Escaped slavery by running away to the British
While at Kingswood School in England in 1796, Boston King sat down to write the memoirs of his varied and colorful life. He was born in 1759 or 1760 on a South Carolina plantation “28 miles from Charles-Town,” and like a great many former slaves from the British American colonies, he was the son of an African-born father who was “stolen away from” his home. Boston remembered that “to the utmost of his power [his father] endeavored to make his family happy.” Boston’s mother “was employed chiefly in attending upon those that were sick,” though she was also an accomplished seamstress. His father’s dedication to reading and prayer made a tremendous impact on young Boston, and he carried his father’s love through all his life. After working in the fields, Boston’s father would retire “into the woods and read until sun-set.” In the evenings, his father would read and pray with him, as Boston was very much “inclined to hear.” Notwithstanding his family’s position on the plantation as chattel slaves, Boston had a reasonably happy childhood.
Boston’s adolescence would not prove as pleasant. When he was sixteen years old his master apprenticed him to a carpenter, and Boston spent almost three years learning the trade. He recalled that the carpenter thought nothing of “striking me on the head, or any other part without mercy.” By 1779, nails had become scarce in South Carolina (as most nails had been imported from Great Britain before the Revolutionary war.) When some of the carpenter’s nails were stolen by another apprentice, Boston was blamed and beaten so brutally that he “was laid up three weeks before [he] was able to do any work.” Boston’s master was aware of the carpenter’s cruelty but only removed Boston from the abusive situation in 1780, when the British threat to Charleston became critical.
While in the South Carolina countryside, a safe distance from now British-occupied Charleston, Boston faced a serious dilemma. He had obtained a pass to visit his parents and had borrowed a horse from a neighbor, Mr. Waters. However, Boston recalled that “a servant of my master’s, took the horse from me to go on a little journey, and stayed two or three days longer than he should have.” Although Boston does not elaborate on this servant’s activities, it was a common practice among African-American slaves to periodically become “truants” and visit family members on different plantations. Some slaveowners proved lenient on truants, but others were intolerant. In the case of Mr. Waters, Boston feared severe retribution for his part in the truancy and the loss of the horse. With his master’s recent neglect of his well-being still fresh in his mind, he resolved to flee to Charleston and “throw [him]self into the hands of the English.” Thus Boston King became a Loyalist in order to escape the cruelty of “a very bad man.”
The British received Boston “readily,” and for the first time in his life he felt “the happiness of liberty.” Unfortunately, Boston contracted smallpox from the British troops “and suffered great hardships.” Thanks to a volunteer from New York, he “began to recover,” but the British soon abandoned the location. When the Americans closed on the former British positions, Boston “expected to be taken by the enemy,” but once the Americans “understood that we were ill of small-pox, they precipitately left.” Boston soon after joined with the British rear guard, thirty-five miles from Camden, South Carolina. He remained at the British headquarters for three weeks. During this time his assigned regiment participated in the Battle of Camden in August 1780, where British general Lord Cornwallis defeated American general Horatio Gates. The New York volunteer who had helped Boston was among the casualties. Boston rushed to his side and stayed six weeks at the hospital “till he [the New Yorker] recovered.” He later rejoiced that it was within his “power to return . . . the kindness he had shewed me.”
A few months later, the British army was on the move again, though when orders arrived to decamp Boston had been “at a distance.” He met Captain Lewes, an American Loyalist, who assured Boston that he would rejoin his “regiment before 7 o’clock tonight.” Later that afternoon it became clear to Boston that Lewes’s true plan was to desert, taking as many British horses as he could muster as well as Boston to the American lines. At the first chance, Boston escaped and warned his regiment of Lewes’s treachery. Thanks to Boston, the horses were saved, though Lewes himself evaded capture.
Boston spent the better part of 1781 as a servant to Captain Grey in North Carolina before being transferred to Colonel Small at Nelson’s-ferry. Upon his arrival, Boston learned that Small’s “situation was very precarious.” The British garrison numbered 250 men, and they faced an approaching force of 1,600 Americans. Another 1,200 English soldiers could be brought as reinforcements, but they were thirty miles away and a messenger would have to pass through American-held country to reach them. Small selected Boston for the risky duty, with promises of “great rewards” if he succeeded. Along the route, Boston nearly encountered an American patrol. To avoid capture he quickly “step[ped] out of the road,” and “fell flat upon [his] face until they were gone by.” After this scare, he succeeded in getting the message through, and the garrison at Nelson’s-ferry was reinforced. In return for this daring feat, Boston recalled that he received only “three shillings.”
