In May 2011, after four years of life on McNutt's Island, we moved to Montreal. This blog remains, though, as a (sort of) daily record of our time on the island, and a winding path for anyone who would like to meander about among its magical places. For additional perspectives and insights I recommend Greg's book, Island Year: Finding Nova Scotia (2010), and my Bowl of Light (2012). I'll continue to post once in a while. If you do want to read this blog, one option would be to begin at the beginning of it (which is, as we all know, in blog-world, at the end), and read forward, concluding with the most recent entry. It's a journal, really, so it does makes more sense if you read it that way. But, you know, read it any way you like.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The black pilots

The black pilots came to Port Roseway in spring of 1783, among the first African Americans to make passage to Nova Scotia. Their individual stories are recorded in The Book of Negroes, that detailed list of all the former slaves who threw their lot with the British in the American Revolution, escaping slavery, now sailing away to this uncertain freedom.

James Robertson was forty nine years old then, a thin man who had escaped from Captain Paul Layon in Portsmouth Virginia. With him were his wife Betsey, forty six years old, and their son James, two and a half, a small boy. Betsey had escaped slavery with her husband.

James Jackson was fifty, thin, escaped from Robert Tucker of Norfolk Virginia. Jackson served the British cause with Lord Dunmore. After Jackson are listed Judith Jackson, most likely his wife, twenty four years old, and Harry Jackson, eight -- a good little boy, the record adds.

London Jackson was thirty two, a stout fellow-- stout meant strong and healthy -- who had escaped from William Ballad of Hampton Virginia. Three more members of the Jackson family come next, though their relationships are not clear. Sebro and her infant child Zolpher travelled to Port Roseway on another ship, but are listed here. Nelly, thirty three and stout, is probably London's wife, since she escaped from slavery in Hampton Virginia at the same time he did.

Dick Leich was twenty eight, escaped from Manney Goddin of Nansemond Virginia. Ruth Leich was twenty and her sister Grace was seventeen. They had both escaped from Colonel Conel of Hampton Virginia. Ruth and Grace could be Dick's sisters, or maybe they are his sister and his wife.

These four men are described as pilots in The Book of Negroes. They all came from the same area along the mouth of the James River as it flows into Chesapeake Bay. Their knowledge of the local waters was irreplaceable. They risked everything to put that knowledge to work for the British, who had promised them freedom if they did.

It's likely that these families and households, all from the same place, had ties of kinship or relationship strong enough to make them want to stay together and take care of each other. Maybe their relationships had begun in the intertwined life of James River plantations. As pilots along the James and into Chesapeake Bay, the men would have been crucially-positioned conductors of a powerful slave grapevine, in on everything. They may have been instrumental in facilitating escapes, not only of their own families, but also of friends and neighbours.

Or maybe they found each other later, in New York City, refugees seeking the comfort of those who shared the common experience of a James River plantation culture. However they knew each other, by the time they stepped on board the Ship Ann, bound for Port Roseway, they had formed a protective extended family. They were looking out for each other.

The raw Nova Scotia town of Shelburne would need pilots to navigate vessels safely through its long harbour. Those pilots would need to live where the harbour opened into the Atlantic, where a goods-laden schooner could anchor and wait until a pilot rowed out to board and guide the ship into Shelburne. And when you look at the Old Grant Map of McNutt's Island, that's exactly where the pilots are located.

They were not given four lots on the island, the fifty acres apiece that was promised to all who had risked their lives in service to the British. Instead their four households shared one fifty acre lot.

But did they really live here, on McNutt's Island? I think they did, at least for a while, though I haven't discovered any positive documentation. But it makes sense. Life on the island would have been hard, but it was hard for African Americans in Shelburne and Birchtown and in some ways harder there. And the pilots were likely paid for their services, so they would have income. In their own small community they could have cleared forest, built shelter, established a life. It's dark winter as I write this, and difficult to imagine a small group of former slaves enduring the cold winds and stony ground of the island's isolated eastern side, with very few other people living anywhere on the island. But maybe they felt safe in this extended family they had created for themselves, out in the forest.

In 1792 most black settlers in the Shelburne area sailed away to a new life in Sierra Leone. Nova Scotia had been brutal, and many had not survived. At least one of the pilots, James Robertson, took up a lot in Freetown, the new settlement. And maybe little James Robertson lived to grow up in Sierra Leone, an astonishing journey from slavery to freedom, from the James River to Nova Scotia and on to the shining promise of Africa, full circle.

Maybe he lived a long time, and maybe when he was an old man he sat sometimes in the warm African sun and remembered his childhood on that Nova Scotia island. If he did, maybe his memories held at least some moments of joy or wonder: a father's laugh or mother's smile, a special stone picked up along the shore, a taste of wild raspberries, the glimpse of a seal poking her head out of the waves.

There's a bit of ground on the eastern side of McNutt's that holds a memory of this journey to freedom. You can stand on a high cliff there and look out across the Atlantic, south and east toward Sierra Leone, and try to imagine it.

No comments: