British pass issued to black Loyalist
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Following the defeat of the British at Yorktown in 1781, the most difficult issue to be resolved was the fate of the tens of thousands of African American slaves who had joined the British during the war.
Although the articles of capitulation at Yorktown did not address the flight of slaves on Royal Navy vessels, the preliminary articles of peace signed in Paris in 1782 prohibited the British from "carrying away any negroes or other American property."
The British evacuation plan centered on three American ports -- Savannah, Charleston and New York -- as well as the Spanish port of St. Augustine, where the largest group of black refugees had sought asylum. In a conference with British Commander-in-Chief Guy Carleton regarding the evacuation of New York, Washington was surprised to learn that the plan included negroes, some of who had already been sent away.
Carleton held to the position that the removal of slaves -- specifically, those who had been manumitted prior to the signing of the Paris treaty -- was not a violation of the agreement. Fearing that "a renewal of hostilities might be a consequence," Congress chose not to declare the British to be in violation, on the thin promise of compensation to slaveholders.
Carleton assigned three men to compile a register of Negroes who were eligible for evacuation from New York, and Congress appointed a three-man commission to inspect and supervise the process. For the next several months the British board and the American commission met weekly at the Queen's Head, a tavern owned by Samuel Fraunces, a free black. Ironically, the tavern had also been the site where much of the American revolutionary activity had been planned.
Those who could establish their service to the British were issued certificates of freedom and granted passage out of New York; those who could not were given over to the Americans. Eventually, 3,000 men, women, and children, including a handful who had been free before the war, left New York on British military transports to be resettled in Nova Scotia.
By this time, as many as 4,000 had been evacuated from Savannah and another 6,000 from Charleston, as well as untold numbers who embarked on private vessels. Most of the African Americans evacuated from the southern ports ended up being sold into slavery in the Caribbean, although a few did gain their freedom.
Image Credit: Public Archives of Nova Scotia
The Book of Negroes
Boston King's memories of the evacuation from New York
Peter Wood on the evacuation of slaves in New York
Betty Wood on blacks leaving the U.S. with the British
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