From Nova Scotia to Sierra Leone

[extract from Epic Journeys of Freedom]

A rich spiritual experience was the only consolation for a life of appalling poverty in Nova Scotia. A white visitor to Birchtown was shocked by the condition of the black settlers. The houses were“miserable to guard against the inclemency of a Nova Scotia winter” he wrote, and that they had to survive the long winter “depending on what they could lay up in the summer.” In the opinion of this witness, “the wretchedness and poverty so strongly perceptible in the garb and continence of … these miserable outcasts” was as extreme as he had ever seen. Life was no better at Digby and Preston.i

Nearly all of the black refugees in Nova Scotia finally received their promised land by 1788. On average, the land allocation to the black refugees was 40 acres, smaller than the lots allocated to whites. The black settlers who had gone to New Brunswick, were also allocated land many miles away from their town lots in St John and Frederick, “worthless in itself from its remote situation,” Thomas Peters bitterly complained. Peters was fifty-three years old and from North Carolina. He was determined to see his black constituency receive what was their due. In 1790, he left his family behind and made the voyage across the Atlantic to the unknown metropolis of London to put the grievances of the black refugees to the British government.ii

Peters arrived in London in October 1790 and by November had tracked down his old commander-in-chief, Sir Henry Clinton, who provided him with a letter of introduction to the Home Office, urging the Secretary of State to give credence to the “melancholy tale” Peters had to tell. Clinton also put Peters in touch with William Wilberforce, and through him Peters heard about the settlement for black loyalist refugees that had been created in Sierra Leone called the Province of Freedom. Here was a potential home for the disaffected black refugees in Canada, he believed.iii It was Sharp who helped Peters frame his petition to Pitt’s government to request the black refugees in Canada be resettled some place where they could “by their industrious exertions become useful subjects to His Majesty.” Canada was unacceptable, Peters argued, because of “a 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.” It was impossible for blacks in Canada to get redress for wages denied or violent attack, Peters pointed out. Surely this was not what the government intended for his loyal black subjects?iv

In response to these acutely embarrassing accusations of bad faith, the Prime Minister undertook to pay the necessary expenses to transport as many black settlers as wished to leave Nova Scotia. The freshly incorporated Sierra Leone Company, delighted with the prospect of new settlers for their colony, offered free grants of land to any who wanted to emigrate. New settlers were promised twenty acres for every man, ten for every woman and five for every child, “subject to certain charges and obligations.”v

John Clarkson, brother of Thomas Clarkson and friend of William Wilberforce, was on temporary leave as a lieutenant in the Royal Navy when he was engaged as the company agent to collect the emigrants in Canada and take them to Sierra Leone. He did a sterling job selling the company’s offer in Nova Scotia, traveling from one black settlement to another, steadfastly refuting the negative interpretations offered by white critics. He was much impressed with the people he met, comparing them very favorably to the laboring poor of England. Clarkson first went to Preston, where Mingo Jordan had a large Methodist congregation, and was delighted when over two hundred people indicated their willingness to emigrate. At Birchtown, Clarkson addressed hundreds who crammed into Daddy Moses Wilkinson’s Methodist meetinghouse. Patiently he explained to these eager listeners that the expression “subject to certain charges and obligations” did not signify that an annual rent would be levied on the land; rather it referred to “a kind of tax for charitable purposes such as for the maintenance of their poor, the care of the sick, and the education of their children.” Clarkson’s black audience accepted his explanation, and they especially warmed to his assurance that, unlike Nova Scotia, where they were barred from voting or serving on juries, there would be no discrimination between white and black settlers in Sierra Leone. Clarkson’s words were quickly transmitted to the rest of the community and within three days the entire Methodist congregations of Daddy Moses and Luke Jordan had agreed to go. The addition of the Baptist congregation from nearby Shelburne brought the total of emigrants from that area to 600 people. Digby contributed another large contingent of about 180 people, nearly all of them Methodists. About 200 people, of both Methodist and Baptist persuasion, walked overland from New Brunswick to be included in the

Neither the British government, nor the Sierra Leone Company, was prepared for the scale of the migration. Half of the black refugees in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick were determined to leave, many of them abandoning their freehold land grants. A surviving list of emigrants from Birchtown and Shelburne area reveals how much was left behind. Harry Washington, described as a farmer, born in Africa and aged fifty (although he was probably fifty-three) was traveling with his wife Jenny and carrying an axe, saw and pickaxe, plus three hoes, as well as two muskets and several items of furniture. He left behind two town lots, a house and forty acres. Every head of household named on the list owned one or two town lots, at the very least, and most were abandoning forty acres of freehold land. Nathaniel Snowball  had considereable debts that Clarkson was obliged to pay off his debts before Snowball was permitted to leave with his extended family.vii

