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Shunpiking Black History Supplement, No. 48, Spring 2006

This article originally appeared in Shunpiking magazine's Black History Supplement, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 32 and has been revised and updated by the editors.

Birchtown sits peacefully in a small cove just beyond Shelburne on the South Shore. There is little to mark the settlement of the first Black Loyalists in 1783 except a few houses dotted along the back road and a small plaque marking their landing site. No Burger Kings or souvenir shops disturb the ghosts of the past here.

Children playing on a crag near Birchtown. The town was settled by free Blacks, most of whom arrived with 2,000 other Loyalists in 1783. Not permitted to settle in nearby Shelburne, the free Blacks started their own community which, by 1784, was the largest of its kind in North America. Albert Lee, from Destination Nova Scotia (Nimbus Publishing)
I am on my way to Shelburne to catch the Federal Minister of Rural Development who is flying in to make a funding announcement. It's a major event for the local Black Loyalist Heritage Society. Small in numbers, but determined, the Society was formed in 1991 to "discover, interpret, safeguard and promote the history of Black Loyalists." Since its creation, it has carried out several initiatives which have helped uncover missing pages in the saga of what has happened to the descendants of slaves.

To secure Birchtown for future development, the Society has already purchased the old Birchtown schoolhouse, a century-old church, and the burial grounds. Recent archeological digs have revealed stone cellars and artifacts dating back to the late 1700s. In 1996, a national monument was raised. As well, black heritage development consultant Dr. Sharon Clyke-Oliver, worked with the Society to design an ambitious plan for a $9-million interpretive tourism and community economic development complex.

Barely visible on a map, Birchtown is one of the most significant historical sites for African Nova Scotians. Black Loyalists arrived in Birchtown at the end of the American Revolution. During the War, the British offered 'freedom' and land to slaves who ran away from their rebel masters' slave plantations in the southern United States. Following Britain's defeat in 1783, 3,500 Blacks came to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, the first wave of the migration of people of African origin to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, including a large number of skilled artisans, craftsmen and military. Alexander Howe, a member of the colonial Legislative Assembly, described them - not as tradesmen - but rather as "the principal source of labour and improvement" in an expanding colony. Without a land base, they cannot achieve any kind of stable economic security and area - and are, as a conscious political policy - reduced to a cheap labour pool.

Historian Dan Soucoup estimates about 1000 Blacks arrived in New Brunswick during the Loyalist migration, with at least 500 enslaved. Rich white Loyalist settlers brought another 1,232 enslaved blacks (of whom 26 went to Prince Edward Island and 441 to New Brunswick). Slavery existed in both Nova Scotia and New Brunswick but the British Loyalists were the first to attempt to institutionalize slavery, as many brought slaves with them from the US. Some Blacks arrived as indentured servants, which involved working for a specific period of time whereby a master would be served in order to pay off a debt. Significantly, those fleeing the United States and "loyal" to the British Crown are described as "United Empire Loyalists", while those enslaved and free Africans who fought against plantation owners and were considered property are racially described as "Black Loyalists."

With a population of 1,500, Birchtown for a short time became the largest settlement of Free Blacks outside of Africa. But it was no promised land. Blacks found themselves on the bottom of every list to receive land and rations. The land was filled with scrub, stone and other non-arable margins rejected by British Loyalist settlers. Using various tricks, the colonial regime legally swindled the Black Loyalists out of receiving grants and the acreages promised.

The promise of land - an average 500-600 acres per family - turned out to contain much smaller acreages than promised. In Shelburne, research reveals that out of "bureaucratic incompetence and racial inequality," only 184 (out of 649) heads of families received from the Nova Scotia colony the Crown land promised by Britain, and it averaged a mere 35 acres (13.6 ha). Skilled Black tradesmen, seamstresses, masons and coopers are paid below scale, working for one-quarter the income of their white counterparts.

For ten days from 26 July 1784, North America's first recorded "race riot" occurred in the port of Shelburne (Port Roseway) - spontaneously, yet not by accident. Employers incited disbanded, embittered, and unemployed British soldiers to see the low-wage workers as a threat. They beat up Black workers, attacked people, burnt 20 newly-built homes, and drove them out of town. That the organized assault of the soldiers lasted ten days indicates the degree of courageous resistance and organization by the Blacks, some of whom had military experience. Those driven out of town relocate to Birchtown.

The incident becomes a precedent for local dusk-to-dawn curfews imposed by the colony against Black people in towns and villages across Nova Scotia, and their forcible dispersal into isolated, rural and segregated settlements. [1] The famine of 1787 added to their hardships.

The Black Loyalists were segregated and settled as follows:

Land Grants to Black Loyalists

Locale                                  Year                                              No.                      No.                       Size (avg)
Birchtown 1784 1,521 184 35 acres
Halifax 1780s 400 50 acres
Preston 1780s 300 51
Chedabucto 1785 350 - -
Little Tracadie 1787 172 74 40 acres
1788 50
Brindley Town 1784 211 76 1 acre
McNutt's Island 1787 12
Saint John (NB) 1784 184
Annapolis 1780s 100

No Black, including those set free in return for fighting for the British, could vote, nor could they become freemen of Halifax (or Saint John). Only freemen could practise a trade or sell goods within the city; this restriction was an important setback to acquiring a livelihood. [2]

It's not surprising that 1,196 (some 540 families), 544 of whom are from Birchtown and Shelburne, 'vote with their feet' and leapt at the opportunity to leave, in one of the first Back-to-Africa movements. Their bitter experience in Sierra Leone, where they staged a revolt several years later in Freetown, demanding self-rule, is a story for another time. [3]

The disheartened Black Loyalists who remained in Nova Scotia valiantly struggled on. Some stayed in Birchtown while others migrated away to found other Black communities in Brindley Town (near Digby), Little Tracadie (Guysborough County), Preston (Halifax County), Annapolis Royal, Halifax and St. John, NB.

