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Portrait of John Murray, Lord Dunmore

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Portrait of John Murray, Lord Dunmore

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John Murray, the fourth earl of Dunmore and royal governor of Virginia at the start of the American Revolution, was simultaneously one of the most hated and most revered men in the colonies. In a letter to Thomas Jefferson, Virginia patriot Richard Henry Lee derisively dubbed him the "African Hero" for his boldly strategic gambit to offer freedom to any enslaved African or Indian who joined the British forces. As liberation fever traveled throughout Virginia and beyond, black mothers named their newborn babies "Dunmore."

Dunmore's strategy did not stem from any moral or religious objections to slavery. As governor of Virginia, Dunmore withheld his signature from a bill against the slave trade.

Lacking in diplomatic skills, Dunmore had maintained a contentious relationship with the colonists. After word of his plan began to circulate, he left Williamsburg, taking asylum aboard a man-of-war at Yorktown. He wrote to General Thomas Gage, commander of the British forces, "I have thought it best for his Majesty's Services to retire from amidst such hostile appearances around me."

Landing in Charleston near the end of the war, with no assignment, Dunmore sought to assert his presence by advancing a plan to recruit blacks on a large scale, placing 10,000 men under the command of provincial officers. Commander-in-Chief Henry Clinton refused authorization, despite the urging of other officers.

In 1787, Dunmore was appointed governor of the Bahamas, where thousands of blacks had been transported after the war, most of them enslaved. Despite his effort to pose as the "Great Liberator," Dunmore's attempts to reconcile conflicts over property claims for runaway slaves resulted in the reenslavement of 29 of the 30 who brought their claim of freedom before his Negro Court. The planters' support later turned to condemnation when blacks built a village in Nassau behind Government House, and another near Fort Charlotte, to provide asylum to runaways where "no white person dares make his appearance...but at risk of his life." Critics charged that Dunmore intervened to protect blacks from punishment, despite the fact that several black leaders were arrested and prosecuted for assault on whites.

Image Credit: Scottish National Gallery

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Related Entries:
Proclamation of Earl of Dunmore
Fath Ruffins on blacks' reaction to Dunmore's Proclamation
Betty Wood on Dumore's Proclamation and the fear of slave rebellion
Betty Wood on controlling slaves after Dunmore's Proclamation
Peter Wood on Dunmore's Proclamation's effect on the war
Betty Wood on the significance of Dunmore's Proclamation

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