Yesterday I spent the afternoon in the beautiful Niagara region of Ontario. Less than two hours from the modern bustle and chaos of Toronto, this part of the country is an oasis of bucolic charm, with quaint old villages, stunning views of the Niagara River, and beautiful and first-rate wineries dotting the map. But there is history here too, and a lot of it. During the War of 1812, Niagara was invaded by American forces and was the scene of many violent and decisive battles that determined the course of the war.
I have a book that I am preparing for publication that is set in Niagara in the immediate aftermath of the war, dealing with – among other issues – slavery and the black loyalists. But southern Ontario was not the only part of British North America where Black Loyalists settled. In fact, one of the earliest and largest Black communities in what is now Canada was found in Nova Scotia. Although this does not play a large role in my recent release, The Assistant, I was nevertheless drawn into my research about the early Black communities in that province.
By 1800, Nova Scotia was home to people of a variety of cultural, national and ethnic backgrounds, including the indigenous Mi’kmaq, French, Scottish and German settlers, the English (of course), and Black Loyalists.
Nova Scotia has been home to a Black community since the 1770s. The first Black person in the region arrived with the French founders of Port Royal in 1605 as a slave, and slavery was not unknown in the province, despite a great sense of distaste for the practice amongst social and political leaders of the time. In 1788 the first anti-slavery literature in Canada was published by James Drummond McGregor, who personally began purchasing the freedom of some slaves, and the province refused to pass legislation legalizing the practice of slavery.
The first major migration of free Blacks occurred during the American Revolution. Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation of 1775 promised that any slaves offering to join British lines would automatically receive their freedom; more than 30 000 people escaped to British lines in response to this proclamation. In 1783, as a British defeat became inevitable, the army evacuated more than 2000 of these Black Loyalists to Nova Scotia. Many of these Loyalists landed near Shelburne and established their own community in nearby Birchtown; others settled around the province and in New Brunswick.
Thomas Peters (1738-92) was a Nigerian-born slave and Black Loyalist solider. He was one of the early Black settlers of Nova Scotia, and later on, one of the leaders of the Nova Scotia Settlers, who returned to Africa and founded Sierra Leone.
These communities, however, did not receive the supports and funds they had been promised, and the people—many of whom had been born in Africa and had lived in far more temperate climates—suffered in the harsh weather. When, in 1791, a British company offered to resettle former slave communities in Sierra Leone in Africa, half of the population of Birchtown emigrated, leaving about 2500 Black Loyalists in Nova Scotia. Their situation slowly improved as they qualified for skilled trades and wages rose, and they felt enough part of the community to form three Black militia units to fight for the British in the War of 1812.In Halifax itself, the first Black community settled on Albemarle Street, which, in 1786, became the site of the first school for Black students in the province. The previous year, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign parts was established, offering other educational opportunities for the community.