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.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

the black pilots who went to Sierra Leone from Birchtown

In late 1791, John Clarkson arrived in Birchtown from London to tell that community -- then the largest community of free blacks in North America -- about the prospect of resettlement in Sierra Leone. The response was enormous. Life in Nova Scotia had not been kind for these former slaves who had already overcome such extraordinary barriers in their quest for freedom. Perhaps what the Sierra Leone Company was offering them would, at last, be the realization of that goal they had already risked everything to gain. To many people of Birchtown, Clarkson's offer was worth making another huge leap of faith, leaving behind again anything they had so labouriously put together for themselves over nearly a decade of back breaking work and sailing again across the sea, this time for the west coast of Africa.
The names of the heads of household are inscribed in a document entitled "List of the blacks in Birch Town who gave in their names for Sierra Leone in November, 1791."
The name of well-known religious leader David George heads the list. It's likely that the following names are in some order of precedence or association. David George was the leader of the Baptist congregation in Shelburne, and it is possible that those households listed beneath his are also members of that congregation.

James Robertson, one of the four black pilots who had been granted Lot 23 on McNutt's Island, is listed as number seventeen. Here he describes himself as being 52 years old, born in Virginia, and travelling to Sierra Leone with his wife. But although James and Betsey had traveled to Nova Scotia in 1783 with a son, James Robertson, age two and a half, described in The Book of Negroes as a "small boy," no children are going with them to Sierra Leone. It's most likely that in November 1791 young James lies in the common burying ground at Birchtown.

When asked his occupation, James the elder describes himself as both a pilot and a farmer. It's possible that he has continued to work as a pilot in Shelburne Harbour. None of the pilots was listed in the 1784 Muster Book of Free Blacks in Birchtown, a list intended to provide accurate information for the distribution of the King's Bounty at a time when widespread hardship required the material support of basic food supplies for both black and white. That the pilots were not listed in the muster roll suggests that they were not in need then. Remember that the four pilots and their families had arrived in Shelburne in May of 1783, in one of the first ships, under the wing of the influential and powerful Captain Henry Mowat.

In November 1791 James is the owner of a fifty acre lot, well improved, with a house. He will need to sell this property before he and Betsey leave Shelburne, though the price of such property will be depressed by the number of people who are in the same situation. It will be a buyer's market. James will have little room to negotiate, and likely it will be Stephen Skinner (or some other astute local businessman) who picks up the property for a very good price.
On the last of the five pages we find Richard Leach, age 38, born in Virginia, travelling with his wife and three children. Dick/Richard Leich/Leach was another of the four pilots who traveled together to Shelburne with their extended families, all under the patronage of Captain Mowat, and who were granted a share in Lot 23 on McNutt's Island.

Richard Leach here gives his occupation as farmer. He owns no land, though, so he was probably working as a tenant farmer for some large landowner such as Gideon White. A few months after the exodus White complained that eight black tenant families have left him to go to Sierra Leone.

It's an extraordinarily moving experience to look at the names of these two pilots as they prepare to seize this unexpected chance at a better life for themselves and their families, in Africa. I still don't know whether they ever lived on McNutt's Island. But I imagine they did, at least, come over to walk the bounds of Lot 23, and to look out at the sea from that great height along the island's southeastern edge, that small slice of rocky Nova Scotia ground which was, for a little while anyway, their own.

"List of the blacks in Birch Town who gave in their names for Sierra Leone in November 1791" can be viewed along with other documents at the website of Cassandra Pybus, author of Epic Journeys of Freedom: Runaway Slaves of the American Revolution and Their Global Quest for Liberty. The Pybus website does not give basic resource information about the document. It looks as if it is to be found at CO 217/63, f.361 ff.

For more on the black pilots and their historical context, you can go to the label "black pilots" and read through.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Having lived in Birchtown for a short period of time in the late 70's and early 80's I always found the story of the black loyalists fascinating! The novel "The Book of Negro's" gives a really interesting account of the time Clarkson was in Birchtown, why some went to Sierra Leone, and the trials they had once there.

We had an old house on a point in Birchtown (might even be able to see it from McNutt's!) not far from the old church and as kids we always wondered if we were next to a burying ground ....such a sad time in history.

Dawn C.