Saturday, June 8, 2013

Stephen Davidson, review of Black Patriots and Loyalists in the Loyalist Gazette

Stephen Davidson, who has written on black Loyalists in Canada, including a children's book (the subject is rightly one of vast interest in Canada) sent the review below from The Loyalist Gazette, the publication of the United Empire Loyalist Association of Canada. This is striking for Americans to read because it underlines the role of Britain in freeing the most oppressed and of black Loyalists in forging a free community in Canada. And it stresses my development of relevant statistics out of existing lists, something that distinguishes Black Patriots and Loyalists from earlier writing on blacks in the Revolutionary War. For example, I show that the traditional estimate of 4,000 free black Loyalists who emigrated with the British to Canada is low, perhaps 2 1/2 to 3 times as many blacks came separately as came on the ships from New York with General Carleton (I discovered this by comparing musters - rosters - of 2 black settlements, Birchtown and Annapolis, in Canada - with the 3,000 listed in the Book of Negroes.

The review does not, however take up the poverty and racism in Canada which drove some 1,200 to emigrate to Free Town in Sierra Leone.


Stephen wrote to me:

"Months after having the immense pleasure of reading Black Patriots and Loyalists, I felt it was time that I send you a note to express my gratitude for your research. I recommended the book to the Black Loyalist Heritage Society of Nova Scotia and wrote a review of it for The Loyalist Gazette, the publication of the United Empire Loyalist Association of Canada. That same review is now posted on, (Perhaps it has been republished on the American site as well?) I am attaching the review which I trust will convey my appreciation.

I have had an ongoing interest in both Black Loyalist and loyalist history since my university days. For the last seven years, I have been regularly researching this forgotten chapter of Canada's history, resulting in articles in a variety of publications -- as well as stories for a children's magazine. In 2007, I had the privilege of being a consultant for a Black Loyalist website created by the University of New Brunswick and have spoken on the topic at a history workshop."


There is a rich research network on Black Loyalists in Canada, including a lot of writing which is pro-Crown - the divisions in sympathy of people who write on the American Revolution is, to this day, quite striking. Davidson does underline in his review that I am sympathetic primarily to blacks but I also emphasize poor whites, especially sailors, who fought for abolition and decency mainly on the Patriot side.


Here is the review:

"Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War for Independence
Author: Alan Gilbert
The University of Chicago Press 2012
ISBN-13: 978-0-226-29307-3
369 pages

Alan Gilbert’s Black Patriots and Loyalists is the latest work to enrich our understanding of the role of enslaved Africans in the American Revolution. Far from being marginal participants in North America’s first civil war, blacks had a crucial role, comprising a larger component of both Patriot and Loyalist forces than previously recognized.

In his introduction to Black Patriots and Loyalists, Gilbert lays out his intriguing argument that the War of Independence was actually two revolutions. The first revolution was undertaken to achieve political independence; the second revolution was fought to end slavery.

While these two conflicts sometimes ran parallel to one another, they were also often at odds. Patriots who fought for political independence sometimes did so to oppose the abolition of slavery. Some of those who battled to defeat the cause of liberty did so to gain their own freedom from slavery. And it was the British rather than the American Patriots --Gilbert states emphatically-- who most advanced the cause of the “second revolution” for social equality.

The second revolution got underway before the first. Caribbean slave rebellions began as early as 1761, 15 years before the Declaration of Independence. When a judge ruled that slavery was illegal in Great Britain in 1772, it sent shockwaves across the empire. While it did not bring about abolition (that would not happen until 1807), the ruling gave the perception that the British Empire wanted to abolish slavery. This had two immediate consequences before the events of 1776.

For some white colonists, slavery’s anticipated abolition was seen as another one of Britain’s many unfair impositions on her colonists. For enslaved Africans, the 1772 court decision demonstrated that Britain --rather than the Patriot cause-- was their best hope for liberty. When, on November 7, 1775, Virginia’s Governor Dunmore issued a proclamation offering freedom to any Patriot’s slave who sided with the crown, the rebels’ worst fears and the slaves’ greatest hopes were confirmed.

Gilbert then outlines the course of the two American revolutions with startling statistics as well as detailed wartime experiences of both Black Patriots and Loyalists. Readers will learn of the exploits of the Black Pioneers, the Royal Ethiopian Regment, and black guerrilla fighters as well as the First Rhode Island Regiment and the Bucks of Massachusetts. Thomas Peters, Colonel Tye, and David George are among the featured “black redcoats”, while Prince Dupleix of Connecticut and the three uncles and father of Rhode Island’s Elleanor Eldridge are spotlighted black Patriots.

While Gilbert points out how blacks were exploited by both sides in the revolution, he also demonstrates the extent of British exertions after their defeat to protect free Black Loyalists from re-enslavement by the “liberated” citizens of the new United States. His careful study of the Book of Negroes is a great boon to anyone – scholar or loyalist descendant—interested in the black diaspora. Using it and other primary sources, Gilbert provides a conservative estimate of 12 to 15,000 free blacks that fled the United States with the Crown.

Rather than ending the story of Black Patriots and Loyalists with the conclusion of the American Revolution, Gilbert recounts the impact these emancipated refugees had in Nova Scotia, Sierra Leone, the West Indies, and Great Britain – and demonstrates how the revolution affected abolition movements throughout Europe and North America after 1783. By the end of Black Patriots and Loyalists, Gilbert accomplishes his goals – to tell the history of the twin revolutions and to honour the efforts of blacks to free themselves. It is a fresh perspective that enriches the ever-growing historical tapestry of the loyalist era."

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