Today, less than 200 Afro Nova Scotians live in Shelburne County.

With the Cat ferry operating from Portland, Maine to Yarmouth (until 2005), Birchtown became a stop for bus tours of African Americans wanting to see where the Black Loyalists landed. Given the lack of infrastructure for tours, Lawrence Bruce, a retired teacher and Vice President of the Heritage Society, often received calls at home to come and show the visitors around. These visits underscore the urgency of the Society's work:

"It's important not so much because of the history of the Blacks," states Bruce.

"But the lack of Black history. We want to enlighten people, and enlighten ourselves: If you don't know where you've been, then you aren't going to know where you are going."

In 1999, the Heritage Society created a Registry to help reconstruct the genealogical history of the Black Loyalists. Teena Paynter, project registrar, explains that the Registry is helping to break down isolation: "For example, I didn't know there was a black community in Shelburne and yet my family is from Greenville, Yarmouth County. And yet Greenville doesn't know about East Preston; East Preston doesn't know about Whitney Pier - people are interested, but Black communities have been so segregated that they don't know about each other."

Another project sponsored by the Nova Scotia Museum, "Remembering Black Loyalists / Black Communities" is also uncovering lost history by researching the links between African Nova Scotians in Birchtown and Tracadie, and their ancestors who were slaves in the southern United States, especially the Charleston area.

Photo taken in front of the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Shelburne, circa 1900. Photo from the collection of the Shelburne County Museum.
Researcher Carmelita Robertson explains that the project shares information from family records, land grants, deeds, wills, church records, photographs, cemeteries, and newspapers with the Birchtown project: "People always want to know where they come from. Without that foundation it's kind of hard to go anywhere, or have any tradition. It helps to put meat on the bones, on the skeleton of what we know." Robertson's personal life, along with that of colleague Ruth Whitehead, is the focus of the Gemini, award-winning documentary film Loyalties.

When she lived briefly in the US, Clyke-Oliver discovered people were anxious to learn about Black Loyalist history. "When people found out that I was from Nova Scotia they would say, 'How did you get there? I didn't know there were Blacks in Canada!' Black North American society is just dying for this kind of thing. Since the evolution of writings and research about slavery, we're so thirsty for knowledge. We know that there are families in the States with the very same names and they are probably related."

Back in Shelburne, Andy Mitchell, the federal minister who I've come to hear, speaks passionately to the small assembly about preserving 'rural culture'. Lawrence Bruce graciously thanks the Minister and receives a cheque for $132,325, of which $82,000 comes from Fisheries Restructuring, and $50,000 from Human Resources Development Canada. Nova Scotia is contributing another $75,000.

*Representation based on unearthed foundations and contemporary descriptions.
Although many of the arrivals, disheartened by miserable land grants and marginal farming around Birchtown, emigrated to Sierra Leone in 1792, others stayed and built one-room houses like the one shown.
I know the Black Loyalist Heritage Society will work miracles with this $200,000 - but, knowing they need $9 million - I can't help but feel disappointed at the amount the government has offered.

I ask Dr. Clyke-Oliver why the government doesn't offer more. She sighs: "I don't understand it either, especially given the federal surplus. And, especially when you look at similar projects and the speed with which the big funding came to, say, the Titanic, and the $4.5 million to Pier 21."

Dr. Clyke-Oliver believes Nova Scotia could double its tourism revenue if Black Americans had something to come to in Birchtown. "I don't want to go to Des Moines, Iowa because there's nothing there for me. But Atlanta? Sure, I'd go there because of the Martin Luther King Centre."

Clyke-Oliver hints that one of the reasons the government has been dragging its heels is they would prefer to see the project located near Halifax.

She quips: "You hear them say, 'oh dear, Shelburne - that's three hours from Halifax and well, you have such a small community there and how many people can you house and sleep in Shelburne.' I tell them it would be as inappropriate to locate the Birchtown Heritage Site to Halifax as it would be to put L'Evangeline's statue in Yarmouth!"

"From a Black perspective we are so used to disappointment. What can I say! The tears of disappointment flow again. Canada really has a long way to a go before it can really espouse diversity and multiculturalism."

*Janice Action is a Halifax writer and educator


[1] Here begins the de facto implementation of a system of racial classification which becomes de jure whereby people of African descent are profiled and targeted by the state because of identifying racial features.

[2] Freemen were property holders, i.e, males who held property worth 39 shillings, and did not include (until 1820) Roman Catholics.

[3] Landless, poor and without any means to practice subsistence farming, the Black loyalists politically organized. In 1791, they deputized Thomas Peters, former member of the Ethiopian Regiment, to carry their petition to London demanding justice. The petition specifically accused Britain of reneging on its promise. British abolitionists extracted another promise from the British government of free land in Sierra Leone, Britain's first colony in Africa, and an important centre of the Atlantic Slave Trade during the 1700s and 1800s. The British made 15 ships available to take Blacks to Sierra Leone in West Africa in 1792 in a new colonial scheme. Britain's role in the colonial and neo-colonial exploitation of this crown colony - wherein the slave trade continues until 1928 and is now one of the poorest countries in the world but at the same time of the world's leading producers of diamonds - is conveniently overlooked.

On the web
Black Loyalist Heritage Society

Black Loyalists: Our History, Our People

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