Black Refugee (War of 1812)
The Black Refugees is a term used for those of the African American refugees of the War of 1812 who were settled in Nova Scotia, as distinct from three smaller groups, mostly from the Gulf Coast, who were settled in Trinidad in 1815, and the whole of those who bore arms for the British in the second Corps of Colonial Marines, settled in Trinidad in 1816. The Black Refugees were the second group of African Americans, after the Black Loyalists, to flee American enslavement in wartime and settle in Canada and they form the most significant immigration source for today's African Nova Scotian communities.
During 1813, Vice Admiral Warren was ordered to receive aboard his ships any blacks who might petition him for assistance. These he was to receive as free men, not as slaves, and send them to any of several of His Majesty's colonies. Captain Robert Barrie of HMS Dragon reported to Admiral Warren 'there is no doubt but the blacks of Virginia and Maryland would cheerfully take up arms and join us against the Americans.'. By the time the Admiralty received this report, they had already decided to order Warren's successor, Vice-Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane, to encourage emigration.
As with the precedents of with Lord Dunmore's Proclamation of November 7, 1775 and the Philipsburg Proclamation, Vice-Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane issued a Proclamation in partial implementation of instructions from his superiors, in which he made no mention of slaves although he presumed it would be read as encouraging them to join the British:
- 'A Proclamation
- Whereas it has been represented to me that many persons now resident in the United States have expressed a desire to withdraw therefrom with a view to entering into His Majesty's service, or of being received as free settlers into some of His Majesty's colonies.
- This is therefore to give notice that all persons who may be disposed to migrate from the United States, will with their families, be received on board of His Majesty's ships or vessels of War, or at the military posts that may be established upon or near the coast of the United States, when they will have their choice of either entering into His Majesty's sea or land forces, or of being sent as free settlers to the British possessions in North America or the West Indies where they will meet with due encouragement.
- Given under my hand at Bermuda this second day of April, 1814, by command of Vice Admiral.
- Alex Cochrane'
Cochrane's proclamation made no mention of slaves, and although only a few doubted its true application, it was widely misinterpreted as an incitement to violent revolt.
The flow of refugees had already been considerable, and Cochrane's action did no more than confirm what had been happening for over a year. Some years after the arrival in Nova Scotia of the Black Refugees, a plan was proposed for them to be sent to the Colony of Freetown, Sierra Leone where their African American brethren were the ruling elite, but the plan never materialised and the Black Refugees remained in Nova Scotia. Like the Black Loyalists to a limited extent, some of the Black Refugees' names were recorded in a document called the Halifax List: Return of American Refugee Negroes who have been received into the Province of Nova Scotia from the United States of America between 27 April 1815 and 24 October 1818, though this took no account of the considerable number who had already arrived earlier.
In total, about 3,500 Africans escaped to the British by way of the Royal Navy. About 2000 settled in Nova Scotia and about 400 settled in New Brunswick. Black Refugees in Nova Scotia were first housed in the former prisoner of war camp on Meville Island which became an immigration facility after the War of 1812. From Melville Island, they moved to settlements around Halifax and in the Annapolis Valley. Other Black refugees were settled in Trinidad, most having served in the Corps of Colonial Marines but including also around two hundred from Louisiana and East and West Florida.
The Black Refugees make up the largest single source of ancestors for Black Nova Scotians and formed the core of African Nova Scotian communities and churches which still exist today. Large numbers of Black Refugees settled in North and East Preston, Nova Scotia, communities still occupied today by their descendents. Many other Black refugees settled in smaller communities such as Hammonds Plains, Beechville, Windsor and communities throughout the Nova Scotia's Annapolis Valley. Some Black Refugee families moved closer to Halifax for employment opportunities in the 1840s, forming the Halifax community of Africville. The migration included the religious leader and abolitionist Richard Preston and the parents of William Hall, one of Canada's first winner of a Victoria Cross. The Black Refugees in Nova Scotia brought basket-making skills from the Chesapeake Region which are still practiced by their descendants and are very distinct from the existing Mi'kmaw and Acadian basket making styles in the region.
- John McNish Weiss (2002): The Merikens: Free Black American Settlers in Trinidad 1815-16
- GRANT, John N (1973): 'Black immigrants into Nova Scotia, 1776-1815'. The Journal Of Negro History, Volume LVIII, No. 3, July 1973
- Captain Robert Barrie to Vice-Admiral J. B. Warren, 14 November 1813, ADM 1/506
- ADM 1/508 folio 579
- Harvey Amani Whitfield, Blacks on the Border: The Black Refugees in British North America, 1815-1860, p. 34
- "History of How Blacks Came to Nova Scotia", Coastal Community Network.
- Joleen Gordon, Baskets of Black Nova Scotians Nova Scotia Museum Publications (2013) p. 9 & 62
- Blacks on the Border: The Black Refugees in British North America, 1815-1860
- "The Development of Black Refugee Identity in Nova Scotia: 1813-1850" by Harvey Amani Whitfield
- "Black Refugees", Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management