Boston King and the Black Loyalists of the American Revolution

Author Details

Dr Ryan Hanley

Former Salveson Junior Fellow in History at New College, Oxford.

Ryan is now a British Academy Post-doctoral Fellow at UCL, London

 

Ryan is interested in the history of slavery and abolition, and black British history as told through autobiography.

 

Key words: Migration; Empire; Identity; Liberty; Survival; War; Religion; Role of individuals in encouraging/inhibiting change; Race; Slavery; Revolution; America; Africa; Sierra Leone.

In the eighteenth century, black soldiers played a crucial role in the British military (see Figure 1). During the American Revolutionary Wars (1776-1783), British commanders offered freedom to enslaved people willing to turn against their Patriot ‘masters’ and join the ‘Loyalist’ army. Many thousands of the enslaved took the offer up, risking their lives for their chance for freedom. Boston King (c.1760-1802) was one of these ‘black Loyalists’. His autobiography is one of only a handful of accounts of the Revolution written by rank-and-file Loyalist soldiers.

Detail from Copley's painting which shows Boston King in battle.

Figure 1 - Detail from John Singleton Copley, ‘The Death of Major Peirson, 6 January 1781’, (1783) Tate Gallery, London.

Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND

Born in South Carolina around 1760, King spent his childhood and young adult years working as a house-slave and cattle-herd on a large farm, about 28 miles from the state capital Charlestown. When Loyalist forces seized Charlestown in May 1780, King took his opportunity to escape slavery and enlisted with the British (excerpt A, below).

As soldiers in the Loyalist army, former slaves were often given the most dangerous missions. In 1781, King was sent alone to gather reinforcements when his battalion was under siege at Nelson’s Ferry (excerpt B). This was a doubly dangerous mission; the gentlemanly code of conduct that prevented prisoners of war from being tortured or summarily executed did not apply to so-called ‘runaway slaves’. If King was captured, he could expect no mercy.

King was successful in his mission, but by the end of 1781 it was clear that the Loyalist war effort was hopeless. King travelled first to New York, but after the British acknowledged defeat in 1783, he and his wife Violet were evacuated to Nova Scotia, Canada. Boston and Violet King were among about 3000 such black Loyalist evacuees. Their names were recorded by British forces in a ledger known as the ‘Book of Negroes’ (see Figure 2). This source – now freely available online ( http://www.blackloyalist.info/) – demonstrates the scale of the evacuation, and also suggests how British military officials viewed their black comrades. Violet, for instance, was recorded simply as a ‘stout wench’.

Once the family had settled in Nova Scotia, King was ordained as a Methodist minister and began to preach the gospel. Here he became interested in working as a missionary in Africa. His thoughts about the ‘wretched condition’ of the ‘poor creatures’ who ‘had never heard the Name of God or of Christ’ (excerpt C) may seem surprising when we consider that his parents were both African, but they were reflective of common evangelical attitudes about non-Europeans, and especially those of non-Abrahamic faiths.

An extract from The Book of Negroes (1783) lists the names of evacuees in 1783

Figure 2 - Detail including Boston and Violet King’s entries from ‘The Book of Negroes’, 1783

Black Loyalist

King had other good reasons for wanting to go to Africa. Loyalist refugees, both black and white, had been relocated to Nova Scotia at the end of the war, rapidly increasing the local population. Many of the white Loyalists had themselves owned slaves in America. Now, in Canada, they were in competition for work and business. The scarcity of employment, food and even natural resources, combined with undoubted racial prejudice from the white migrants, made life very difficult for the black Loyalists in Nova Scotia.

A similar situation had developed in London, where many more black Loyalists had chosen to settle after the war. Work was scarce enough, but some Loyalists, like Billy Waters, had been wounded in the line of duty and could not now get regular employment. Waters was only able to survive because he was a talented musician, and he became well-known as a busker, playing his fiddle on the streets of London. For many of London’s eighteenth-century black migrant population, the prospect of starting again in Africa was an attractive one.

They got their chance when the British established a viable colony for freed slaves in Sierra Leone, West Africa in 1791 (excerpt D). Boston and Violet set sail from Nova Scotia for the new colony in January 1792, and arrived at Freetown, Sierra Leone, on 6 March. Sadly, Violet quickly caught malaria, and died less than a month later. King continued to preach the gospel, and set up a Christian school nearby for African children.

In 1794, King migrated again, this time to Britain, where he trained at Kingswood School near Bristol ‘that I might be better qualified to teach the natives’. He continued to preach while he was in Britain, and his experience with other Methodists there helped him to overcome his distrust of white people (excerpt E). He studied at Kingswood for two years and wrote his autobiography before returning to Sierra Leone in 1796. The ‘Memoirs of the Life of Boston King’ were published in instalments in The Methodist Magazine in 1798.

Boston King continued to preach and teach the gospel in West Africa for the rest of his life. He died in Sherbro, about 100 miles south of Freetown, in 1802. His travels brought him into contact with many of the great upheavals of the eighteenth century. Slavery, revolution, migration, colonialism, and evangelicalism were only a few of the major themes illuminated by his fascinating and complex life story.

 

Questions for classroom discussion

  1. Can we call Boston King a ‘war hero’?

 

  1. How did Christianity/Methodism affect Boston King’s view of the world?

 

  1. How did Boston King’s experiences affect his attitude towards Britain and British people? How did this change over time?

 

  1. Why did some of the black Loyalists want to go to Sierra Leone? What challenges did they face when they got there?

 

Supplementary materials

Searchable database of black Loyalists: http://www.blackloyalist.info

Full text of Boston King’s ‘Memoirs’, along with a teaching guide by Professor Joe Lockard, Arizona State University: http://antislavery.eserver.org/narratives/boston_king/

 

Information for teachers

Boston King’s testimony demonstrates how a biographical or microhistorical approach can draw together many of history’s ‘big themes’ in one coherent story: revolution, migration, war, slavery and liberty all played significant parts in his life. Especially with a history as large as that of transatlantic slavery, it is all too easy to reduce complex individuals to abstractions; the experiences of twelve million enslaved men, women and children are too often seen as part of a single monolithic ‘system’. Studying the work of authors like King reminds us that these ‘big pictures’ are made up of the actions of many millions of people – and not only those we have traditionally seen as being powerful or influential.

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