The Book of Negroes
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In 1776, British troops under the command of General Billy Howe captured New York City. The city continued to be a British stronghold for the duration of the war, and large numbers of enslaved blacks sought refuge there.
When the British evacuated Savannah in July, 1782 and Charleston five months later, they transported thousands of black men and women, many of whom had escaped from enslavement to Patriot masters. This emerged as an issue of protest for the Continental government, affecting the terms of the peace treaty.
Prior to the evacuation of New York, Congress instructed General Washington to obtain American property held by the British, including slaves, as stipulated under the terms of the agreement signed in Paris in November, 1782.
Sir Guy Carleton, negotiating on behalf of the British, dismayed the Americans when he expressed an intention to honor the proclamations of freedom issued by previous commanders, claiming that to do otherwise would be a "dishonorable Violation of the public Faith." Carleton proposed to compensate slaveowners for the loss of property.
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 each Wednesday at the Queen's Head, a tavern owned by Samuel Fraunces, a free black, and reviewed cases brought by slaveowners.
Within a year, the British had compiled a register of 3,000 former slaves who had joined them prior to the signing of the 1782 provisional treaty; all others were to be returned. Among the 3,000 who departed New York in November, 1783 were 1119 men, 914 women, 339 boys, 335 girls and 76 children whose gender was unidentified. Of these, the largest group comprised those who had joined the British military and therefore claimed freedom by proclamation; the second largest was those who claimed to have abandoned their master during the war; and the third largest group was those who claimed to have been born free or to have been emancipated.
Image Credit: British Crown copyright: Public Record Office, London. This document may be copied and downloaded for personal and research use only. You must apply to the Public Record Office for any other use. (PRO 30/55/100)
Boston King's memories of the evacuation from New York
Peter Wood on the evacuation of slaves in New York
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