Was the American Revolution Fought to Save Slavery?
In 1774, my family, the Keillors, left Yorkshire, England and sailed to Nova Scotia ? one of Canada’s Maritime Provinces. Within a year, they were fighting for the British Crown against the American colonists in what became known as the American Revolution. Soon, those in Nova Scotia would become the hosts of African slaves who escaped plantations in the South to also fight for, or assist, the British. The story is an intriguing one and British historian Simon Schama’s recent book “Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution” (2006) describes it all. But Schama importantly infers that the American Revolution itself was likely fought or was ultimately won to preserve slavery. Another look at it all is essential.
My Keillor ancestors are on my mother’s side of the family. And yes, this is the same family as Garrison Keillor of NPR’s Prairie Home Companion. Some four generations back our grandfathers were brothers. In the mid to the late 1800’s my Keillor ancestors started to move further west in Canada to Ontario and then even further west to Alberta and British Columbia. My grandfather arrived in Alberta, Canada in 1905.
I subsequently learned some about the Black community in Nova Scotia. In the southern part of the United States (Atlanta), where I was raised after my father brought us from Alberta, Canada, I began to learn about our ancestors in Nova Scotia, little bits of the history of the province and of Africans in Canada.
But I did not know about the Africans from the American colonies who came to Nova Scotia as a refuge and to seek land and economic opportunity after the American Revolutionary War.
Schama’s book is enlightening in any number of ways.
Most of us know that the Civil War in the U.S. was largely fought because of slavery ? that the southern plantation owners wanted to spread their slave cotton culture to the western territories much to the chagrin of northern political leaders, some industrialists and free labor advocates. Because they could not get their way, the southern elite seceded from the Union, made sure poor whites fought in the dreadful battle, and on the whole continued to grow cotton during the war and make profits while everyone else starved and/or died on the battlefields. (See my Counterpunch articles about this:“Southern Greed During the Civil War: A New Perspective on the Confederacy” (June 12, 2009), and “The Southern Mindset, 150 Years After the Civil War: Head South” (April 15, 2011).
What is rarely discussed in U.S. history is the role played by slavery in the American Revolution itself.
It is important to note that by the time of the Revolutionary War, the African population represented approximately 20% of a population of approximately 2.5 million and in some colonies, like Virginia, Africans represented approximately 40%.
The South and the North were divergent in many ways at the time. In the 1770’s while some in Boston were throwing tea into the Boston harbor and complaining about being taxed without representation, the southern slave plantation owners were engaged in a thriving export trade with Europe and seemingly without much interest in disturbing any of it. The North at the time was largely in the production of food. The South, however, with its large slave plantations was engaged in the export trade of tobacco, rice, indigo, grain, and cotton and other natural resources such as timber. Disrupting that export trade was not looked upon favorably, perhaps until the 1775 proclamation issued by John Murray, otherwise known as Lord Dunmore. Dunmore was the last colonial governor of Virginia.
Much also had been happening in the slave cultures in the 18th century from the American colonies to the Caribbean as Africans sought freedom everywhere and took advantage of opportunities. As Schama notes, not less than 5 petitions from freed blacks, calling for the freedom of slaves, were presented to the last colonial governors of Massachusetts.
From the 1500’s, Spain had a presence in Florida until 1763 when it traded Florida to the British for control of Havana, Cuba. Prior to that, however, the Spanish in the early 1700’s offered freedom to Africans enslaved in the British colonies if they came to Florida and became Catholic. The largest slave rebellion took place in 1739 known as the Stono Rebellion in South Carolina. The slaves were headed to Florida. Before the armed slaves were stopped, 21 whites and 44 blacks were killed.
However, many Africans did escape and find their way to Florida. In fact, there were approximately 5 forts built by Africans in the Spanish territories in the 1700’s. Perhaps the best known is Fort Mose close to St. Augustine led by an escaped African who took the name Francisco Menendez. He had been enslaved in the Carolinas and was a Mandinga from West Africa. Menendez led several raids against the British colonies including Georgia, where he is reported to have played a leading role in the defeat of British colonist General James Oglethorpe in battle. Menendez also appealed to the Spanish royalty to free all slaves in the Spanish territories. (See Jane Landers’ writings on this period).
As Schama notes, international news about slavery and legal decisions made in Britain, for example, spread like wild fire through the slave populations of the South in the late 18th century. By the time of the Revolutionary War, the Black community in the South and throughout the country, in fact, were aware of the political posturing and opportunities they perceived for gaining their freedom.
Schama also wisely notes that before there was the white revolution in America, Blacks were already engaged in revolutions of their own. Just prior to the American Revolution, there were slave rebellions throughout the Caribbean. Schama describes after 1772 that “Three ferocious and bloody rebellions were underway in Surinam, St. Vincent and Jamaica and all were widely and apocalyptically reported in the North American press.” This was largely in areas where the black population outnumbered the whites.
