The ordeals of Africans in the Western world during the centuries of slavery are so important to be documented, so that generations to come will know the path travelled by their ancestors. This is not just a reminder of the pain their ancestors passed through, but a reassurance that Africans can withstand all the have gone through today, and can still be victorious and come out strong.
There exists a series of documents listing persons of African ancestry who were evacuated from the United States at the end of the American Revolution. This collection is known as “The Book of Negroes”.
The Guy Carlton Papers in The National Archives of Great Britain in London, England holds one copy. The second copy held in the United States National Archives in Washington, D.C is titled “Inspection Roll of Negroes New York, New York City Book No. 1 April 23-September 13, 1783,”.
These rolls were compiled over a six month period by a group of British and American representatives who convened each Wednesday from April to September 1783 at the Queens Head Tavern which was owned by Samuel Fraunces, born in St. Catherine’s, Jamaica, a free black resident of New York.
The Book of Negroes was completed before 25th November 1783, the designated date that the British Army and Loyalists (pro-British residents of New York and other colonies) would depart for Canada. American slaveholders wanted to take possession of their human property who had fled to the British and whom they believed were going to be repatriated by the Paris Peace Treaty of November 1782, a treaty which recognized American independence and officially ended the fighting between British and American forces. The British commander in charge of the negotiations, a man named Sir Guy Carlton, however, vowed that he would not surrender human property stating it was “A dishonorable violation of public faith.”
Carlton suggested instead for compensations to be made to slave owners for their loss of property but there was no known compensation made by Great Britain.
Samuel Jones, who would later become comptroller for New York State, signed the documents on behalf of the United States. Those who signed for the Loyalists were W.L. Smith, a future Chief Justice of the Canadian Supreme Court, Lt. Alexander McMillin of DeLancy’s 1st battalion and Lt. Colonel Richard Armstrong of the Queen’s Rangers. Armstrong and McMillan settled in New Brunswick along with many black Loyalists.
The Book of Negroes was over 200 pages long. It consisted of a ledger of individuals and where possible, short accounts of individual lives which included country of origin, free or enslaved status, dates, indentures, owners, the status of owners (whether they were Loyalists or Patriots), descriptions of appearance, parents, race, and age.
The informants that provided information for the compilation of the Book of Negroes included slave owners wanting compensation for runaways, military officers in command of black Loyalist regiments, civilian Loyalists, and those with freedom papers.
It is estimated that about 3,500 free black Loyalists left New York City with a total group of 35,000 bound for New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island. Also with them were approximately 1,500 enslaved individuals who belonged to slaveholding Loyalists. Persons of African ancestry constituted nearly 15% of the Loyalist exodus to Canada.
The Book of Negroes has now been made into a miniseries (movie) by the BET (Black Entertainment Television). The movie was based on a novel written by a Canadian writer, Lawrence Hill. The Novel was inspired by the true story of “The Book Of Negroes”.
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