Fifteen ships were needed to carry nearly 1200 people to Sierra Leone, at a cost of £15,500 to the British government. Alexander Falconbridge, who had actually been to Sierra Leone, was greatly disturbed at the “premature, hair-brained and ill-digested scheme” of injecting such a large number of settlers into a largely untamed and disease-ridden wilderness, “before they were certain of possessing an acre of land.” The directors of the Sierra Leone Company paid no heed. So delighted were they with the response from Canada that they shelved plans to encourage white settlers to emigrate from England. Henceforth the only whites in Sierra Leone would be a handful of company employees.viii

Company director Wilberforce told Clarkson that he should call the new black settlers Africans, believing that this was “a more respectable way of speaking of them”, but this was emphatically not how they conceived of themselves. In their eyes they were free British subjects and emphatically they were Christians. They had migrated as whole congregations and were led ashore by their preachers, singing the old Wesleyan hymn:

Wake! Every heart and every tongue

To praise the Savior’s name.

The day of Jubilee is come!

Return ye, ransomed sinners, home.ix

The new emigrants were dismayed to discover that even though several company ships had arrived before them not a jot of work had been done to clear the site. They had to hack a path through the tangle of thorny bush and sharp-edged elephant grass and jungle to a where a settlement called Freetown would be built. Once a site was cleared, the first task was to erect some form of shelter, other than flimsy tents. Temporary huts were made from green saplings woven together and plastered with mud to support a thatch of grass, providing some protection from the heat, but vulnerable to invasion from wildlife. One night, soon after arrival, a gorilla carried off a girl whose startled father had to wrestle with the animal to save her. Another settler only just managed to scare a big leopard away from his sleeping wife and daughter. The jungle concealed many varieties of poisonous snakes and an unwary step might bring terrible death. One of the dogs died instantly from the bite of beautifully marked snake about four feet long.

As if these were not trials enough, Clarkson began to suspect that he had a serpent nursing at his breast. On March 22, 1792, Thomas Peters called on the governor to express his concerns about the parlous situation in Freetown. He was, “extremely violent and indiscreet,’’ Clarkson wrote in his journal, “as if he were desirous of alarming and disheartening the people.” He decided that it must be Peters who was responsible for the “irritability of temper and peevish disposition” the settlers had begun to display. Although they had once been close, Clarkson was now ready to vilify his old friend as a man of “great penetration and cunning” who had been “working in the dark … to get himself at the head of the people.” Self-evidently, Peters was already the “at the head of the people.” It was he who was elected to go to England to petition the government on their behalf; he had garnered the support of the British government; he had marshaled Nova Scotia’s black refugees to emigrate. Yet on arrival in Sierra Leone, Clarkson was appointed governor and Peters was denied any role in the administration of the new settlement. Clarkson’s rancorous response was prompted by fear that Peters believed he, not Clarkson, should have been the appointed governor.x

Turbulent discontent inspired by Peters’s complaints brought Clarkson to the end of his tether, with “fainting fits and hysteric weeping frequently,” yet he maintained a steely determination that he, and only he, would be in charge. In mid April 1792, Clarkson engineered a confrontation with his imagined rival under a massive cotton tree, and threatened that “one or other of us would be hanged on that tree” before the matter was settled. This was a naval officer’s response to mutiny; as governor of Sierra Leone he had no judicial right to execute anyone. At a subliminal level at least, Clarkson knew the challenge from Peters was justified and perhaps this was why his reaction was so virulent. Petulant self-justification filled his journal and letters as he railed that “this wretch would have driven all the whites out of the place and ruined himself and his brethren.” Everywhere Clarkson cared to look was evidence that Peters was not acting out of personal pique, but giving expression to a shared disillusionment. The settlers had every reason to fret, he acknowledged, as “they have been deceived and ill-treated through life… and seeing no probability of getting their land, they began to think, they should be served the same way as in [Nova Scotia] which unsettles their minds and makes them suspect everything and everybody.” Clarkson’s response to this insight was not to share the decision-making; rather he organized to have Peters’s activities watched and demanded stronger executive powers from the company.xi

Just as the black settlers began to adjust to their new circumstances and create a viable community, the monsoon rain arrived. About 3 o’clock in morning of April 2, Clarkson recorded “a great deal of lightening, torrents of rain came down with heavy squalls of wind and several loud claps of thunder repeated by the deep roaring echoes of the mountains.” The settlers’ inadequate huts were badly damaged and the next day a tornado ripped through the tattered dwellings. This first rainy season proved to be one of the wettest that the local Africans could remember. With inadequate shelter from the rain, and forced to sleep on the ground, nearly everyone, came down with malarial fever. Anna Maria Falconbridge described a desperate situation, with over 700 of the new settlers “under the affliction of burning fevers,” and no more than 200 “scarce able to crawl about.” Handfuls of people died every day, to be “buried with as little ceremony as so many dogs and cats.” The provisions brought from England by the company ships were completely spoiled and the steaming monsoonal air carried the nauseating stench of rotting food.xii

