November of 1775, that all who did not pledge loyalty to the crown would be declared traitors and that enslaved Africans would be given freedom in exchange for military service.

The “Ethiopian Regiment” was then mustered, having ramifications far beyond this proclamation. Many Black loyalist regimes were created following the 1779 Phillipsburg Proclamation, issued by Sir Henry Clinton, which was more wide-ranging than Dunmore’s edict as it covered all of the colonies. [5]

The Impact of African American Military Service

Lord Dunmore's Proclamation (1775)

It is believed that some 6,500 enslaved Africans decided that it was in their best interest to fight on behalf of the British. Dunmore’s proclamation had reverberations throughout the colonies. It made freedom almost immediately accessible to enslaved Africans that had resisted in many ways prior to the Revolutionary War, but now found the road somewhat easier as a result of the new British policy. Many of those that fought directly undermined the slave economies of the south by leaving and joining the Redcoats. Others decided it was expedient to choose neither side. Some estimated that the Revolutionary War led to over 30,000 runaways in Virginia alone. Overall, about 100,000 enslaved Africans emancipated themselves during this period. [6]

The Declaration of Independence

The impact even found it’s way into the founding document of the Revolution, Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. The history of this document demonstrates, of course, that Jefferson was one of a few authors. However, Jefferson as a Virginian slaveholder, had a specific axe to grind. In a much-heralded statement, Jefferson wrote,

“He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where Men should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce. And that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he has obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed again the Liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.” [7]

Almost none of this passage, however, made it into the final document. The problem was that it could be construed as pro-abolitionist which would have rankled those who saw the war as through pro-slavery lenses. Even if we consider it to be pro-abolitionist, the irony is that it came from the pen of a slaveholder who emphasized both the question of natural rights and the idea that the greatest grievance was the impact that arming the enslaved would have. In fact, this animosity toward King George over the “excitement” of enslaved Africans is the portion of this passage that remained in the final document: “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us.” [8]

The Fate of the Black Loyalists

The patriots famously demanded the return of their enslaved property in the Treaty of Paris. However, Sir Guy Carleton loosely interpreted the terms of surrender and was able to help aid in the evacuation of over 3,000 loyalists to Nova Scotia. There are estimates that many more enslaved Africans from America ended up in the West Indies, Spanish Florida, and Sierra Leone. [9]

Carleton’s now famous “Book of Negroes”—which was made into a historical novel and television miniseries—recorded the names of those who he, working on behalf of the crown, would endeavor to fulfill promises embedded in the Dunmore and Phillipsburg proclamations. In Nova Scotia, emancipated Africans lived a relatively harsh life as Canada provided an unforgiving climate. Others would later find their way to Africa and help settle Sierra Leone, thought to be a haven for Africans who were seized by the British patrols that were intending to enforce the ban of Atlantic Slave Trade. Their lives under the Crown were only an improvement for the simple reason that they were not enslaved. It is however, folly, to believe that things were easy. One of the complicated realities of this and subsequent periods is that emancipation, while lessening the pain of chattel enslavement, did not eradicate the larger problems at the heart of Black existence in the modern world. [10]

Others stayed in the new country and found themselves subject to a deepening and more vicious enslavement than that which had existed before. Among those that were re-enslaved (though many were not), an important group became maroons utilizing their military skills to wage war against the new country in South Carolina and Georgia in the years leading up to the nineteenth century. This group called themselves, the “King of England’s Soldiers.” [11]

Conclusion

In conclusion, let us briefly note the inspirations of the enslaved. While the freed Africans discussed above were inspired to demonstrate their fitness for citizenship, it is critical to emphasize that the enslaved Africans who fought for the British were not similarly concerned with demonstrating loyalty. As such, the term “Black Loyalist,” which has come to define these soldiers is somewhat of a misnomer. As historian, James W. St. G. Walker indicates, it is likely that these soldiers “were less Pro-British than they were Pro-Black.” [12] This framing helps to explain why Black soldiers would again fight on the side of the Redcoats, and perhaps may be used to help frame Black participation in American military conflict up to the Vietnam conflict.

References

  1. John Ernest, Liberation Historiography: African American Writers and the Challenge of History, 1794-1861 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 141.
  2. Cedric Robinson, Black Movements in America (New York: Routledge, 1997), 14-29; Gerald Horne, The Counterrevolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States (New York: New York University Press, 2014), 209-19.
  3. Horne, The Counterrevolution of 1776, 161-208.
  4. Robinson, Black Movements in America, 1-14.
  5. Horne, The Counterrevolution of 1776, 219-52.
  6. Robinson, Black Movements in America, 23-24; Gerald Horne, Negro Comrades of the Crown: African Americans and the British Empire Fight the U.S. before Emancipation (New York: New York University Press, 2012), 17; Alan Gilbert, Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War for Independence (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 121-28.
  7. Blackpast.org, “The Deleted Passage of the Declaration of Independence.” http://www.blackpast.org/primary/declaration-independence-and-debate-over-slavery
  8. http://www.ushistory.org/declaration/document/
  9. Gilbert, Black Patriots and Loyalists, 196-206.
  10. Gilbert, Black Patriots and Loyalists, 207-42.
  11. Sylviane Diouf, Slavery’s Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons (New York: New York University Press, 2014), 165.
  12. James W. St. G. Walker, “Blacks as American Loyalists: The Slaves' War for Independence,” Historical Reflections / Réflexions Historiques 2 (Summer/été 1975): 53.

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