The African Americans

Search for Truth and Knowledge

By Dr. Leonard Jeffries, Jr.

Part Twenty-Two: African American Exodus to Africa

After smoke from the last gunfire of the American Revolutionary struggle had passed into history, a fleet of ships left the harbor of New York in August 1783 with thousands of British Loyalists and their families. This movement was part of the massive post-war evacuation of British subjects to England, the West Indies and Canada. Thousands of African Americans who had fought on the British side of the Revolutionary War were among the evacuees. Many of them sailed to Canada, where their newly won freedom and the promise of land offered Blacks prospects of a new life. Who were these African Americans who joined the exodus to freedom? Where did they come from? What was their significance in the Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary drama? Does their story have any important implications for African World Experience? How do these missing pages fit into the unwritten and untold story of the African American?

On January 16, 1792, an important chapter of the dramatic story of the African Exodus unfolded in the rough waters of the North Atlantic when fifteen ships sailed from Halifax, Nova Scotia, bound for the West Coast of Africa with 1,190 men, women and children of African descent. This mass movement of African Americans was not part of the Atlantic triangular slave trade nor any type of trade. It was part of the heroic mission of people of African descent returning to their Motherland. It was the first large scale reverse flow of African humanity across the Atlantic Ocean to Africa. These unsung heroes were well aware of the significance of their historic voyage, and they felt they were ordained to plant the first successful settlement of African Americans on the West Coast of Africa.

These two stories of evacuation to Canada and migration to Africa are part of the larger movement of African Americans who fought in the American Revolution. Some fought on the British side and sought freedom in Canada, and eventually sailed to Africa when the quest for real freedom was threatened. Their experiences are part of the untold epic saga of African American History that must be recorded, studied and analyzed for present and future generations.

One of the direct results of the American Revolution and the Black Exodus to Canada in 1783 was the permanent establishment of the British colony of Sierra Leone on the West Coast of Africa. This attempt to build a new colony in Africa stands out as one of the most important of many efforts by Black people during the Revolutionary and Post-Revolutionary Era to establish their own identity, institutions and communities.

Other African Americans fought on the American side of the War and remained in the United States and helped to lay the foundations of present day Black America. One of the most significant results of the American Revolution and the Black efforts to support the rebels in the Thirteen Colonies was the permanent establishment of thriving Free African American communities throughout the United States. The heroic experiences of these Americans of African descent have been largely ignored and left out of the history books. Every American should be familiar with the inspiring struggle waged by these transplanted Africans to help build America after the forced migration from their homelands in Africa. Every American should know that the three basic public institutions that continue to dominate African American Communities in the rural and urban areas, the church, the school and the fraternal organizations, have their roots in the American Revolutionary War era.

Various factors played a role in the success of this unique experiment in returning and resettling people of African descent back to Africa. They grew out of the political, social and economic conditions in the last quarter of the 18th century that saw rapid changes in Europe and America.

An analysis of this period, (1770–1800), from the point of view of the African American Experience provides unique insight into the nature, growth and development of America, England and Africa. The triangular relationship between these three parts of the world was centered on the slave trade, and was pivotal in establishing and maintaining the Euro-American social and economic systems. Unfortunately, this triangular relationship had an overall negative impact on the African world and led directly to the disintegration and dislocation of African social and political systems because of constant wars over slavery and slave raiding.

For centuries, Europe, America and Africa were linked by the notorious triangular Atlantic slave trade system that moved manufactured goods to Africa from Europe. These goods were exchanged for human cargo of African captives that was shipped out to the Americas and sold to plantation owners. Their places in the holds of the ships were filled with raw materials destined for homeports in Europe such as Bristol, Liverpool, London, Nantes, Bordeaux, Hamburg, Lisbon, Amsterdam and Rotterdam.

In 1516 systematic slave trading in the Americas was started by the Spanish. Over the centuries British-Dutch-French rivalry to monopolize the lucrative trade led to wars and destruction. Untold millions of Africans and enormous amounts of goods were transmitted through the slave trade triangle. Many of the captive Africans died during the Middle Passage across the Atlantic Ocean. Most human and material items were carefully accounted for in ledgers and logs by merchants and officials on both sides of the Atlantic. These documents are invaluable sources of information about the African Experience. They provide some of the data needed to show the cultural, political and economic connections among African People in the Slave Trade Era. During the Revolutionary Period, a new type of shipping record provided another source of information about Africans. These were the records kept of people who evacuated America after the war of independence.