Soon after, Boston went to Charleston and boarded a ship for New York. The British had decided to abandon Charleston in 1782, following Cornwallis’s defeat at the Battle of Yorktown the previous year. Boston tried to establish himself as a carpenter in New York, but having no tools of his own he once again became a servant. In 1782, he married his wife, Violet, a woman twelve years his senior and described a year later by the British as a “stout wench” (a phrase used in the eighteenth century in reference to a servant woman with a strong build, not a portly woman with loose morals.) He remained a servant for four months, but as his master never paid him, Boston “was obliged to leave him also.” He took a job on a pilot-boat, but in early 1783 was captured by an “American whale-boat.” He was thus placed back into slavery, though he soon escaped and returned to his wife in New York.
When the war ended, Boston and Violet feared they would be returned to their former American masters. Thanks to the perseverance of British General Sir Guy Carleton, however almost 3,000 former slaves were transported to Canada. Boston and Violet arrived at Burch Town, Nova Scotia, in August 1783. Burch Town became home to the vast majority of the former slaves who fought for the British in the war. Shortly after they arrived in their new home, Violet and Boston underwent conversion experiences and became Methodists. Their new faith subsequently became the focal point for their lives. Unfortunately, British inattention to Burch Town helped depress the economy, and led many of their neighbors to embrace the idea of relocating to Africa. In 1792, Boston and 1,195 other blacks from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick departed Canada for the new colony of Freetown, Sierra Leone.
Boston and Violet each became ill with a tropical fever upon their arrival in Africa. Violet died of her malady in 1792 at the age of forty-four. Boston survived and became a missionary for the Methodist Church. Leaving the confines of Freetown, he taught English to the surrounding Africans and tried to convert them to Christianity. In 1794, he traveled to England to further his own education at Kingswood School. Boston’s father would have been very proud of his son. After spending his own lifetime reading in the woods and passing quiet evenings reading Scripture to his family, his son had received an English education, and returned to his father’s homeland to spread the Gospel. In 1796, Boston returned to Sierra Leone to continue his mission work; he died in 1802 at the age of forty-two.
Primary Source Documents: Boston King
The following passages are taken from Boston King, “Memoirs of the Life of BOSTON KING, a Black Preacher. Written by Himself, during his Residence at Kingswood-School,” The Methodist Magazine, (March 1798), 105-111, and (April 1798), 157-161.
Joining the British and dealing with smallpox, 1780:
. . . My master being apprehensive that [Charleston] was in danger on account of the war, removed into the country, about 38 miles off. Here we built a large house for Mr. Waters, during which time the English took Charles-Town. Having obtained leave one day to see my parents, who lived about 12 miles off, and it being late before I could go, I was obliged to borrow one of Mr. Waters’s horses; but a servant of my master’s, took the horse from me to go a little journey, and stayed two or three days longer than he ought. This involved me in the greatest perplexity, and I expected the severest punishment, because the gentleman to whom the horse belonged was a very bad man, and knew not how to [show] mercy. To escape his cruelty, I determined to go to Charles-Town, and throw myself into the hands of the English. They received me readily, and I began to feel the happiness of liberty, of which I knew nothing before, altho’ I was much grieved at first, to be obliged to leave my friends, and reside among strangers. In this situation I was seized with the smallpox, and suffered great hardships; for all the Blacks affected with that disease, were ordered to be carried a mile from the camp, lest the soldiers should be infected, and disabled from marching. This was a grievous circumstance to me and many others. We lay sometimes a whole day without any thing to eat or drink; but Providence sent a man, who belonged to the [New} York volunteers whom I was acquainted with, to my relief. He brought me such things as I stood in need of; and by the blessing of the Lord I began to recover.
By this time, the English left the place; but as I was unable to march with the army, I expected to be taken by the enemy. However, when they came, and understood that we were ill of small-pox, they precipitately left us for fear of the infection. Two days after, the waggons were sent to convey us to the English Army, and we were put into a little cottage, (being 25 in number) about a quarter of a mile from the Hospital.
Being recovered, I marched with the army to [Camden]. When we came to a head-quarters, our regiment was 35 miles off. I stayed at the head-quarters three weeks, during which time our regiment had an engagement with the Americans, and the man who relieved me when I was ill of the small-pox, was wounded in the battle, and brought to the hospital. As soon as I heard of his misfortune, I went to see him, and tarried with him in the hospital six weeks, till he recovered; rejoicing that it was in my power to return him the kindness he had shewed me.
