As Harry Washington faced a British military tribunal on the west coast of Africa, charged with rebellion against the colonial government of Sierra Leone, did he appreciate the cruel irony of his situation? Fourteen years earlier he had fled his enslavement to the commander-in-chief of the rebel forces in colonial America to find freedom with the British military and a return to his African homeland. Where General George Washington had triumphed in his revolt against the British rule in America, and was subsequently reified as the first president of the independent United States, Harry Washington now stood to lose his farm, his family, even his life following the failure of his attempt to forge an independent and self-determining community in West Africa.
It is not utterly incongruous to set beside the story of the revered father of America the alternative story of the African he had purchased to dig his ditches. At the heart of both narratives lies a commitment to the transforming ideals of liberty and self-determination, although the drama to forge ideals into a tangible reality inevitably played out very differently for a paragon of the colonial elite than for his runaway slave. We need such competing narratives of liberty fought for and won in the American Revolution in order to grasp the enormity of the impact of the Revolution and the ideas it spawned in radically re-shaping the future of America and the wider Atlantic world. But is it even possible to recover the story of Harry Washington from the callous indifference of history? Few fugitive slaves have left an indelible impression on the historical record and far fewer historians have ventured into the recesses of the archive in search of them. Yet diligent excavation in the vast archival collections of the Revolutionary era, both American and British, does reveal traces of Harry Washington: the recurrence of a name on a bill of sale, on the list of taxable property, on a British military muster, on the embarkation list of a transport ship, on a register of land titles and in the verdict summary of a court martial. From these insignificant scratches and tattered bits of administrative flotsam the lineaments of a life can be reconstructed.
Harry was almost certainly from West Africa, born in the region around the Gambia River about 1740. He was taken to America early in the 1760s, possibly on one of the shipments to the South Potomac in 1760 and 1761, where he was acquired by a plantation owner from the Lower Potomac River named Daniel Tebbs. Late in 1763 George Washington purchased Harry from Tebbs’s estate in a job lot of four people that was part of his contribution to the Dismal Swamp Company, a syndicate he formed with the intention of draining 40,000 acres of a huge swamp in the Southeast corner of Virginia. Two men, Harry and Topsom, plus a woman called Nan, and a boy, Toney, along with two men from Mt Vernon, named Jack and Caesar, were Washington’s contribution to an enslaved workforce for the Dismal Plantation which Washington managed until 1768 when it passed over to his brother, John. 1
Enveloped in clouds of mosquitoes Harry and his fellow slaves worked in appalling humidity to cut a canal three feet deep and ten feet wide to drain into a lake five miles away. In order to get ready cash for the project, they also cut shingles out of the vine-entangled woods of white cedar and cypress. Harry and Nan might have been a couple, because two years later they were both taken from the Dismal Swamp to Mt Vernon. Nan and Harry were on list of taxable property that Washington submitted in 1766, but because children under sixteen were not listed as titheables it is not apparent whether Toney went also. If indeed they were a couple, they were not permitted to live together. Harry was employed in or around the house while Nan labored on one of the outlying farms.2
As Harry was later described as a very valuable ostler, his job as must have included looking after Washington’s horses. He continued to work as a ‘house servant’ until June 1771, when he appeared in a list of the enslaved laborers deployed to work on the construction of a mill at the newly acquired on Ferry Plantation, the most distant of the Mt Vernon farms. For Harry to be moved from skilled work that was in some measure self directed, to grueling manual labor, must have dismayed him sufficiently to precipitate his flight on July 29 1771. Washington paid one pound and sixteen shilling to advertise for the recovery of his property. The investment paid off when Harry was returned within a matter of weeks, to once again be put to work back at Ferry Plantation, where he stayed until 1773, when he was redeployed to the house service. He appears to have been working as the ostler for the household by 1776, if not before.3
