The Development of Black Refugee Identity in Nova Scotia, 1813-1850

“The majority of the 1600 African Americans who landed in Nova Scotia originated from the Tidewater Chesapeake and the Georgia Sea Islands. The Chesapeake Refugees’ experience with American slavery differed from their counterparts in the Sea Islands. They worked on small to mid-sized farms with only a few other slaves, usually less than twenty, under the close supervision of owners or overseers. Although some still hoed tobacco, as a result of the European wars of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, most slaves worked in mixed agricultural production. This switch to various types of agricultural production markedly increased the labour required of Chesapeake slaves. In contrast, the Sea Island Refugees worked on large rice and cotton producing plantations with hundreds of other slaves. The expansion of rice and cotton production in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries resulted in arduous and unhealthy labour that made slave mortality rates quite high. The Sea Island Refugees laboured under the task system, which required them to complete a given daily assignment. However, once completed, slaves usually had the rest of the day to do as they pleased. In terms of social life and culture, some Chesapeake Refugees had adopted Christianity and had more contact with Anglo-American culture than the Sea lsland Refugees, who “remained physically separated and psychologically estranged from the Anglo-American world. The American slaves who would become Black Refugees developed in two vastly distinct slave systems.”

“Due to their closeness to water in the Chesapeake and the Sea Islands, many Refugees had experience working on boats and found employment in Nova Scotia’s docks and shipping industry. In contrast, those Refugees who had been employed as rice and cotton workers in the Sea Islands could not use these skills on their farms in Nova Scotia, which required breaking stones and cutting down trees to grow potatoes. Perhaps the most significant work experience brought to Nova Scotia was the transfer of market trading stalls that provided the Refugees with a substantial source of income. Although the Refugees brought different work experiences to Nova Scotia, depending on gender, plantation, and geographic location (rural or urban), the British imperial government assumed that all had been farm labourers. As a result, imperial and local officials expected men and women of different skill levels to become subsistence frontier farmers even if they had been domestic servants their entire lives.”

The Black Refugees also brought one significant cultural aspect of their American background to Nova Scotia. The experience of separate black places of worship, though they had existed in Nova Scotia before the Refugees’ arrival, held out an important ideal that the migrants continued in their new home. Indeed, forms of Afro-American Christianity prevalent in the Chesapeake generally, and Virginia in particular, would be reproduced in Nova Scotia. Other aspects of slave life, such as extended family and kinship ties, took on added importance as many households contained several family members ranging from the newborn to the elderly. During slavery, the Refugees had been mutually reliant and supportive of one another. This trait continued in Nova Scotia as the more fortunate Refugees continually fed, housed, and cared for the poorer members of the emerging communities. The importance of the church and family structure would form the building blocks of the Black Refugee community in the nineteenth century.”

“The problems associated with farming convinced many Refugees to turn their attention to the possibilities of urban wage labour. However, the government complicated the situation by passing a law meant to keep the Refugees fiom entering the urban labour market because it feared increased job competition for the new white immigrants. The Refugees ignored this law and found work in Halifax. As a result, the local government abandoned the law. Ignoring this law defined the Refugees’ understanding of freedom in post-emancipation Halifax as the right to seek and be paid for the labour of their choice”

“The Refugees maintained an anti-American attitude because they recalled their experience as American slaves and it dictated many of their concerns about communal security and the fate of black people in the Republic. American slavery had robbed many Black Refugees of family members and their anger over this and other injustices made them accept the difficult conditions of Nova Scotia. In 1844, one Refugee woman from the Chesapeake explained the difference between slavery in America and freedom in Nova Scotia thusly:

I’ll tell you what slavery is like: They won’t let us marry, but for all that we like our men the same as white women do, and we like our children the same as white women; but they take away our men and take our children when they are grown, and take them to New Orleans . . . and if we were to cry till our heart break, they mock us.. .. I’ll live on taters and salt [a reference to life in Nova Scotia], and help fight myself till I die, before I’ll be a slave again

Whitfield, Harvey. (2005). The Development of Black Refugee Identity in Nova Scotia, 1813-1850. Left History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Historical Inquiry and Debate. 10. 10.25071/1913-9632.5679.