The Black Refugees were Africans who escaped American slavery in the War of 1812 and who settled in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Trinidad, though the term is generally used only for those settled in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. They were the largest part of migration of African Americans who sought freedom in the War of 1812. Those from the Gulf Coast settled in Trinidad in 1815, and those who bore arms for the British in the second Corps of Colonial Marines settled in Trinidad in 1816 where they became the Merikins. The Black Refugees were the second group of African Americans, after the Black Loyalists, to flee American enslavement in wartime and settle in Canada and they form the most significant immigration source for today's African Nova Scotian communities.
During 1813, Vice Admiral Warren was ordered to receive aboard his ships any blacks who might petition him for assistance. These he was to receive as free men, not as slaves, and send them to any of several of His Majesty's colonies. Captain Robert Barrie of HMS Dragon reported to Admiral Warren 'there is no doubt but the blacks of Virginia and Maryland would cheerfully take up arms and join us against the Americans.' By the time that the Admiralty received the report, they had already decided to order Warren's successor, Vice-Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane, to encourage emigration.
As with the precedents of with Lord Dunmore's Proclamation of November 7, 1775 and the Philipsburg Proclamation, Cochrane issued a Proclamation in partial implementation of instructions from his superiors in which he made no mention of slaves although he presumed it would be read as encouraging them to join the British:
- 'A Proclamation
- Whereas it has been represented to me that many persons now resident in the United States have expressed a desire to withdraw therefrom with a view to entering into His Majesty's service, or of being received as free settlers into some of His Majesty's colonies.
- This is therefore to give notice that all persons who may be disposed to migrate from the United States, will with their families, be received on board of His Majesty's ships or vessels of War, or at the military posts that may be established upon or near the coast of the United States, when they will have their choice of either entering into His Majesty's sea or land forces, or of being sent as free settlers to the British possessions in North America or the West Indies where they will meet with due encouragement.
- Given under my hand at Bermuda this second day of April, 1814, by command of Vice Admiral.
- Alex Cochrane'
Cochrane's proclamation made no mention of slaves. Although only a few doubted its true application, it was widely misinterpreted as an incitement to violent revolt.
The flow of refugees had already been considerable, and Cochrane's action did no more than confirm what had been happening for over a year. Some years after the arrival in Nova Scotia of the Black Refugees, a plan was proposed for them to be sent to the Colony of Freetown, Sierra Leone where their African American brethren were the ruling elite, but the plan was only partly fulfilled. For the most part the Black Refugees remained in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, but a small group responded to an invitation to move to Trinidad.
Like the Black Loyalists to a limited extent, some of the Black Refugees' names were recorded in a document called the Halifax List: Return of American Refugee Negroes who have been received into the Province of Nova Scotia from the United States of America between 27 April 1815 and 24 October 1818 but it took no account of the considerable number who had already arrived earlier.
In total, about 4000 Africans escaped to the British by way of the Royal Navy, the largest emancipation of African Americans prior to the American Civil War. About 2000 settled in Nova Scotia and about 400 settled in New Brunswick. Black Refugees in Nova Scotia were first housed in the former prisoner of war camp on Melville Island, which became an immigration facility after the War of 1812. From Melville Island, they moved to settlements around Halifax and in the Annapolis Valley. Other black refugees were settled in Trinidad, most having served in the Corps of Colonial Marines, but including around 200 from Louisiana and East and West Florida. The community in Trinidad became known as Merikins and their company villages still exist.
The Black Refugees make up the largest single source of ancestors for Black Nova Scotians and formed the core of African Nova Scotian communities and churches that still exist today. Large numbers of Black Refugees settled in North and East Preston, Nova Scotia, communities still occupied today by their descendents.
Many other Black refugees settled in smaller communities such as Hammonds Plains, Beechville, Windsor and communities throughout the Nova Scotia's Annapolis Valley. Some Black Refugee families moved closer to Halifax for employment opportunities in the 1840s, forming the Halifax community of Africville. The migration included the religious leader and abolitionist Richard Preston and the parents of William Hall, one of Canada's first winners of a Victoria Cross. The Black Refugees in Nova Scotia brought basket-making skills from the Chesapeake Region, which are still practiced by their descendants and very distinct from the existing Mi'kmaw and Acadian basket-making styles in the region.
- Black Nova Scotians
- John McNish Weiss (2002): The Merikens: Free Black American Settlers in Trinidad 1815-16.
- GRANT, John N (1973): 'Black immigrants into Nova Scotia, 1776-1815'. The Journal of Negro History, Volume LVIII, No. 3, July 1973.
- Captain Robert Barrie to Vice-Admiral J. B. Warren, 14 November 1813, ADM 1/506.
- ADM 1/508 folio 579.
- "Black Sailors and Soldiers in the War of 1812", The War of 1812, PBS (2012).
- Harvey Amani Whitfield, Blacks on the Border: The Black Refugees in British North America, 1815-1860, University of Vermont Press, 2006, p. 34.
- "History of How Blacks Came to Nova Scotia" Archived February 10, 2012, at the Wayback Machine., Coastal Community Network.
- Joleen Gordon, Baskets of Black Nova Scotians, Nova Scotia Museum Publications (2013), pp. 9 & 62.
- The immigration and settlement of the black refugees of the War of 1812 in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick
- Harvey Amani Whitfield, Blacks on the Border: The Black Refugees in British North America, 1815-1860, University of Vermont Press, 2006
- War of 1812
- "Africville; Canada’s Most Famous Black Community", DaCosta 400
- Harvey Amani Whitfield, "The Development of Black Refugee Identity in Nova Scotia: 1813-1850"
- "Black Refugees", Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management
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