February 21, 2011

Feb 21 – Harry Washington: Freed Slave, Black Loyalist and Fighter for Freedom

Black Loyalist fighting against the Americans


Today is Presidents’ Day, in the United States – a Federal holiday, which marks the birthdays of Presidents George Washington (1st President of the United States) and Abraham Lincoln (16th President of the United States). It is somewhat ironic that Abraham Lincoln vehemently opposed slavery – ultimately signing the Emancipation Proclamation , which freed 4 million slaves in the United States; and George Washington owned hundreds of slaves to work his tobacco plantations – only freeing them in his Will, upon his death.

George Washington inherited his first ten slaves, at the age of eleven. By the time of his death, he owned over three hundred slaves. Before The American Revolutionhe showed no remorse for owning slaves; but by 1778, while he was at war, he wanted to sell his slaves because they were becoming a financial liability. However, he did not because he had resolved to not break up families. By the late 1780s, he demonstrated a written desire for the abolition of slavery, but did not physically support abolitionists to make it happen.

George Washington with enslaved personal servant, William Hill

A list of George Washington's taxable property, including slaves and mules

One of George Washington’s slaves was Harry Washington. Harry was born on the Gambia River in West Africa around 1740, and was sold into slavery sometime before 1763. George Washington purchased him in 1763 to originally work at the Great Dismal Swamp (located in southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina), where he had set up a company to drain 40,000 acres of the swamp and start logging trees to build homes and businesses. However, three years later, he transferred Harry to his massive plantation estate, Mt. Vernon, in Virginia, to be a ‘house slave’ serving the role of horse groom. In 1771, George moved Harry to a much more grueling position helping to construct a mill at the farthest edge of Mt. Vernon. That same year, Harry escaped. George paid one pound and sixteen shillings to advertise for his ‘lost property’. Harry was found and returned a few weeks later. Finally, in 1773, he was returned to house service.

In 1775, The American Revolution began. While George Washington was away fighting, the Royal Governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, devised a strategy to suppress the uprising Colonists: He published a proclamation which gave freedom to any slave, who was willing to escape their plantation and fight for The King.  George Washington’s plantation manager tried to encourage the slaves to stay, where it was safe under ‘benevolent paternalism’ (vs. dangerous freedom). George’s cousin also wrote to him, bitterly saying, “There is not a man of them, but would leave us if they believed they could make their escape. Liberty is sweet.” George’s response was, “that Dunmore must be crushed, or the momentum of slave defections would be like a snow ball in rolling.”

Lord Dunmore's Proclamation

Lord Dunmore was successful in his bid, and initially 302 slaves (men, women and children) managed to escape and make their way to his ships (In all, over 80,000 slaves escaped to fight for The King). Harry Washington was one of the initial 302 slaves, sailing on the HMS Roebuck, and helping to form The Ethiopian Regiment. The new soldiers were given arms and wore a blue uniform which had an insignia that said, Liberty to Slaves. Once on American shores, The Ethiopian Regiment fought under the command of Sir Henry Clinton, moving from New York City to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Charleston, South Carolina and back to New York.  By 1780, there were more than 10,000 Blacks living in a British-occupied New York. Many lived in a ‘canvas city’ of shanties and tents that sprang up between Broadway and the Hudson River, in ‘Negro Barracks’ at ‘addresses’ such as: 18 Broadway and 10 Church Street,  because the area had been burned to the ground by the Colonists, when they were forced to surrender to the British and flee. At this point, there was less fighting, and more cleaning, needed, so  the Black soldiers and families became ‘unarmed’ and known as the Black Pioneers or Black Brigade. They were moreorless garbagemen, ordered to “Assist in Cleaning the Streets and Removing all Nuisances being thrown into the Streets.”

Ethiopian Regiment Uniform

Sir Henry Clinton

In 1782, the British granted independence to the Americans, and began negotiations for peace. However, the British never expected to lose the war, so they were then presented with the problem of the ‘freed slaves’. The Americans wanted their ‘property’ returned to them – some even tried to ‘steal’ them back, dragging them out of their beds. But the British kept their promise; and in 1783, boarded the 3,000 remaining, freed Blacks in New York, onto British ships, bound for England, Canada and Jamaica. The British recorded their names in the Book of Negroes. It was actually at George Washington’s insistence that their names be recorded, so that ‘slaveowners might later file claims for compensation’. Each record gives a name, age and physical description for each passenger, and often, an owner's name and place of residence. Three copies of the Book of Negroes exist: one in England, at the Public Records Office, Kew; one in the United States, at the National Archives, Washington, DC; and one in Canada, at the Nova Scotia Archives, Halifax.  Each passenger was also given a Certificate of Freedom; and they became known as The Black Loyalists.

The Book of Negroes and a page from it

Certificate of Freedom

The largest number went to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, Canada. Canadian author, Lawrence Hill, wrote a fantastic novel, with the title, The Book of Negroes, about their story, told from the perspective of an 11-year-old girl, originally taken from her village in West Africa.

Canadian author, Lawrence Hill

Harry Washington sailed on the ship, L’Abondance, to Nova Scotia; and in The Book of Negroes, he is described (incorrectly as Henry, not Harry) as “43-years-old, a fine fellow and formerly a slave belonging to General Washington, Mt. Vernon, Fairfax County, [Virginia] and left 7 years ago”. He settled in Birchtown, Nova Scotia. Life was really difficult for the settlers, due to the harsh weather conditions, appalling wages, the fact that land, which had been promised to them, did not materialize for several years and that they could not vote nor serve on juries. Many of them petitioned the British Government to leave; and half of them, including Harry, opted to move back to British-owned Sierra Leone, where they had been promised much better rights and living conditions, by the newly-formed, Sierra Leone Company. One the ship’s manifest, described Harry as “a farmer, born in Africa and aged fifty, traveling with his wife, Jenny. He took with him an axe, saw and pickaxe, plus three hoes, as well as two muskets and several items of furniture”.  Life in Freetown, Sierra Leone was only better because of the weather. The new settlers were not allowed to won land along The Sierra Leone River, and much of what was promised to not appear. They revolted and refused to pay extortionate taxes that the British were charging them. Eventually, they were able to build farms in the mountains; and they were producing trade crops such as coffee, pepper, ginger, rice, cassava and yams.

Black Loyalists' Nova Scotia Settlement Map

The settlers still wanted to own land and have equal rights – especially given what they had risked to fight for the British, and were now living in a British Colony.  They continued to petition the British Government, but their cases fell on deaf ears. A rebellion started, led by a now, 60-year-old Harry. The next day, rewards were posted to find the rebels, charging them with “treasonable and rebellious practices.”  People were arrested, including Harry. The rebels did not win. Mary Louise Clifford wrote a great book entitled From Slavery to Freetown, which tells ten of the settlers’ stories.

Drawing of Freetown, Sierra Leone, in 1798



In 1800, Harry faced a military tribunal, and he was exiled to Bullom Shore in Sierra Leone, where he later died.  It is ironic that his early life saw him fighting American rebels; and the end of his life saw him going on trial for being a rebel.  Harry risked everything to have a better life, but died with nothing, having had a very difficult life. Meanwhile, George Washington became the first President of the United States. They shared a last name; they both wanted freedom from their oppressors and fought for it and they both made their marks on history – yet, the contrast between the two is great. Their lives became permanently intertwined when George purchased Harry in 1763.

George Washington at Mt. Vernon with his slaves

 Sources: Wikipedia, MAAP, The New Yorker, Black Loyalist, Halifax Regional School Board, Google Images

1 comment:

  1. coooool thats what i wanted to know

    ReplyDelete