Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Birchtown and the Black Loyalists

When ships filled with United Empire Loyalists dropped anchor at what was then Port Roseway, Nova Scotia, on May 4, 1783, among those on board were 936 free Blacks; in late August of that same year, a further 500 Black Loyalists arrived. These settlers were granted land along the inner reaches of the harbour, in an area that had initially rejected by the earlier group of arrivals. It was called Birchtown not because of birch trees that grew in the area, but in honor of New York Governo r Colonel Samuel Birch, who had not only provided them with certificates of freedom but had also strongly resisted the efforts of American authorities to re-enslave them. 

The ground here was extremely rocky and hilly, with poor prospects for agriculture; it was far from the near-paradise they had been promised before setting out for Nova Scotia. The Black loyalists persevered, though, and used the stones removed from the rocky ground to build fences and stone walls for livestock enclosures and divisions between fields.

The settlers encountered prejudice and outright bigotry from many white Loyalists, and low pay and poor treatment were commonplace. Birchtown's dwellings in most cases consisted of pit houses set below the ground's surface; this development was in response to the burning of houses by white rioters and opponents of the settlement, particularly in the Shelburne Riot of 1784 when out-of-work former soldiers blamed Black settlers for their continuing poverty and lack of employment opportunities.

By the 1790s the Black Loyalists of Shelburne had grown tired of shabby treatment and outright hostility from the area's white population and an exodus took place from Birchtown to Sierra Leone; ironically, the greatest opposition to this move came from some of the people who had been most active in the mistreatment and exploitation of Black workers. Conditions on the ships that carried the Birchtown residents to Sierra Leone, although not as horrific as those on the slave ships many had traveled on years before, were overcrowded and disease-ridden, and many Birchtown Blacks did not survive the crossing to Africa.

A small museum in the old Birchtown school house (top photo) relates the story of Birchtown's Black Loyalists, and plans are under way for a larger and more detailed exhibit.

To learn more about Nova Scotia's Black Loyalist heritage, I recommend Lawrence Hill's remarkable novel, The Book of Negroes (published in Australia, New Zealand and the U.S. as Someone Knows My Name).

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