These were turbulent times in Virginia. Late in 1774 Washington had written to a friend that “the crisis is arrived when we must assert our rights, or submit to every imposition that can be heap’d upon us; till custom and use, will make us as tame, and abject slaves, as the blacks we rule over with such arbitrary sway.” Sentiments of this nature had been echoed around the dining tables and drawing rooms of Virginian plantations for many months, discreetly absorbed by the footmen and cooks, the valets and maids, the coachmen and ostlers. Doubtless Harry listened with more than idle interest to this talk about the tyranny of the British masters and the inviolable concept of liberty. Despite having been unsuccessful in his escape in 1771, and having made no further attempt to abscond, he had not abandoned the idea of freedom that now so animated his owner. Even if Washington had been canny enough to his send slave-ostler out of earshot, it would not have been possible to quarantine the ideas that he discussed with his friends and neighbors. Snatches of talk overhead were almost instantaneously channeled from plantation to plantation through the complex networks of the enslaved community. The message that Harry would have extracted from the ardent talk swirling around him was that his own attachment to liberty would find no place in the revolutionary ferment sweeping Virginia and, if the King was now Washington’s enemy, then it was to him he should entrust his aspirations for freedom. 4
In June 1775, as tension between the colonists and the Crown intensified, the embattled royal governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, took refuge on a British warship in the James River and began to assemble a squadron to strike back at the rebellious Virginians, welcoming any fugitives slaves that were able to make their way across to his fleet. Five month later, he published a proclamation that freed any slaves willing to bear arms for the Crown. Here was every white Virginian’s nightmare. At Mount Vernon the plantation manager, Lund Washington, encourage the enslaved community to trust benevolent paternalism over the precarious dangers of freedom. He remained confident that the slaves understood that General Washington’s care and protection was the best option for them. He had “not the least dread” that they might make a bolt for Dunmore’s fleet, he told his illustrious cousin. General Washington was not so sanguine. In his capacity as the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, he warned that Dunmore must be crushed or the momentum of slave defections would be “like a snow ball in rolling.”5
In the face of savage penalties and increased patrols, a great many runaways managed to reach Dunmore’s fleet in the James River. At the end of November, Dunmore could report “two and three hundred already come in and these I form into a Corps as fast as they come…” Those who got safely to Dunmore came mostly from plantations close to navigable waterways, traveling on small craft, though some came on foot, propelled by sheer willpower, to swim out to Dunmore’s ships. Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment, as the governor styled his new corps, were provided with weapons and taught how to use them. Rumor had it that they were outfitted in a uniform bearing the provocative inscription “Liberty to Slaves”, but in reality Dunmore was hard pressed to find any clothing for them. By January 1776 the crowded and inadequate conditions on board Dunmore’s fleet had precipitated disaster in the form of epidemic disease.
When smallpox first appeared in Dunmore’s overcrowded flotilla, the disease hit the black recruits especially hard. They died by the hundreds. In late May, in order to could isolate the sick and allow the surgeons to inoculate his recruits, Dunmore moved his base to Gwynn Island, near the mouth of the Rappahanock River, where hundreds of sick men and women endured the awful progress of the disease. Dunmore reported that “there was not a ship in the fleet that did not throw one, two three or more dead overboard every night.” On the island the dead were buried in shallow mass graves. Tragically, Dunmore continued to draw fresh black recruits at the rate of six to eight each day, most of whom succumbed to the disease as soon as they arrived. Moreover, those who recovered from the inoculation fell victim to an outbreak of “fever”, almost certainly typhoid fever; this “carried off an incredible number of our people, especially the blacks,” Dunmore lamented to the Secretary of State. In this dreadfully weakened condition, Dunmore’s force was easily driven from the island in early July 1776, and took refuge on the fleet once again, having lost up to 70% of the black recruits. 6
