J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Black Settlers of Nova Scotia

I admit that this book cover was what caught my eye first. There have been several studies of black Loyalists in recent years, led by Cassandra Pybus’s Epic Journeys of Freedom.

Black Loyalists: Southern Settlers of Nova Scotia’s First Free Black Communities, by Ruth Holmes Whitehead, seems to be more deeply rooted in the province where many of those refugees made homes after 1783. It attempts to recreate those settlers’ entire lives, not just the period after the Revolution as they sought places for themselves in the British Empire.

At Canada’s History, Mark Reid wrote:
Whitehead, a research associate with the Nova Scotia Museum, writes with an academic’s rigorous attention to detail, but also with a storyteller’s flair. Her prose is bluntly honest. For instance, when writing about the practice of collecting bounties on runaway slaves, including higher prices for dead slaves, she labels it for what it truly was: “murder” for money.

Black Loyalists is divided into three sections, and of them I found the opening section on the early history of the slave trade to be the most fascinating. Drawing on primary sources and slaves’ own narratives, the author paints a picture of an American society sick with moral rot. One can’t escape the hypocrisy of slave owners drawing on Biblical passages to justify slavery, nor can one forget that America — founded on principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — was quick to deny these basic human rights to anyone with the “wrong” skin pigment.

While “white masters” are the historic face of the slave trade, Whitehead reminds readers that the business of slavery also relied on middlemen in Africa who eagerly captured their fellow Africans and sold them to the white slavers based along the African coast. . . .

Black Loyalists is a good primer for readers who want to learn more about Canada’s place in the centuries-long effort to eliminate slavery. It’s also a great background text for fans of [Lawrence] Hill’s Book of Negroes novel. Black Loyalists reminds us that the story of Canada is far more complex and diverse than the typical English-French and Aboriginal-colonizer narratives taught in grade school, and that “American” and “Canadian” histories are more tightly entwined than we generally realize.
At the History Girls, Katherine Langrish wrote about her friend’s work:
Ruth Holmes Whitehead took eighteen years to write and research this book which is both a work of scholarship and a labour of love, gracefully and clearly written with some poignant personal touches. Ruth herself was born in South Carolina and has found slave owners among her own ancestors; her co-researcher Carmelita Robertson has “multiple Black Loyalist ancestors who escaped … during the American Revolution.”
And here’s the Publishers Weekly review.

1 comment:

Mark said...

" “American” and “Canadian” histories are more tightly entwined than we generally realize." Good Lord, is there a living breathing person who thinks otherwise ? The very term "Bluenoser", which has been used for centuries to describe Nova Scotians, was actually a derogatory label for New England Planters who moved to NS before the Revolution. It was eventually adopted by all people in the province.

WRT freedom for Blacks in NS, it was more of the free-to-sleep-under-a-bridge variety. Many of those Black Loyalists quickly fled to the west coast of Africa to establish Freetown, Sierra Leone in 1792. They were soon followed by the Jamaican Maroons who also didn't find NS very free or appealing.