Saving the British Regiment at Nelson’s-ferry, 1782:
. . . I tarried with Captain Grey about a year, and then left him, and came to Nelson’s-ferry. Here I entered into the service of the commanding officer of that place. But our situation was very precarious, and we expected to be made prisoners every day; for the Americans had 1600 men, not far off; whereas our whole number amounted only to 250: But there were 1200 English about 30 miles off; only we knew not how to inform them of our danger, as the Americans were in possession of the country. Our commander at length determined to send me with a letter, promising me great rewards, if I was successful in the business. I refused going on horse-back, and set off on foot about 3 o’clock in the afternoon; I expected every moment to fall in with the enemy, whom I well knew would shew me no mercy. I went on without interruption, till I got within six miles of my journey’s end, and then was alarmed with a great noise a little before me. But I stepped out of the road, and fell flat upon my face till they were gone by. I then arose, and praised the Name of the Lord for his great mercy, and again pursued my journey, till I came to Mums-corner tavern. I knocked at the door, but they blew out the candle. I knocked again, and intreated the master to open the door. At last he came with a frightful countenance, and said, “I thought it was the Americans; for they were here about an hour ago, and I thought they were returned again.” I asked, How many were there?[“] He answered, “about one hundred.” I desired him to saddle his horse for me, which he did, and went with me himself. When we had gone about two miles, we were stopped by the picket-guard, till the Captain came out with 30 men: As soon as he knew that I had brought an express from Nelson’s-ferry, he received me with great kindness, and expressed his approbation of my courage and conduct in this dangerous business. Next morning, Colonel Small gave me three shillings, and many fine promises, which were all that I ever received for this service from him. However he sent 600 men to relieve the troops at Nelson’s-ferry.
A slave once again in Brunswick, N.J., 1783:
. . . I then went out on a pilot-boat. We were at sea eight days, and had only provisions for five, so that we were in danger of starving. On the 9th day we were taken by an American whale-boat . . . They carried me to Brunswick and . . . my mind was sorely distressed at the thought of being reduced to slavery, and separated from my wife and family . . . I was thankful that I was not confined in a jail, and my master used me as well as I could expect; and indeed the slaves about Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York, have as good victuals as many of the English; for they have meat once a day, and milk for breakfast and supper; and what is better than all, many of the masters send their slaves to school at night, that they may learn the Scriptures . . . But alas, all these enjoyments could not satisfy me without liberty!
The Peace restored and the exodus to Nova Scotia, 1783:
. . . peace was restored between America and Great Britain, which diffused universal joy among all parties, except us, who had escaped from slavery, and taken refuge in the English army; for a report prevailed at New-York, that all the slaves . . . were to be delivered up to their masters, altho’ some of them had been there three or four years among the English. This terror, especially when we saw our old masters coming from Virginia, North-Carolina, and other parts, and seizing upon their slaves in the streets of New-York, or even dragging then from their beds. Many of the slaves had very cruel masters, so that the thoughts of returning home with them embittered life to us. For some days we lost our appetite for food, and sleep departed from our eyes. The English had compassion upon us in the day of our distress, and issued out a Proclamation, importing, That all slaves should be free, who had taken refuge in the British lines, and claimed the sanction and privileges of the Proclamations respecting the security and protection of Negroes. In consequence of this, each of us received a certificate from the commanding officer at New-York, which dispelled all our fears, and filled us with joy and gratitude. . .
Depression and Prejudice in Nova Scotia, 1787:
. . . a gentleman sent for me, and engaged me to make three flat-bottomed boats for the salmon fishery, at 1£ each. The gentleman advanced two baskets of Indian Corn, and found nails and tar for the boats. I was enabled to finish the work by the time appointed, and he paid me honestly. Thus did the kind hand of Providence interpose in my preservation which appeared to me greater, upon viewing the wretched circumstances of many of my black brethren at that time, who were obliged to sell themselves to the merchants, some for two or three years; and others for five or six years. The circumstances of the white inhabitants were likewise very distressing, owing to their great imprudence in building large houses, and striving to excel one another in this piece of vanity.
Preaching in England, 1793:
. . . I found it profitable to my own soul, to be exercised in inviting sinners to Christ; particularly one Sunday, while I was preaching at Snowsfields-Chapel, the Lord blessed me abundantly, and I found a more cordial love to the White People than I had ever experienced before. In the former part of my life I had suffered greatly from the cruelty and injustice of the Whites, which induced me to look upon them, in general, as our enemies: And even after the Lord had manifested his forgiving mercy to me, I still felt at times an uneasy distrust and shyness towards them; but on that day the Lord removed all my prejudices; for which I bless his Holy Name.
For Further Reading:
Cassandra Pybus, Epic Journeys: Runaway Slaves of the American Revolution (2007).
Sylvia Frey, Water from the Rock (1991).