In late July, part of the fleet made a foray up the Potomac River to gather fresh water, where they were joined by a small craft that had come down from Fairfax County. Those on board offering their services to the British were “three of General Washington’s servants.” Lund Washington had always suspected that the general’s white indentured servants would prove disloyal to him, and perhaps some had seized the opportunity offered by the proximity of Dunmore’s fleet. Yet the three “servants” aboard the craft from Mount Vernon must have also included Harry, since he told authorities in New York in July 1783 that he had run away from General Washington seven years before.7
In New York Harry appears to have been absorbed into a non-combat army corps of pioneers attached to every British regiment as well as each of the civil departments. Three years later, he must have been among the 7000-strong force that General Clinton took from New York for the invasion of South Carolina. During the siege of Charleston, which began on 31 March and lasted till 8 May two specially formed companies of Black Pioneers were employed building the defensive earthworks, making grapeshot and a myriad of support services. Some were armed and engaged in actual fighting. When General Clinton had returned to New York, in May 1780, he took with him some 500 Black Pioneers, but not Harry Washington, it seems, since Corporal Washington was in charge of a company of Black Pioneers attached to the Royal Artillery Department in Charleston in 1781.8
Early in 1782 news came from England that the British government had granted independence to the American colonies and opened negotiations for peace. Charleston was scheduled for evacuation in June that year. This raised the thorny issue of the British obligations to the black runaways, since promises of freedom made by successive British commanders had been contingent on the British winning the war and retaining control of the colonies. No one had a contingency plan for losing the war and leaving America. Confronted with a catastrophic defeat and an unanticipated evacuation of both his army and thousands of loyalist refugees, the British commander, General Leslie, could hardly be expected to concern himself with the runaway slaves, who had, after all, gambled with their future in taking refuge with the King’s men. Yet to leave them behind was no easy matter. Every time he looked about, Leslie was exposed to the expectant faces of people who had had taken monumental risks in their alliance with the British and who were not prepared to passively submit to reenslavement. By the same token, he had been served an ultimatum by the new governor of South Carolina, that Carolinans would default on debts to British merchants should any slaves be carried off from Charleston. A contest over the fate of runaways presented the humiliated British with the opportunity for a show of moral superiority over with the victorious Americans. Weighing up the situation, Leslie concluded that “those who have voluntarily come in under the faith of our protection, cannot in justice be abandoned to the merciless resentment of their former masters.” The Commander-in-Chief, General Carleton was of the same mind. “Such that have been promised their freedom, to have it,” Carleton instructed. 9
Throughout November until the final evacuation on December 14, 1782, hundreds of runaways queued to be interviewed by the board Leslie had established to assess their status. Slave-owners, keen to retrieve their property, tried desperately to coax them away. “I used every argument I was master of to get them to return,” one South Carolina planter complained, to no good effect. Later Carolinans bitterly complained that the board had declared obnoxious “almost every Negro, man, woman and child, that was worth carrying away.” Leslie stoutly defended his position to Carleton. “I have insisted…on the impossibility of delivering up, under any stipulation, a certain description of Negroes, who having claimed our protection and have borne arms in our service, or otherwise rendered themselves more peculiarly obnoxious to the resentment of their former masters,” he wrote on October 18. Men and women cleared by the board were allowed to choose their destination, though the availability of transport was a key determinant as to where they went. A corporal in the Black Pioneers would have had had no difficulty proving his eligibility for a certificate of freedom. When put to the test British officers proved very unwilling to sunder the long association that had been fostered with their workforce of runaways. “Every department and every officer,” General Leslie testily observed to Carleton, “wishes to include his slave in the number to be bought off — they pretend them to be spys, or guides, and of course obnoxious, or under promises of freedom.” Patriots later bitterly complained to Carleton that the board had declared obnoxious “almost every Negro, man, woman and child, that was worth carrying away.” Loyalists were also disgruntled, withdrawing from the board in protest at so many runaways being given certificates of freedom.10
