Loyalists: American Refugees

Loyalists: American Refugees

caption: “A black wood cutter at Shelburne, Nova Scotia,” 1788 watercolor by William Booth, is the earliest known image of an African Nova Scotian. He probably lived in Birchtown, the largest free settlement of Africans in North America in the 18th century. Source: National Archives of Canada

 [See also previous post: Road to Corunna — American Loyalists]

Of course, the British lost the American War of Independence. Of the white Loyalists, about 15 percent fled the colonies after the British surrender, many to Canada or Florida. As historian Maya Jasanoff says in her book Liberty’s Exiles:

Confronting real doubts about their lives, liberty, and potential happiness in the United States, sixty thousand loyalists decided to follow the British and take their chances elsewhere in the British Empire. They took fifteen thousand black slaves with them, bringing the total to seventy-five thousand people—or about one in forty members of the American population. –page 6

Among the more famous departures was that of William Franklin, the former governor of New Jersey and son of founding father Benjamin Franklin. William, who had been imprisoned during part of the war, left for England, never to return to America nor reconcile with his father.

As for the enslaved people serving Loyalist families, they remained enslaved; no proclamation had freed them. But of the former slaves who did fall under the freedom provisions, 3,000 were first given passage to Nova Scotia and another few hundred went to London with British forces as free people. Many did not thrive in Canada’s harsh environment, especially as the British and the locals did not keep their promises of material and financial aid. About half stayed; the rest joined those who had not found success in London to found a new colony, Sierra Leone, in West Africa.

British ships took white Loyalists (and, in many cases, their slaves) to almost every place on the globe they held power: Canada, East Florida, Jamaica, the Bahamas, the Lesser Antilles, Scotland, Gibralter, Egypt, India, and, of course, England. This was the first time the British government had created a sort of “refugee relief program,” including a commission to which Loyalists could apply to for money to compensate for what they’d lost in America. Jasanoff writes that these services “anticipated the work of modern international aid organizations,” and that the compensation commission is a landmark model of state welfare programs.

 Another argument Jasanoff makes (read her book!) is that this was more than just a dispersion of people. Just as a “spirit of 1776” inspired people like the French to assert their own rights to liberty and equality, this migration carried a “spirit of 1783” (the year the war ended). Among the ideas was “a model of liberal constitutional empire that stood out as a vital alternative to the democratic republics taking shape in the US, France, and Latin America,” Jasanoff writes. This included a method of discourse of grievances against imperial authority, a commitment to liberty and humanitarian ideals, and a preference for centralized, hierarchical government. Or, as Jasanoff puts it succinctly, a model “committed to authority, liberty, and global reach”:

Britain’s comprehensive victory over France in 1815 [Waterloo], on the battlefield and at the negotiating table, served to validate the “spirit of 1783” over French republican and Napoleonic alternatives, and to make liberalism and constitutional monarchy a defining mode of government in and beyond Europe. — page 13

Of course, this all a bit too big-picture for my fictional Wakefields, who in The Spanish Patriot are simply trying to find a place where they can thrive. They took the southern migration route, first fleeing to East Florida during the war. Spain had ceded the land to Britain after the Seven Years War (1763), but Britain gave it back in the Treaty of Paris (1783), the same treaty that formally recognized the United States. Since my family could not now go back to Virginia, they went forward, to Jamaica, which didn’t work out so well. Here they split, the sons heading up to Canada while the rest of the family moved on to England, the place they’d emigrated from two decades before. When they learn of a printer’s contract up for grabs in Western Spain, they jump at it. Here is where The Spanish Patriot starts.

Spanish Patriot book cover

Find out more:


Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World, Maya Jasanoff (2011) – my top resource for this part of the story

Wikipedia entries: Loyalist (American Revolution), Black Loyalist, United Empire Loyalist


The Loyalist’s Wife (2013) and The Loyalist’s Luck (2014), Elaine Cougler

The Book of Negroes / Someone Knows My Name (2007), Lawrence Hill

Oliver Wiswell (1999), Kenneth Roberts

The King’s Rangers (1954), John Brick

With Nothing But Our Courage: The Loyalist Diary of Mary MacDonald (2002, young adult novel), Karleen Bradford



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