These records reveal the reverse migration by Free Africans to set up a new life in the West Indies, Canada and Africa. This quest for freedom was the reason why thousands of African Americans sailed out to the Caribbean from Savannah and Charleston in 1782 and to Canada from New York in 1783. Eventually, this example was followed by those who fought with the British in the War of 1812 and were evacuated. Other examples include individual ship owners and captains like Paul Cuffee who personally led Black families in 1815 to Africa. These events were all part of the legacy of the African Exodus of 1783 and 1792 by African American heroes of the American Revolution.

An outstanding work on African Americans in the Revolutionary War has been published by Dr. Benjamin Quarles, who states in his Preface that:

The Negro's role in the Revolution can best be understood by realizing that his major loyalty was not to place nor to his people, but to a principle. Whoever invoked the image of liberty, be he American or British, could count on a ready response from the Blacks…

Dr. Quarles noted that the initial reluctance of White America to use Blacks in the military effort in the Revolution, and circumstances forcing their usage, established a pattern of African American enlistments in future American Wars. He stated that "From colonial times until the twentieth century, the Negro would be bypassed in the early stages of conflict." "Eventually," he continues, "Grim necessity forced the states to reconsider the decision to exclude Negroes from the Armies."

Quarles assessed the African American participation in the Revolutionary War in the following terms: "The Negro welcomed the resort to arms. Although not very strong on theory, he fulfilled the pragmatic requirements of a revolutionary. He had little to lose in goods or lands, and he lacked a sentimental or blood tie with England." It should be added that because of slavery he often lacked such a tie to America, so he readily joined the British when offered freedom.

Dr. Quarles, in his pioneering work, The Negro in the American Revolution, underscored the reality of Black fighting on both sides of the war as revolutionaries in the name of freedom. He detailed the supportive role of Black soldiers, pioneers, scouts, spies, blacksmiths and every type of labor contingent in the War effort.

African American participation on the British side of the Revolutionary struggle began in the early stages of the war. In 1775, Lord Dunmore, the British Governor of the Royal Colony Virginia, issued a proclamation calling for slaves of the American rebels to leave their masters and join the British cause. Tens of thousands of African Americans eventually answered the call to fight the king's cause and obtain their freedom.

Initially, both the Americans and the British considered using Black manpower in the war. The Americans decided against the use of African Americans, preferring to keep the conflict a dispute between white gentlemen. The British decided to utilize Blacks if only to deprive the Americans of an essential labor source. Lord Dunmore had grand ideas of ex-slaves in an army that would cause chaos in the American ranks. Dunmore proclaimed that "All indentured servants, Negroes or others, free that are able and willing to bear arms in the King's cause." His famous proclamation was issued on November 7, 1775 at Kemp's Landing, Virginia—the scene of an earlier victory by a detachment of British troops that included Black fighting men. Before the week was over, hundreds of African Americans flocked to the British lines, and Lord Dunmore was able to organize the Ethiopian regiment, made up of Freed Slaves.

The Americans were alarmed at this attempt to disrupt the slave system. The Virginia Gazette appealed to the slaves to remain loyal to their kind masters. "Be not then, ye Negroes, tempted by his proclamation to ruin yourself." Even Patrick Henry, who allegedly cried, "Give me Liberty or give me Death!" when caught up in the fervor of the Revolution assailed the documents as "fatal to the public safety." In spite of these protests, the army of ex-slaves was organized by the British into units called the Ethiopian Regiments. These Blacks had no particular love for the British. Their burning desire was to obtain freedom. In fact, they left no doubt about their sentiments because they fought with the words, "Liberty to Slaves," inscribed across their chests. This was the type of spirit that motivated thousands of African Americans who fought for freedom in the American Revolution.

Companies of Black Pioneers were organized during the war wherever the British had a foothold, particularly in the cities they occupied. Black companies were set up in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Savanna and Charleston, providing much needed labor and support for the war effort. Most of these men and women had fled their plantations. Run-a-ways had always been a problem in slave society, and during the war it became a major crisis.

As the war progressed, other proclamations were made by the British to solicit the support of the slave population. Commander General Clinton, for example, in Phillipsburg on June 30, 1779, promised freedom to slaves fleeing to the British. By this date there were few cries of outrage by the Americans charging the British Loyalists with fermenting slave rebellions. Many of those were already fighting in the colonial militias. General George Washington and his colleagues had long ago accepted the reality of African Americans fighting on the American side in the Continental Army, so when the official offer to fight to obtain freedom was made by American leaders, thousands answered the call.

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