Most of the departing runaways went to Nova Scotia, though more than a few chose to go to Jamaica, even though it was a notorious slave colony. The departing royal governor took to Jamaica ten people he had personally emancipated for the service they had rendered the Crown and several other couples arrived in Jamaica from Charleston carrying certificates of freedom signed by General Clinton. Nineteen men and nine women went to Jamaica as a company of Black Pioneers, and another thirteen accompanied the 71st Regiment. Even though the total number of blacks evacuated to Jamaica was never documented, the free black population in Jamaica increased markedly in the wake of the American Revolution, rising by two-thirds between 1775 and 1787.11
The very largest fleet that took the Royal Artillery Department, as well as British, German and Loyalist regiments, to New York and that convoy must have included harry Washington. Another large fleet took discharged and wounded soldiers to England. Some runaways chose to stay in Charleston rather than face uncertain exile; having been paid wages by the British they were able to buy their freedom. Others had no choice at all. Left behind were many of the black laborers employed in the final evacuation had been taken from the sequestered estates of Patriots and were not deemed eligible for certificates of freedom. Without doubt the hasty evacuation of Charleston was distressing for these black laborers, however, the much quoted report of a highly partisan historian that British soldiers chopped off the fingers of abandoned runaways as they clung to the sides of departing boats, beggars belief.12
The black runaways evacuated from Charleston joined at least four thousand black men and women living in the British zone in New York where they made up about 10% of the workforce. Black artisans worked on rebuilding projects and in the naval yards; black teamsters hauled provisions and collected firewood; black nurses and orderlies staffed the hospitals; black laundresses and needlewomen did the washing and sewing; black pilots guided the ships safely in and out of the port; black musicians provided entertainment at social events; black jockeys rode the horses at the races; black cooks, servants and valets ensured the comfort of the elite. Among this teeming black community were people Harry Washington knew from his days of enslavement at Mt Vernon. Eighteen people had run off from Mt Vernon to join the British in April 1781, including two of Lund Washington’s slaves. While Washington had employed a slave catcher to retrieve seven of his chattel from Yorktown and Philadelphia, others had managed to escape to New York.13
At the same time that Charleston was being evacuated, a provisional peace treaty was being 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.14
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 ea 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, the Carolinian who lost the largest number of enslaved people to the British, who was deeply in debt to the British negotiator for the many slaves he had purchased on credit. 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.”15
By the time news of a treaty with a prohibition on “carrying away any Negroes” reached America, Harry Washington and his fellow black allies of the British were in a very vulnerable position. As one runaway later recalled recalled, the news “diffused universal joy among all parties; except us, who had escaped from slavery and taken refuge in the English army.” 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. Determined to maintain their freedom, they were kept on constant alert against attempts to spirit them back to slavery. According to a senior Hessian officer, Major Baurmeister, “almost five thousand persons have come into this city to take possession of their former property.” His figure may have been exaggerated, but there can be no doubt that a great many slave-owners were gaining entry into the British zone and they were not using sweet reason to reclaim their property. Without warning, runaways could find themselves knocked on the head, bound hand and foot, and kidnapped back to the place they had fled. As most of the runaways behind the British lines had experienced years of freedom they were horrified at the prospect of reenslavement. 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 owners. They refused utterly “to be delivered in so unwarrantable a manner,” Baumeister noted in his diary, and “insist on their rights under the proclamation.” 16
Alarmed by what he saw as a flagrant violation of the treaty, General Washington undertook to raise the issue directly with the British commander in Chief, General Carleton. Washington also engaged his army contractor, Daniel Parker, to recover his slaves. “If by chance you should come at the knowledge of any of them,” he wrote, I will be much obliged by your securing them so I may obtain them again.” Washington’s choice of Daniel Parker was strategic. Parker had done personal errands for the general in the past; on this matter, however, he was uniquely positioned to help Washington locate his slaves since he had been appointed as one of two American commissioners to inspect embarkations to ensure no American-owned property was taken away. 17
