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The Long Way Home: The Fate of Former Slaves at the End of the War for Freedom

The Long Way Home:
The Fate of Former Slaves at the End of the War for Freedom

Boston King

Boston King, profiled in the Yorktown Victory Center’s Witnesses to Revolution Gallery, was among the formerly enslaved African Americans evacuated from New York to Nova Scotia at the end of the Revolution. Apprenticed to a carpenter in South Carolina as a young man, he worked for the British as a boat pilot and servant in New York. He later became a Methodist minister and emigrated from Nova Scotia to Africa in 1792, where he was schoolmaster in a settlement for freed slaves.

The Treaty of Paris officially ended the war between Great Britain and America in 1783. By spring of that year, British forces were evacuating the last major port they controlled in the 13 former colonies, New York City. Sir Guy Carleton had replaced General William Clinton and was overseeing the difficult job of evacuating thousands of British soldiers and British loyalists. The fate of thousands of formerly enslaved African Americans who wanted to depart America became a great debate.

Many former slaves had fled bondage to enlist in the British army. Carleton did not believe that formerly enslaved African Americans, living as free people under British protection when the provisional peace treaty was signed in November 1782, were chattel property in 1783. It was his intention to provide transport out of New York City for these unfortunate individuals. To avoid having them seized by frightening bounty hunters already prowling the streets, Carleton directed that formerly enslaved African Americans who could prove residency within British lines for a year be issued certificates of freedom, assuring them of protection and transport.

When General Washington learned that the British commander was preparing to allow former slaves to escape New York, he demanded a conference. Washington brought up the subject of the runaway slaves, and Carleton replied that many had already been transported out of America. Washington quickly noted that this British action was in conflict with Article Seven of the treaty, that British armies were to be withdrawn without “carrying away any Negroes or other property of American inhabitants.” The British general then told Washington he could not interpret any article of the treaty inconsistent with British honor. Carleton pointed out that many of the former slaves had been promised freedom by earlier British commanders. He would not go back on these earlier assurances.

Carleton promised Washington that he would seek guidance from the British government on the propriety of his actions. In the meantime, he assured Washington that the names and ages of the individuals being transported would be recorded and, if he was wrong, just compensation would be paid by the British to the Americans. In the end, the British government endorsed Carleton’s courageous stand and applauded his position. No compensation was ever paid for the African Americans who departed New York for freedom.

Not all African Americans transported out of America by the British gained their freedom. Loyalists were able to take their enslaved African Americans with them as they journeyed to other British colonies. Some African-Americans slaves who reached the British lines were resold into slavery in the Caribbean by British officers. But due to the efforts of Sir Guy Carleton, thousands of former enslaved African Americans were evacuated to other British colonies, including Nova Scotia in Canada. Some of the refugees who traveled to Nova Scotia disliked the harsh climate and suffered discrimination. Nearly 2,000 were eventually resettled in Sierra Leone on the west coast of Africa. For those formerly enslaved African Americans who had been born in Africa, it must have seemed like a long, strange and difficult journey home.