In the midst of this terrible time, Clarkson was tested by demands from the settlers who had “imbibed strange notions from Thomas Peters as to their civil rights.” They wanted a greater say in the management of their affairs and they wanted to have their own elected representatives keep order and resolve disputes. In a conciliatory gesture, Clarkson agreed they might elect black juries to hear disputes, but only if they submitted their choice to him for veto. By that time Peters was too ill to protest. He died on June 26, a sorely disillusioned man, leaving his wife Sally with seven fatherless children to support.

If Clarkson believed the settlers’ “strange notions …as to their civil rights” would die with Peters, he was far wrong. Just before Peters’ death, Clarkson received an unambiguous letter from an anxious settler chiding him that it was all very well to make promises; they needed to be kept. The King had promised them land when they left America, his correspondent reminded him, “but you know governor, the state you found us in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick” Now that they were in Sierra Leone with no land, they were “very uneasy in mind that we shall be liable to the same cruel treatment as we have before experienced.” The day Peters died, a petition from the Methodist congregation protested Clarkson’s assumption of power over them. The eccentric spelling betrayed the authors as barely literate and the tone of the letter was deeply deferential but far from submissive. The Methodist settlers told him they willingly agreed to be governed by the laws of England, but “we do not consent to gave it into your honer hands with out haven aney of our own culler in it.” They reminded Clarkson that he had promised them that “whoever came to Saraleon wold be free and should have a law and … all should be equel,” so it followed that they had “a wright to chuse men that we think proper for to act for us in a reasnenble manner.” In the matter of governance and the administration of justice, they were adamant: “to gave all out of our hands we cannot.”xiii

By late July, the settlers were “driven to despair,” according to the company secretary, because the survey for the farm lots they had been promised had not yet begun. They had only the rudimentary huts they had built on small town lots carved out of the jungle, and their only basis for subsistence was two days a week work for the company, paid in credit at the company store. Their habit of trusting Clarkson was all that protected the company’s handful of haughty, idle and incompetent white employees from their collective wrath. Without Clarkson, the company secretary confided in his journal, “I should scarce think it safe to stay among them.”xiv


i Quotes about Birchtown from T. Watson Smith, in Wilson, The Loyal Blacks, 94 and “Memoirs of Boston King”, 209.

ii Petition of Thomas Peters, CO 217/63, NA. Ellen Gibson Wilson believed Peters travelled to England on the Lord Dochester, which arrived at Spithead in October 1790. He probably borrowed the money for his passage, as he was in debt in 1791.

iii Clinton to Grenville, December 26, 1790, FO 4/1, NA.

iv Petition of Thomas Peters, FO 4/1/419, NA.

v Free Settlement on the Coast of Africa signed by the Directors dated August 2, 1791 and placed as an advertisement at Shelburne, signed by John Clarkson October 29, 1791, Sierra Leone Collection, UIC. 

vi John Clarkson’s Journal of his Mission to America, and parts of his Sierra Leone Journal are held by the NYHS.

vii “List of blacks who gave their names for Sierra Leone in November 1791”, CO 217/63, NA.

viii Falconbridge, Two Voyages, 93.

ix The account of this hymn singing is described in J. B Elliott, Lady Huntingdon’s Connextion in Sierra Leone (London, 1851), 15. The words given differ from the original by Charles Wesley. John Clarkson’s Journal, March 11, 1792 also refers to the hymn being sung and he describes it again a letter to William Wilberforce n.d, Clarkson papers Add MSS 41263, BL. Quote from Clarkson ‘s Journal, May 19, 1792, NYHS

x Clarkson, Journal, April 11, 1792, NYHS.

xi Clarkson, Journal, April 8, May 19, April 9, 1792. NYHS. Clarkson to Thornton, April 18, 1792, Add MSS 41262A, BL.Clarkson to Hartshorne, August 4, 1793, Clarkson Papers, Add MSS 41263, BL.

xii Clarkson, Journal, April 2, 1792. Falconbridge, Two Voyages,102.

xiii Clarkson, Journal June 26, 1792. Beverhout Petition of June 26, 1792, in Fyfe, Our Children Free and Happy, 25-6.

xiv Strand Journal, July 28, 1792, Add MSS 12131, BL.