Also in the 1770’s, a major decision was made in the British courts that was instrumental, offered hope to slave communities and had a tremendous impact. James Sommerset was the “erstwhile” slave of American Charles Stewart. Stewart brought Sommerset with him to London in 1769. In September of 1771, Sommerset disappeared and found refuge. On November 26, 1771 Sommerset was kidnapped and placed on board a ship bound for Jamaica where he was likely to be sold. The abolitionist community in London went to work in his support. In 1772, after countless deliberations, the British Lord Chief Justice Mansfield finally ruled in favor of Sommerset. Mansfield said “?the exercise of power of a master over his slave must be supported by the laws of particular countries; but no foreigner can in England claim such a right over a man; such a claim is not known to the laws of England?the Man must be discharged.”
Word spread like wildfire throughout the slave communities in America that Britain was freeing slaves. This was simply not the case as Lord Mansfield went to great lengths to try to stress the importance of this particular case and not a judgment of slavery overall. But the interpretation was broad and the perception was that freedom was more likely to be with the British than with the American colonists.
Shortly after the Sommerset decision, the American Revolutionary War against the British began in 1775. As the British were beginning to lose battles in the North early in 1775, they began to look to the South. The British knew, however, that the plantation owners in the South were nervous about the slave rebellions elsewhere and about possible insurrections on their own turf. They wanted to make them feel even more nervous. In light of that, somewhat like the Spanish, Lord Dunsmore issued a proclamation offering enslaved Africans freedom and land if they left the plantations and joined the British in battle. Dunsmore’s decision backfired. But first some statistics.
Schama states that it is estimated that after Dunsmore’s call some 30,000 slaves had left Virginia; it is also estimated that two-thirds of all slaves in South Carolina had escaped. Schama notes that some of the signatories to the Declaration of Independence that stated “all men are born free and equal” and who lost slaves were: Thomas Jefferson (lost 30 slaves); James Madison, Benjamin Harrison (lost 20 slaves), Arthur Middleton (lost 50 slaves), Edward Rutledge (the youngest signatory who lost slaves as well). Then there was General George Washington. “?while George Washington was encamped in early 1776 on Cambridge Common, wrestling with arguments, pro and con, about the desirability of recruiting blacks, his own slave, Henry Washington, born in West Africa, was finding his way to the king’s lines. In exile with other black loyalists in Birchtown, Nova Scotia, Washington would describe himself, movingly, as a “farmer”, but it was the Union Jack that protected his forty acres and his freedom.”
Not all of the escaped slaves fought for the British, and some fought for the Patriots, but they clearly left the plantations in droves.
Schama states that Dunsmore’s strategy backfired in the North, “as it did throughout the South. Instead of being cowed by the threat of a British armed liberation of the blacks, the slaveholding population mobilized to resist. Innumerable whites, especially those in the habitually loyal backcountry of Virginia, had been hitherto skeptical of following the more hot-headed of their Patriot leaders. But the news that the British troops would liberate their blacks, then give them weapons and their blessing to use them on their masters, persuaded many into thinking that perhaps the militant patriots were right?It is not too much, then, to say that in the summer and autumn of 1775 the revolution in the South crystallized around this one immense, terrifying issue. However intoxicating the heady rhetoric of ‘rights’ and ‘liberty’ emanating from Patriot orators and journalists, for the majority of farmers, merchants and townsmen in Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia (the vast majority of whom owned between one and five negroes), all-out war and separation now turned from an ideological flourish to a social necessity. Theirs was a revolution, first and foremost, to protect slavery. Edward Rutledge, one of the leading South Carolina Patriots, was right when he described the British strategy of arming free slaves as tending ‘more effectively to work an eternal separation between Great Britain and the colonies than any other expedient could possibly be thought of.’”
After the British lost their battle against the colonists, approximately 3,000 freed slaves made their way to Nova Scotia. But this is only part of the story. Thousands of slaves died in the Revolutionary War in battle, in illness and disease, and in absconded and sabotaged efforts to leave the colonies on ships. And for those who made their way to Nova Scotia they were not welcomed with open arms, albeit many were given land but there was desolate land in Nova Scotia and nothing like the rich soil of Africa or the southern United States. The British abolitionists then heeded the calls by some Africans to return to the African continent and ships were made available for the effort to sail to Sierra Leone. Many took advantage of this opportunity and that is another story in itself.
But the point is, Africans, like whites in the colonies, demanded their freedom and thousands took it whenever the opportunity availed itself. Word spread quickly throughout the enslaved population from colony to colony thanks to underground networks created by them?and many were of course listening to white conversation and reading the newspapers and were then acting upon the information. All this was without the benefit of the social media of say, what is presently happening in the Middle East. By comparison to the so-called Arab Spring of today and revolutions elsewhere, the African response was profound throughout the colonies and should be honored in the world history of revolutionary responses and demands for freedom.
The other important question is whether or not the American Revolution would have been won were it not for Lord Dunsmore threatening the slaveholders. It appears that plantation owners in the South rose up against the British during the American Revolution as well as against the North during the Civil War to save their slave economy. Perhaps it’s necessary to take another look at the American Revolutionary War.
Landers, Jane, Atlantic Creoles in the Age of Revolutions(Boston, 2010) Harvard University Press.
Schama, Simon, Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution (New York, 2006) HarperCollins Publishers.
Heather Gray is the producer of "Just Peace" on WRFG-Atlanta 89.3 FM covering local, regional, national and international news. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org