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, April 17, 2010

Black pilots' connection to Henry Mowatt

"The Black Pilots," as they are known around here, are an enduring mystery of McNutt's Island. I have written about them several times before, and you can find those posts by going to the label black pilots. They were four pilots who were granted a shared fifty acre lot here on the island in 1784. The first record of the pilots and their families can be found in The Book of Negroes, that careful listing of every black loyalist who left New York between the spring of 1783 and the fall of 1785, bound most often for sites of refuge in Nova Scotia. The pilots, along with their wives and children and other extended family members, left aboard the Ann in the last week of April 1783 -- one of the first ships to leave New York. The pilots and their families were among the first refugees to arrive at Port Roseway in the first week of May.
The pilots not only traveled together, which in itself would show that they were already a community of mutual support. They also had in common an important connection -- Captain Henry Mowatt, of the British Navy. Henry Mowatt was commander of HMS La Sophia, in charge of the entire transport of the fleet of refugees, white and black, leaving New York City in those anxious and turbulent days. In the whole of The Book of Negroes there are no other black refugees listed as under his care: only these four black pilots and their families (and a fifth pilot, James Collin, who traveled with them and who appeared to have had no family and was not among those granted land on the island). It's likely that Captain Mowatt had relied upon the pilots' skills during the long war of rebellion, much of which occurred along the Virginia waterways the pilots knew so well. He would have stayed in contact with them in New York City. Now he undertook to safeguard their journey to Port Roseway.

In The Book of Negroes there is a column for claimant, that is, some white person who claims that this black person is actually their slave but is trying to escape under false pretenses. When there was a claimant, the British investigated, looked for documentation, listened to the stories of claimant and refugee, and decided whom to believe. For the black pilots and their families there is no "claimant" attempting to drag them back into slavery. That column is blank for every one of them. As pilots who served in the British navy their status is secure.

But next to the column for claimant is a column for Names of the persons in whose Possession they now are. Henry Mowatt is listed here, for every one of the pilots and their family members. Henry Mowatt was an important figure in the world of Loyalists, as they are called in Canadian history. As the officer in charge of transporting the fleets from New York, he was in and out of Shelburne during its early days. He brought the governor of the province up from Halifax aboard La Sophia to see the progress of the raw new town that summer, and hosted dignitaries for dinner on the ship. He was much respected by the white Loyalists, an anxious, contentious lot, who wrote to Admiral Digby begging that Mowatt not be removed from this appointment. One of the long streets in Shelburne was named in his honour. In the disorienting, fluid world of early Shelburne, the pilots' connection with Mowatt would have counted for something, and may be the reason they were granted a lot on the island, even though it was only one lot, to be shared among them.

The meaning of the category -- Names of the persons in whose Possession they now are -- is ambiguous. It could be an indenture of some sort -- a specific contract for work for a specific number of years. Indentures of black loyalists by whites were common in those early post-war years. Mowatt could have made some sort of contract with the pilots, hired them out as his indentured servants in Shelburne or Halifax, the men and boys to go on ships, and then pocketed their wages. That is a possibility.

But I'm pretty sure that the connection between Mowatt and the pilots was one of protection and support, not exploitation. And in a later post I will tell you why.

You can see the actual listing of the black pilots and their families in The Book of Negroes at NSARM's virtual exhibit, African Nova Scotians. That's so amazing.

1 comment:

Janet said...

We are so fortunate here to have all that history and documentation, not just preserved on dusty shelves in Halifax at NSARMS, but living on the internet where we can access it at any time. Must re-read The Book of Negroes.