General Carleton was appalled by the terms of the treaty and he took care to ensure all the runaways who had been with the British for a year or more were provided with certificates of freedom. No person who met that condition could be claimed as American property. So when Parker inspected the ships in the evacuation fleet that sailed from New York on April 27, 1783, he was unable to stop Deborah, who had run away from Mount Vernon in 1781, from leaving on the ship Polly, bound for Nova Scotia. When Washington protested a violation of the treaty, Carleton told him in no uncertain terms that that the British government would never agree “to reduce themselves to the necessity of violating their faith to the Negroes into the British lines under the proclamation of his predecessors” and further that “delivering up Negroes to their former masters… would be a dishonourable violation of the public faith.” 18
Under Parker’s impotent gaze, Harry Washington embarked on the ship L'Abondance in July 1783, with 405 black men, women and children going to Nova Scotia. The commissioners wrote down his name as Henry and he was noted to be forty-three years of age, having run off from General Washington seven years earlier. The frustration experienced by Parker in witnessing this slave exodus boiled over in a series of letters sent to General Washington, complaining that that while thousands had been sent off, the American commissioners had been able to retrieve only seven, none of them the property of the general. The out-going transports that they were permitted to inspect contained only a fraction of those departing, they complained, because they were not allowed to inspect the Royal Navy, nor military transports, nor the many merchant vessels leaving the port. Black seamen, who made up about ten percent of the Royal Navy and its accompanying fleet of privateers, simply sailed away. Plenty of military officers took their black servants away with them without suffering any scrutiny from the commissioners. As the pace of evacuations quickened, all available vessels were pressed into service to take refugees to Nova Scotia, Jamaica, the Bahamas and England. Parker continued the fruitless task of supervising embarkations until the end of October, when the inspections were finally abandoned. The very last evacuation fleet on November 24, 1783 took with it Daniel, another of the Mt Vernon runaways. Subsequently, General Washington was to characterize the whole exercise as “little more than a farce.”19
Those on board L’Abondance with Harry Washington were mostly followers of the blind preacher called “Daddy Moses” and they settled as a community in Nova Scotia at a place they called Birchtown. The muster at Birchtown taken in July 1784 listed Harry Washington, aged forty four, described as a laborer with a wife, Jenny, aged twenty-four. No children were listed. To survive, Harry probably hired himself out to his white neighbours in nearby Shelburne, as most of the black settlers were forced to do. These labor agreements were highly exploitative, with the free blacks regarded as cheap labor by the white loyalist settlers. Sometimes the black workers were never paid at all. Nova Scotia proved hard for both white and black settlers, forced to create a new life in inhospitable weather and faced with innumerable delays in the allocation of the promised land grants. When the grants were made, the lots allocated to the black settlers tended to be smaller than expected and on poor, rocky soil. In many cases, black refugees were still waiting for their land allocation three years after their arrival and were in a pitiful state.20
Thomas Peters, a runaway from North Carolina who had been a sergeant of the Black Pioneers during the war, was deputized to voyage to England in 1791 in order to put the grievances of his constituency in Nova Scotia to the British Government. In his petition Peters requested that His Majesty’s black subjects in Nova Scotia be resettled, or, should they chose to remain in Nova Scotia, they be given due allotment of the land they had been promised. In response to Peters’s acutely embarrassing accusations of bad faith, Pitt’s government undertook to pay the necessary expenses to transport as many black settlers as wished to leave Nova Scotia. The Sierra Leone Company, delighted with the prospect of new settlers in their colony on the west coast of Africa, offered free grants of land “subject to certain charges and obligations” to any who wanted to emigrate. New settlers were promised twenty acres for every man, ten for every woman and five for every child.
