In November 1782 a provisional peace treaty was hammered out between the British and the Americans in Paris. The day the treaty was signed, November 29, 1782, a hastily written amendment was scribbled in the margin of Article Seven, to prohibit “carrying away any Negroes or other property of the American Inhabitants.” According to John Adams, one of the American negotiators, the clause was inserted at the insistence of Henry Laurens, who had joined the negotiating team on the very last day, when the commissioners were finalizing the business at the house of the chief British negotiator, Richard Oswald. In view of Laurens’s fleeting connection with the peace process, it was remarkable that Oswald accepted the last-minute change without dispute. Up to that point the contentious issues had been fishing rights. None of the three other American negotiators had thought it necessary to include a clause about runaways, while John Jay later admitted that he was surprised the British had agreed.1
Oswald’s acquiescence to this hasty inclusion owed more to friendship and his financial entanglements in South Carolina than to diplomatic pressure. Laurens considered Oswald as “my very worthy friend.” When Laurens was captured at sea and imprisoned in the Tower of London it was Oswald who furnished the bail for his release in 1782. Before the war, Oswald owned a slave factory on Bance Island, in the mouth of the Sierra Leone River in West Africa, with Laurens acting as agent for his slave cargo in Charleston. After the war, Oswald intended to become a plantation owner in South Carolina, transferring slaves he owned in East Florida onto land owned by Laurens and which Laurens was in the process of transferring into Oswald’s name. Laurens’s close friend, John Lewis Gervais, was deeply in debt to the British negotiator for the many slaves he had purchased on credit. He was also the Carolinian who lost the largest number of enslaved people to the British. When Laurens wrote to Gervais to remind him of his debt, he was careful to stress how much gratitude was owed “our dear friend Mr Oswald.”2
By the time news of a treaty with a prohibition on “carrying away any Negroes” reached America, David George and his family were safely beyond reach of the treaty provisions in Halifax, Nova Scotia, as were those en route to England. George Washington's own slave Harry Washington, who had been transferred to New York, was in a very vulnerable position, as were the other four thousand black allies behind the British lines. As Boston King recalled, the news “diffused universal joy among all parties; except us, who had escaped from slavery and taken refuge in the English army.” Promises of freedom made by successive British commanders had been contingent on the British winning the war and retaining control of the colonies. Now that the British government had conceded the American colonies and signed a treaty that prohibited them from taking runaways out of America, those promises could not be considered binding. Unless the black allies behind the British lines had papers of emancipation, as very few did, they might expect to be returned to enslavement in perpetuity, for themselves, their children and their children’s children.
As the terms of the peace treaty became known, rumors that the British would be obliged to abandon thousands of black refugees “filled us with inexpressible anguish and terror” Boston King recalled. They still refused to passively submit to re-enslavement. After having experienced years of freedom they were horrified at the prospect of being turned over to their former masters. They vehemently refused “to be delivered in so unwarrantable a manner,” so a Hessian officer noted in his diary. “They insist on their rights under the proclamation” It was an anguished time for Boston King, who recalled “we lost our appetite for food, and sleep departed from our eyes.” Day and night they pressed their case with the British authorities to make good the promises of freedom and remove them from the reach of their vengeful masters. Fortunately the British commander-in-chief lent a willing ear to their pleas. Carleton found the handover of the American colonies a repugnant duty that he undertook with as much dignity as he could summon; he steadfastly refused to renege on a debt of honor with regard to the proclamations of his predecessors. He was simply not prepared to meet the terms of Article Seven of the peace treaty. From the moment the terms became known, in late March 1783, Carleton asserted his own interpretation of the words “Negroes and other property of the American inhabitants.”3
As soon as the spring thaw began, he sent a fleet to Nova Scotia carrying some 5000 refugees, including an unknown number of runaways. By the time the fleet had sailed, he was assailed by a cacophony of protest from state governors, delegates in Congress and slave-owning individuals. “They mean to make a clamour about the evacuation of New York,” he told the Secretary of State in England. Carleton instructed his officers that any black allies that had been within the British lines for a year or more were to be issued with a certificate of freedom. The certificates of freedom were signed by Brigadier General Samuel Birch, commandant of the New York garrison, and typically stated that the bearer had “reported to the British lines in consequence of the proclamations of Sir William Howe and Sir Henry Clinton” and therefore had permission to “go to Nova Scotia or any where else he may think proper.” He then appointed commissioners from both the British and American forces to supervise the embarkation to ensure no one without evidence of free status was allowed to depart.4
1 Oswald’s private letter to the Secretary of State on his deliberations in Paris, 16 November 1782 , Richard Oswald Papers, CL. For the original draft treaty with amendments, Oswald to Melbourne, November 30, 1782, CO 5/110, 377, NA. Laurens was exchanged for Lord Cornwallis after the fall of Yorktown. As he was mourning for the death of his son, he had delayed going to Paris till the last day, Francis Wharton, The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States, vol. 6 (Washington, 1889), 90-1. The addition to Article Seven was entirely Laurens’s initiative as he boasted in a letter to his old friend, John Lewis Gervais, describing himself as “your friend who suggested and insisted upon that Article.” Laurens to Gervais, March 4, 1784, Papers of Henry Laurens, vol. 16, 403. John Adams and Benjamin Franklin were implacably opposed to slavery. John Jay owned slaves (one of his enslaved servants had run away from him in Paris), yet he was committed to emancipation and had tried unsuccessfully to have slavery abolished in New York
2 Laurens to Gervais, December 14, 1782, Papers of Henry Laurens, vol. 16, 73-4. For the business dealings between Oswald and Laurens after the treaty: Papers of Henry Laurens, vol. 16, 264-8 and James A. Rawley, London, Metropolis of the Slave Trade, (St Louis, 2003), Chapter 5. Oswald died before Laurens’s land could be transferred to him.
3 Baurmeister, June 17, 1783, Confidential letters and Journals, 569. “Memoirs of the Life of Boston King”, 157.
4 Carelton to North April 14, and enclosures CO 5/8; CO 5/109, NA. Carleton’s orders, April 15, 1783, PRO 30/55/103, NA.