Remembering the Sierra Leone Migration, 230 years later

March 25 marks the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade

- March 25, 2022

On January 15th, 1792, 15 ships departed from Halifax, Nova Scotia for Sierra Leone carrying 1,196 Black Nova Scotians, some 540 families.  (Nova Scotia Museum)
On January 15th, 1792, 15 ships departed from Halifax, Nova Scotia for Sierra Leone carrying 1,196 Black Nova Scotians, some 540 families. (Nova Scotia Museum)

Isaac Saney is a university teaching fellow and director of Dal’s Transition Year Program.

January 15, 2022, marked the 230th anniversary of one of the most significant and dramatic chapters in the historic efforts of Africans in the Americas to reconnect with — indeed, return to — Africa.  Indeed, it is the single largest "back to Africa' event in the history of the Americas.  It was, also, — and is — a profound example of the active and conscious historical agency of the oppressed and exploited in their struggle to assert their democratic rights and achieve self-determination.

These courageous souls were part of the wave of the more than 3,500 of people of African descent — the Black Loyalists — who arrived in the Maritimes in the early 1780s in the wake of the American War of Independence. In return for their freedom, these former enslaved Africans had served with the British in military and other capacities.

In the wake of the British defeat, more than 30,000 refugees — termed the Loyalists — arrived in Nova Scotia, with the Black Loyalists accounting for approximately 10 per cent of that number. The Black Loyalists faced a series of broken promises around land, freedom, and economic security. Despite being highly skilled artisans and tradespeople, they were reduced to being a cheap pool of labour, paid at a quarter of the wages that white labourers received.

Coupled with this economic exploitation was the curtailment of their social and political rights. The July 26th, 1784, race riot in Shelburne — often cited as the first recorded race riot in North America — underscored their disenfranchisement and segregation.

Path to departure

After, petitioning Nova Scotia's colonial government to no avail, the various Black Loyalist communities decided to send a representative — Thomas Peters —  to the British empire's epicenter to make their case. While in London, Peters met with members of the anti-slavery movement and learned of the Sierra Leone Company, which had established a refuge for Africans from the Trans-Atlantic Slave System in the then-British colony in west Africa. Peters petitioned the British government emphasising the "degrading and unjust prejudice against people of colour that even those who are acknowledged to be free . . . are refused the common rights and privileges of other inhabitants, not being permitted to vote at any elections nor serve on juries.” Further, Peters argued eloquently that the series of broken promises and humiliation of the Black Loyalists constituted a breach of trust. Consequently, the Prime Minister at the time, William Pitt the Younger, committed to covering the transportation costs to Sierra Leone. Thus, Peters was presented with the possibility of the Black Loyalists leaving Nova Scotia and going to Sierra Leone, with promises of free passage and land grants.

Peters returned to Nova Scotia with John Clarkson, an abolitionist, and a leading figure of the Sierra Leone Company. While Clarkson led the mission, Thomas Peters was a key — if not the key — organizer of the emigration. Travelling from community to community, Clarkson, Peters, and other Black Loyalist leaders presented the proposal of leaving Nova Scotia for Sierra Leone. During these travels and meetings, Clarkson recorded many Black Loyalist personal histories in his journal, a rich and indispensable source for researchers.  

Such was the importance of Black Loyalist labour to Nova Scotia that several obstacles were put in the path of the organizers by the colonial authorities. For example, disinformation was spread that the departing Black Loyalists would be re-enslaved in Africa, and proof was demanded that each emigrant was free of debt and not enslaved or indentured. This reflected the colonial concern to retain the services of skilled labourers at the lowest possible wage level. It is worth noting that Alexander Howe, a member of the Nova Scotia colonial Legislative Assembly, had described the Black Loyalists as “the principal source of labour and improvement” in an expanding colony.

In the end, the Black Loyalists “voted with their feet." On January 15th, 1792, 15 ships departed from Halifax, Nova Scotia for Sierra Leone carrying 1,196 Black Nova Scotians, some 540 families.

In Sierra Leone, the Black Loyalists helped found the port city of Freetown, eventually becoming a significant component of Sierra Leone's society and history. This reverse exodus to Africa from Nova Scotia has resulted in distant but poignant family links. Family names such as Hamilton, Wright and Wyse reside on both sides of the Atlantic. Various initiatives and projects have been formed to maintain these living links.


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