John Clarkson was a young naval officer who, with his brother Thomas, had been a prime mover in the campaign for the abolition of slavery. He was the agent appointed by the Sierra Leone Company to oversee the move from Nova Scotia. Harry Washington was among the hundreds who attended a meeting in Birchtown, at the church of Daddy Moses, to hear Clarkson explain that expression “subject to certain charges and obligations”, did not signify an annual rent would be levied on the land in Sierra Leone, rather it referred to “a kind of tax for charitable purposes such as for the maintenance their poor, the care of the sick, and the education of their children.” Harry and his fellow black settlers accepted Clarkson’s explanation. They especially warmed to his assurance that in Sierra Leone, unlike Nova Scotia where they were barred from voting or serving on juries, there would be no discrimination between white and black settlers. Harry Washington was among a large group from Birchtown who decided to go, even though it meant abandoning his freehold land grants. In the list of settlers relocating from Birchtown, Harry was described a farmer, born in Africa and aged fifty (although he was probably fifty-three) traveling with his wife Jenny. He took with him an axe, saw and pickaxe, plus three hoes, as well as two muskets and several items of furniture. He left behind two town lots, a house and forty acres.21
As a consequence of Clarkson’s assurances, about half of the black refugees in Nova Scotia opted to leave; nearly 1200 black settlers were relocated at a cost of 15,500 pounds to the British government. The directors of the Sierra Leone Company were so pleased with the response from Nova Scotia that they shelved plans to encourage white settlers to emigrate from England. Company director William Wilberforce told Clarkson that he should call the new black settlers Africans, believing that this was “a more respectable way of speaking of them”, but this was emphatically not how they conceived of themselves. In their eyes they were free British subjects, no less than Clarkson. They had, Clarkson ruefully conceded, “strange notions …as to their civil rights.”22
By August 1792, these strange notions were causing grief to Clarkson, who had been appointed the first governor of Sierra Leone. Since Clarkson had arrived in Sierra Leone, turbulent discontent had brought the governor to the end of his tether, with “fainting fits and hysteric weeping frequently,” yet he maintained a steely determination that he, and only he, would be in charge. He put the blame for the discontent on Thomas Peters, who had died, profoundly disillusioned, in June that year. Yet everywhere Clarkson cared to look was evidence of deep disatisfaction. As the settlers told him, finding themselves in Sierra Leone with no land, despite all the promises, “makes us very uneasy in our mind that we might be liable to the same cruel treatment as we have before experienced.” On the very day Peters died, Clarkson received a petition from the congregation of Daddy Moses, written with such eccentric spelling it betrayed the authors as barely literate. They said they willingly agreed to be governed by the laws of England, but “we do not consent to gave it into your honer hands with out haven aney of our own culler in it” and reminded Clarkson he had promised them that “whoever came to Saraleon wold be free… and all should be equel,” so it followed that they had “a wright to chuse men that we think proper for to act for us in a reasnenble manner.” 23
By late July, the settlers were in a fever pitch of indignation, because the survey for the farm lots they had been promised had not yet begun. They had only the huts they had built on small town lots carved out of the jungle in Freetown, and the only basis for their subsistence was two days a week work for the company, paid in credit at the company store. Their habit of trusting Clarkson was all that protected the company’s handful of haughty, idle and incompetent white employees from their collective wrath. Without Clarkson, the company secretary confided in his journal, “I should scarce think it safe to stay among them.” 24
Already, Clarkson had been forced to persuade the settlers to accept only one-fifth of the land they had been promised, and a bitter grievance had been reignited when he indicated that the company directors would not allow the settlers to take land along the Sierra Leone River. Access to the water was an absolute necessity. There were no carts or horses in Sierra Leone; communication and transport were all by means of water. The settlers reacted with fury to the suggestion pointing out this same trick was played on them in Nova Scotia, where white men had occupied the entire waterfront, built wharves along it, and then charged money for access. They had not crossed the ocean to suffer the same discrimination all over again, they said.
