“We Can Do As We Like Here”: An Analysis of Self Assertion and Agency Among Black Refugees in Halifax, Nova Scotia, 1813-1821

“WHITE HUNTERS TRESPASSED on the Dartmouth farm of Mr. Fuller, a “coloured man”, in March 1818. Fuller demanded that they vacate his property immediately, but the hunters claimed that they were on common land which belonged to no single individual or family. Fuller and the hunters traded insults, then blows. Mrs. Fuller and her children responded to the fighting with a volley of rocks which struck the hunters, prompting them to draw their guns and to order the family to retreat. Mrs. Fuller, though, defiantly informed the trespassers that the land was “our own, we are not now in the U. States, and we can do as we like here.

Following the “Battle at Fuller’s Farm”, the local authorities charged Fuller with assault. Fuller, taking advantage of his new status as a British subject, justified the assault as a legitimate response to the hunters’ trespassing on his private land. His lawyer argued in the Inferior Court of Common Pleas that if the roles had been reversed, no court would convict a white man of assault. Unmoved by these arguments, the all-white jury convicted Fuller and sentenced him to one week in jail. After the verdict, a magistrate warned Fuller and other blacks to correct what he viewed as their deviant social behavior.Had you been in your own country, added the worthy Magistrate, and acted as it appears you have done in this case, you probably would have been shot. I am sorry to observe that there are too many of your colour in this country, whose conduct is highly reprehensible; and you may depend on it, if you continue the same course, it will be the means of uniting the voice of the people against you, in one loud and general complaint, to have you sent out of the Province altogether.

The incident at Fuller’s farm reveals a part of the Black Refugee experience that has received scant coverage by historians. Much of the historiography portrays the blacks who came to Nova Scotia from the United States early in the 19th century as hapless objects of white philanthropy, incapable of influencing their own destiny. In The Blacks in Canada, which was written in the wake of the American Civil Rights movement, Robin Winks blamed the Refugees for reinforcing patterns of segregation. Winks ignored examples of agency and initiative, perhaps in part because of the breadth of his survey of African Canadian history from 1638 to 1970. While this may explain why he missed some aspects of the Refugee experience, it does not excuse his blanket condemnation of the Refugees, which seems to have been based on selective use of evidence. According to Winks, the Refugees were a “disorganized, pathetic, and intimidated body who seemed unable to recover from their sudden voyage up the Atlantic to Nova Scotian shores”. Additionally, he argued, they “persistently” lacked leadership and remained wholly “unable to help themselves”. Certainly, these interpretations are based on a study of numerous government documents that cannot be ignored, but other sources indicate a measure of complexity that escaped Winks and other historians who have relied too heavily on the musings of Lord Dalhousie, Lieutenant-Governor from 1816 to 1820, and on Nova Scotia’s Minutes of Council.

Historians of blacks in the Maritimes in the early 19th century are faced with the problem that most documents relevant to black history were created by the white colonial elite. It is difficult to gain meaningful insight into the black communities’ ideas, goals and perceptions through the distorted lens of white chroniclers and observers. Refugees’ petitions to government provide one way to circumvent this problem. These sources tend to be verbatim renderings of the Refugees’ pleas, written by white friends, and they offer historians an opportunity to counterbalance official government documents.

The petitions provide insight into a broader pattern of self-assertion that begins with the Black exodus itself. The creation of the Black Refugee community was grounded in the Refugee’s struggle for freedom, and their petitions upon arrival in Nova Scotia reveal their attempts to capitalize on this freedom by becoming farmers, despite their tenuous position and the major obstacles posed by race, class and a contracting post-war economy. The Refugees’ early farming practices challenge the idea that they were simply the pathetic benefactors of white charity. Close consideration of the immigration and settlement of the Black Refugees reveals many acts of self-help and self-assertion in the period between their arrival in Nova Scotia and the government’s attempts to relocate them to Trinidad in 1821.

One of the first items of correspondence between Lieutenant-Governor John Sherbrooke and Colonial Secretary Lord Bathurst concerning the black migrants of 1812, referred to them simply as “Black People”. A year later, in 1814, they were described as Black Refugees. This might reflect their increasing numbers and the need to differentiate between the Refugees and other elements of the local black population. Several months later, in a letter to the House of Assembly, Sherbrooke categorized them as “people of colour”. Sherbrooke’s changing labels for the Black Refugees reflected a general trend. His successor, Lord Dalhousie, usually described them as “Refugee Negroes”, but in his diary they became “Chesapeake Blacks”. Government officials and the local population labeled them interchangeably as “Black Refugees”, “Negro Refugees”, “People of Colour” and “Black People”. The Black Refugees’ self-descriptions in petitions to the government included “Inhabitants of Colour” and “Refugees”. Often the petitioners specified their geographic location and referred to themselves as “People of Colour” at Preston or Hammonds Plains. In 1818, seaman John Carter, who had arrived in Halifax two years earlier, described himself as an “American”. It is understandable that Carter identified himself in this manner as his stay in the province was brief. The labels used by the Black Refugees were situational; in other words, characterization differed with the particular circumstances of an individual or group.

