Slavery in English Nova Scotia, 1750–1810

“According to the muster of Loyalists at Dartmouth, Bethaser Creamer had four black “servants” named Ben, Pompey, Mary, and Sarah. According to the Book of Negroes, Ben, Sarah, and Mary were the “Property of Bethaser Creamer.” Again, on the muster these slaves were listed as servants, but in another document they were designated slaves. On the same muster, under the category of servants, a few such as Thom Webster seem to have been white, but many in the servant category were listed as blacks with no surnames including Bristol, William, Nanny, Stafford, Collins, Harry, Cesar, and Alexander. It seems fair to assume that Smith is correct in asserting that most listed as servants were black slaves.

There are also documents that show that some of those listed as servants were white and obviously not enslaved. For example, in the return of Belle Vue, there is a column for servants with names such as William Kelly, John Wilson, and Anne Rogers. These servants were probably white. Significantly, also under the same column for servants is a separate section for “Negroes.” The names of these African Americans included Betty, Joe, Isaac, Sylvia, and Amy Ash.13 According to the Book of Negroes, strikingly, Amy Ash was “free born.”14 As these contradictory examples demonstrate, the most accurate statement about the number of slaves in Loyalist Nova Scotia is to say that we will never know.

The documents about black slavery and black servitude are ambiguous and show the thin line between black slavery and alleged black freedom. At times, free blacks slipped back into a state of slavery or were simply re-enslaved as the court records in Shelburne make abundantly clear. Moreover, as Allen Robertson points out in his article about degrees of un-freedom, bondage and slavery, the line between slavery and freedom in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Nova Scotia was fluid and contingent. As Thomas Peters argued, free blacks “have already been reduced to Slavery without being able to attain any redress from the King’s courts.” Peters continued by pointing out that one man once reduced to slavery “did actually lose his Life by the Beating and Ill Treatment of his Master and another who fled the like cruelty was inhumanly shot and maimed.” It is important to note that these people were free blacks. The situation was even worse for Loyalist chattel “as the poor friendless Slaves have no more Protection by the laws of the Colony.” These observations show that the Black Loyalists and slaves faced the most arduous circumstances regardless of whether they were legally owned or free. The Black Loyalists were only nominally free and could easily slip back into a state of slavery. They were black, like their enslaved brethren, and this racial identity was more significant in deciding their place in society as opposed to whether they were free or not. Free blacks did not enjoy much freedom, and the use of servant or slave to identify blacks and the ambiguity with which these terms were used demonstrates the importance of race rather than their status as free or not.

Loyalist slaves came from various parts of the American colonies ranging from Massachusetts to East Florida, which made Nova Scotia home to an array of American slaveries. These people had diverse backgrounds, traditions, ages, skills, and places of origin. A few examples of Loyalist slaves and slaveholders of differing origins demonstrate the range. John Herbert brought several slaves from his home in Virginia, while James Alexander’s two slaves came to Nova Scotia from Savannah. Bill and Daniel settled in Nova Scotia with their owner William Black who had worked as a cabinetmaker during the war in New York City.”

“Loyalist slaves and slaveholders settled throughout the colony from Cape Breton to Yarmouth and in what would become New Brunswick in 1784. Two important documents give us an idea of where Loyalist settlers and their “servants” lived and where they resided in fairly significant numbers. Colonel Robert Morse’s return and the musters of disbanded soldiers and other Loyalist settlers offer both a big picture of slavery and a smaller community-level picture. According to Morse, there were 1232 “servants” among a total of 28,347 people. Thus, approximately four percent of the Loyalist settler population was probably enslaved or in some form of indentured servitude.

This number might not seem significant or even important. However, if we take a closer look at individual areas or townships, then the percentages change and become quite intriguing. In Annapolis Royal, 230 individuals were “servants” out of a total of 1230 people, suggesting about 18 percent of the population was under some form of bondage, probably slavery. In Digby, approximately 12 percent of the settlers were listed as “servants.” In Dartmouth and River Saint John respectively, 10 and 5 percent of the settlers were designated as “servants.””

Whitfield, Harvey Amani. Slavery in English Nova Scotia, 1750–1810, Journal of the Royal Nova Scotia Historical Society, Vol. 13, 2010