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Boston King

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Boston King

Boston King was one of the many enslaved African Americans -- perhaps as many as 100,000 -- who risked punishment and even death in order to reach the British lines and a chance at freedom.

King was born around 1760 near Charles Town (Charleston), South Carolina. His father, who had been kidnapped from Africa as child, was a driver on the plantation and knew how to read and write. His mother was a nurse and seamstress.

When he was sixteen, King was apprenticed to a carpenter, who treated him cruelly and once punished him so harshly that he was unable to work for three weeks. As the war moved closer to Charles Town, his master moved further inland. One day, King borrowed the master's horse to visit his parents, but another servant took the horse and stayed several days longer than permitted. King knew that he would be punished severely, and so he decided to join the British in Charles Town.

Soon after his arrival, a smallpox epidemic swept the region. The fugitive slaves, consigned to crowded and unsanitary living conditions, were especially vulnerable. King was stricken with smallpox; he and the other sick African Americans were carried away from the camp and abandoned by the British. Unlike most, King recovered.

Twice again King had to escape captivity, once from a British deserter, and later when the pilot boat on which he served was captured by an American whaleboat. King made his way up to New York, where he and thousands of other Loyalist refugees sought safety behind British lines at the close of the war, and where he met and married Violet, who had been a slave in North Carolina.

New York was the last American port to be evacuated by the British. While Washington negotiated with the British-commander-in-chief over the fate of the Loyalist fugative slave refugees, the rumor that they would be returned to their former masters filled them with "inexpressible anguish and terror." Boston King recalled that "For days, we lost our appetite for food and sleep departed from our eyes."

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. Boston and Violet King were among those listed in the "Book of Negroes;" they were issued certificates of freedom, which "dispelled all our fears, and filled us with joy and gratitude." Most important, it allowed them to board the military transport ships bound for the free black settlement in Nova Scotia where most of the black Loyalists were to be relocated.

Violet and Boston, along with other passengers aboard the L'Abondance, formed a black community in Burch Town (Birchtown, named for the British commander of New York City), six miles outside of Shelburne, Nova Scotia.

The provisions supplied by the British were inadequate, housing was nonexistent, and the land was barren and rocky. When delivery of supplies ended in 1786, free blacks were reduced to starvation, forcing them to sell their possessions or to indenture themselves to whites. King worked as a carpenter, making and selling chests and taking whatever jobs he could find to support himself and Violet through the ensuing famine.

After his conversion to Methodism in 1786, Boston began to preach in Birchtown and Shelburne, eventually moving to Preston at the request of Bishop William Black. There he met Lieutenant John Clarkson, the Halifax agent for the Sierra Leone Company. Boston and Violet were among the nearly twelve hundred blacks who sailed for Sierra Leone, West Africa, in January, 1792. After a difficult voyage in which sixty settlers died en route, rainy weather, malaria, and plagues of insects killed many of the new arrivals, including Violet.

At first Boston was employed by the company to preach to the native Africans in Sierra Leone, despite the fact that he could not understand their language. Soon he opened a school, later traveling to England to be schooled himself as a teacher.

In England, Boston preached to a white congregation, writing, "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 enmies: And even after the Lord had manifested his forgiving mercy to me, I still felt at times an uneasy distrust and shyness toward them; but on that day the Lord removed all my prejudices."

After two years of study at the Kingswood School, Boston returned to Sierra Leone and his work as a schoolmaster, determined to teach his African-born students the English language and "some knowledge of the way of salvation thro' faith in the Lord Jesus Christ." In 1798, he published his memoirs, one of the few first-hand accounts of the lives of Black Loyalist emigrés.

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)

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Related Entries:
Boston King's memories of the evacuation from New York
The Book of Negroes
Betty Wood on blacks leaving the U.S. with the British
Peter Wood on the evacuation of slaves in New York

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