Most scholars have not been so flexible. Nearly every historian of the subject has employed the term “Refugee”. Alternatively, however, some historians use “Chesapeake Blacks” to indicate the origin of many of the Refugees. But this label is also problematic since recent research indicates that substantial numbers of the Refugees were from Georgia. The term Refugee need not be abandoned or condemned with quotation marks, but it can no longer be seen as the antithesis of the more heroic label, Black Loyalist. Having distinct labels to distinguish the black migration of the American Revolution from that of the War of 1812 is useful, providing we remember the similarities between the two influxes and abandon the notion popularized by Winks that one group exhibited pride, while the other was devoid of pride, skills, capital and agency.

The War of 1812 provided American slaves with an opportunity to escape the shackles of the “Peculiar Institution”. As they had during the Revolutionary War 30 years earlier, African-Americans sought refuge behind British lines in hope of obtaining freedom. These escaped slaves were primarily from the Chesapeake region and the Georgia Sea Islands. Although some runaways came to the British side before April 1814, it was Vice-Admiral Alexander Cochrane’s well-circulated proclamation at this time promising freedom and the opportunity to settle in British North America or the West Indies that prompted nearly 3,500 slaves to desert their masters during the war. Of that total, by the end of 1818 approximately 2,000 had landed in Nova Scotia. Around 400 subsequently went to New Brunswick.

The experience of Chesapeake blacks from Maryland and Virginia prior to immigration were different than those of blacks living on the Georgia Sea Islands. In the Chesapeake, mixed agricultural production developed in response to falling tobacco prices during the European Wars (1792-1815) and this led to long workdays and an intensive work environment for slaves. Planters who remained in the Chesapeake downsized their labor forces by hiring their slaves out to poor white farmers or by selling them to cotton-growing regions. Nevertheless, the Chesapeake’s slave population nearly doubled between 1780 and 1810. This growth primarily derived from natural increase since the importation of Africans had decreased substantially over time.

Slaves in the Chesapeake had more contact with white Americans than had the slaves in the Georgia Sea Islands during this period as, unlike the Sea Islands, whites resided in the same areas as their slaves. The religious revivalism that swept across the United States in the late 18th century encouraged further contact between whites and blacks. By the first decade of the 19th century, some Chesapeake blacks had been brought into the Baptist or Methodist fold. As Albert Raboteau argues, “the inclusion of slaves in the ‘close communion’ of evangelical churches was feasible because Chesapeake blacks, unlike those living farther south, regularly came into close contact with whites”. Some slaves, however, attended “African” churches with black congregations and their own pastors and distinct forms of service. Not surprisingly, when the Black Refugees developed their own separate “African” churches in Nova Scotia, the leaders of this movement were from the Chesapeake.

Black society in the Georgia Sea Islands was characterized by isolation from white Americans, and the Atlantic slave trade reinforced the development of a distinct Sea Island culture. Between 1790 and 1810, 92 per cent of the slaves entering Georgia came directly from Africa. Subsequently, the insularity of the Sea Islands maintained and reinforced aspects of African culture. The songs and dances of Sea Island slaves were particular to this area, and isolation fostered the development of Gullah, a blend of African dialects and English which was unintelligible to those unfamiliar with it.

Another significant difference between the experience of slavery in the Georgia Sea Islands and the Chesapeake concerned the organization of labour. In the Sea Islands, plantation managers employed the task system, which allowed slaves some control over the pace of work for their given assignment during the day. If they completed the task early, slaves could spend the rest of the day as they pleased. The drivers who directed nearly every aspect of plantation labor ranging from assigning tasks to imposing punishments were usually blacks. In this context, Sea Island slaves “remained physically separated and psychologically estranged from the Anglo-American world and culturally closer to Africa than any other blacks on continental North America”. Given the extent of the culture and language differences between Sea Island blacks and those from the Chesapeake, communication between the two groups may have been a challenge. Certainly, the early Black Refugee identity was fragmented; Black Refugees were a diverse group from at least two if not more distinct backgrounds.

In the United States, the Black Refugees usually employed two avenues of escape from slavery. Many left their owners under the cover of darkness and sought out the nearest British naval vessel. This entailed great risk as capture usually led to extreme punishment or execution. As Frank Cassell points out, “in both 1813 and 1814 armed patrols of whites constantly scoured the coastal areas [in the Chesapeake region] shooting suspected escapees on sight”. In other areas slaves were more fortunate. The British navy invaded and occupied the undefended Sea Islands and freed slaves as they did so. Two large-scale slave owners in the Georgia Sea Islands, James Hamilton and Pierce Butler, lost slaves in this manner. However, some Sea Island slaves made dangerous trips of nearly 15 miles to reach British encampments. These slaves did not simply cling to the freedom of the British naval vessels; many returned to help others escape.”

Whitfield, H. A. (2002). “We Can Do As We Like Here”: An Analysis of Self Assertion and Agency Among Black Refugees in Halifax, Nova Scotia, 1813-1821. Acadiensis32(1), 29. Retrieved from https://journals.lib.unb.ca/index.php/Acadiensis/article/view/10708