In deference to the settlers’ fears of further injustice at the hands of self-interested white people, Clarkson hastily rescinded the company instructions concerning the waterfront. He also agreed that the settlers could elect their representatives to act as peacekeepers—a tithingman for every ten families and a hundredor for every hundred. He decided to withhold the information that the company directors demanded payment of a quit rent of two shillings an acre on the settlers’ land grants, rationalizing in his journal that the company “must give way to the general spirit of my promises.” It was a high-risk strategy for a servant of the company who was due to go on extended leave in December1792.25
Clarkson never came back to Sierra Leone. He was dismissed by the company in May 1783 and was replaced as governor by William Dawes, who was in turn succeeded in 1796 by twenty-seven year old Zachary Macaulay, who had acted in the position on and off for two years prior to that. By 1796 the settlers were sending anguished appeals to Clarkson to come back as the governor and rescue them from the authoritarian regime of Governor Macaulay, who now obliged them to pay a huge quit rent. Blithely, the Sierra Leone Company determined to impose a tax that was a hundred times higher than Nova Scotia, where the colonial government had been forced to abandon the quit rent because settlers, black and white, refused to pay two shillings for every 100 acres. When Governor Macaulay cut the amount in half, requiring only one shilling an acre, he naively believed that he was being generous to the settlers and fully expected them to be grateful to him.26
For more than twenty years, the defining issue for Harry Washington and his fellow black settlers had been to live as free people and not to submit to the indignities and deprivations that had marked their lives as slaves. Owning land—not renting it or working it for somebody else—was critical in their self-definition, as was regulating their own community. It was equally important that men should be responsible for the maintenance of their families and that the women and children should not labor as they had in slavery. For a time after their arrival, Harry had been prepared to endure the indignity of working for credit to redeem goods at the company store rather than monetary wages—even though this was a condition of labor the settlers believed akin to bondage—because he was waiting for the land allocation that would give him the capacity to be independent and self-sustaining. By 1796, Harry was one of thirty settlers who had created farms out of the mountain lots and these were producing trade crops such as coffee, pepper and ginger, as well as the African staple crop of rice with interspersed plantings of cassava and yams. The self-reliance he had achieved was now threatened by the quit rent which was many times what he and his fellow black settlers had successfully resisted paying in Nova Scotia.27
On January 5, 1797, the settlers met to discuss how to get rid of the quit rent, determined never to submit to a condition that reduced them to perpetual tenancy. “Who could say that now they were not slaves?” one of them asked. The governor was not about to tolerate any dissent on the issue, warning that “the smallest degree of clamour and tumult” would see them deprived of every service provided by the company. It would be “an unequal war,” to send petitions to England, he warned them. His reputation in England was high, whereas they were already branded as turbulent, discontented and ungrateful. Instead of working themselves into a lather of distrust, he said, the settlers needed to understand that the white men in Sierra Leone were “their natural advisors,” whose energy was entirely harnessed to promoting the settlers’ happiness.28
On August 5, 1797 the elected representatives wrote to the governor to remind him that they had abandoned land in Nova Scotia in the expectation that they would receive land on the same conditions in Sierra Leone, and that they were never told that the land belonged to the company for which they must pay quit rent. “Sir if we had been told that, we never could come here,” they wrote; “we are astonished why the company could not tell us after three years we was to pay a shilling per acre … if the lands is not ours without paying a shilling per acre, the lands will never be ours.” Rather than pay, they said, the settlers would apply to the Koya Temne for more land that they could hold without such conditions.29
About two weeks later, the governor called a public meeting of heads of households for which he had prepared a long address. Even though Macaulay knew that very few of the settlers could read, he had printed 100 copies so the community would be able to measure the full weight of his disdain. His address lasted for over an hour, delivered with all the assurance of an orator. He denied that the black settlers had left freehold land in Nova Scotia and insisted that they had always known about the quit rent. The problem with ignorant people, he concluded, was that they were susceptible to “every prating, malicious, designing talebearer” who wished to misrepresent the good intentions of the company. “You have often been made to see the folly of acting thus,” he told his stunned audience, “yet you still return like the sow to flounder in the same dirty puddle.”30
Macaulay suspected that the settlers “cherished hopes of … throw’g off the jurisdiction of the company servants, and constituting one of their own number a kind of dictator, who assisted by a council, should rule them after the manner of the Natives around us.” With the company servants vastly outnumbered by the settlers, Macaulay began to fear insurrection. He put in place a private signal to rally the few whites and the thirty or so obedient settlers to his fortified house in case of trouble. He was sure that he would have to hang two or three troublemakers, despite having no legal capacity to enact a capital punishment, and was prepared “to risk holding up my hand at the Old Bailey” in order to protect the company’s interest.31
