Epic Journeys of Freedom: Runaway Slaves of the American Revolution and Their Global Quest for Liberty
Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution
Popular views of the American Revolution usually overlook one aspect of it that sharply contradicts the idealized image of a struggle for liberty against oppression. For the one fifth of the population that was African-American, freedom meant escape from slavery but not independence from Britain; those seeking emancipation were more likely to find it in places under British control than in territory held by white American revolutionaries. During the war thousands of slaves—estimates run as high as 80,000 to 100,000, or nearly a fifth of the total slave population—deserted their masters at least temporarily. Some simply vanished into the woods, swamps, and mountains of the South. But vast numbers crossed over behind British lines where those willing to join the struggle against the rebels were being offered their freedom as a reward for service to the Crown. Some of those who went to join the enemies of American independence were also inspired by somewhat misleading rumors that the British had abolished slavery. In a landmark legal decision of 1772 Lord Mansfield had decided that slaves brought to England could not be taken back to the colonies by their masters or sold for export. This ruling undermined slavery in Britain and soon led to its disappearance; but it did not affect black bondage elsewhere in the empire.1
For the British, welcoming and emancipating runaway American slaves was clearly a pragmatic policy and not an expression of principled hostility to slavery. Loyalists under British protection were permitted to keep or recapture their slaves, and hundreds of thousands of Africans would continue to toil in Britain’s Caribbean colonies for another half-century. Moreover, those who fled to the British side were not always well treated or cared for. Large numbers died from disease (especially smallpox, against which, unlike many of the British soldiers, they had not been vaccinated); others were simply left behind to face possible recapture and return to slavery when the British were forced to evacuate their troops by sea. But despite the perils and uncertainties that confronted them, approximately ten thousand slaves sought refuge with the British in Virginia alone after the royal governor, Lord Dunmore, proclaimed freedom for those willing to fight in November 1775. Thousands more came from the Carolinas and Georgia. At the end of the war, between 15,000 and 20,000 escaped slaves remained under British protection in the port cities that had not yet been evacuated, namely New York, Charleston, and Savannah.
In the peace agreement that ended the war a clause was added at the last minute giving the Americans the right to reclaim property that had fallen into British hands. When George Washington, who himself had lost slaves, appealed to Guy Carleton, the British commander in New York, to return the fugitives under his control to their owners, he was rudely rebuffed. Carleton argued that the runaway slaves who had been promised freedom by the British could no longer be considered property and that it would be dishonorable to permit their reenslavement. As a…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.