At this stage, however, the settlers had not abandoned their cherished belief in themselves as dutiful subjects of the King, living in a British colony. Three of the elected Tithingmen presented a petition on January 16, 1798, addressed to the captain as the King’s representative on the West African coast. The petition explained how the black settlers had been given land by the British government as a consequence of “our good behavior in the last war.” The King heard their complaints about living a cold country and made the offer to “remove us to Sierra Leone where we may be comfortable.” Things had not turned out in accordance with the terms of His Majesty’s offer and they were now “shamefully called upon to pay a quit rent of a shilling an acre for the land we hold.” Did they remain the King’s subjects? If so, they sought to apply to the Crown “to see ourselves righted in all the wrongs which are done to us.” Without hesitation, the captain turned the petition over to Macaulay, who decided to ignore it, although he did advise his employers that it was prudent not to collect the quit rent, at least in the short term.32
An industrious calm settled on Sierra Leone once the demand for the quit rent was withdrawn and by early in 1798 there was palpable joy that the abrasive governor was due to leave the colony. Just as Macaulay was counting the weeks to his departure, an edict arrived from the directors that the quit rent must be paid. The directors’ concession to settler concerns was that the revenue would be used for development within Sierra Leone. A more perceptive man than Macaulay would have recognized that the settlers were entirely consistent in their opposition to the quit rent and that their reasons had nothing to do with how the revenue was spent. He could hardly have failed to notice that their “mutinous spirit” had melted away as soon as the quit rent was abandoned, indicating that the quit rent alone was the cause of rebelliousness.33
Macaulay was single-minded in his devotion to the company and took account of none of these things. He duly informed the settlers that new titles had been drawn up incorporating the quit rent conditions, for which they must apply by December 15, 1798. About a dozen families accepted the grants and the rest refused, even though the refusal meant their children were barred from the free company school. A new grant register excluded the names of all those who refused their grants and listed their allotments under the designation of unallocated land. Among those whose land was reallocated in this fashion were some of the colony’s most successful farmers, including Harry Washington. Macaulay’s action drove nearly every settler into the rebellious coalition, including previous supporters of the company. Watching these events with mounting anxiety was the man who was to replace Macaulay as governor, a twenty-three-year-old stripling named Thomas Ludlam. “From that period”, Ludlam wrote in his later report, “the colony had no peace.”34
Early in 1799, another issue of contention was added to the explosive situation in Freetown. For years resentment had been accumulating about the interpretation of the law by the white men who acted as judges and a perceived white bias in the administration of the law. “We do not think our selves dun jestises in the colenny not by no meains,” the black representatives wrote to the governor, insisting that they be permitted to appoint one judge and two justices of the peace from among the settlers. Macaulay pointed out that none of them was sufficiently versed in English law to be a judge. Conceding they were “unlaint people”, the settlers argued they could become versed in the law with the help of the white men who currently sat as judges. Macaulay was unmoved, although he did allow them to put their case to the directors in London, confident of the directors’ negative response. For all his iron will, Macaulay grew more and more uneasy during the weeks leading to his departure, admitting in private letters that he slept with loaded muskets in his bedroom.35
Macaulay left Sierra Leone for good in April 1799. As soon as he was gone, the settlers took matters into their own hands. Without waiting to hear back from the company directors, they selected a judge and two justices of the peace. The elected Hundredors and Tithingmen then formed into a bicameral parliament of sorts, passing resolutions about the day-to-day management of Freetown and Granville Town, quite independent of the company. In September this defacto government resolved that the proprietors of the colony were all those people who had come to Sierra Leone with Clarkson, together with the original settlers from Granville Town, since it was to these people that the Koya Temne had given the land. In making their bid of independence, the settlers were not to know that Macaulay had been appointed the permanent secretary of the Sierra Leone Company and in that capacity had applied to the British parliament for a royal charter to give the company formal jurisdiction over Sierra Leone.
What the company was asking for was incontestable control, including full judicial power to repress dissent. As the company directors explained in a subsequent report, “the unwarranted pretensions of the disaffected settlers, their narrow misguided views; their excessive jealousy of Europeans; the crude notions they had formed of their own rights; and the impetuosity of their tempers” would inevitably lead to “most ruinous effect” unless the company had the legal capacity to “repress the turbulence and assumption of the colonists.” So it did not matter what the elected Hundredors and Tithingmen in Freetown decided. Once the royal charter was granted, there would be no more elections in Sierra Leone.36
At the same time as asking for a royal charter, the directors were negotiating to take into Sierra Leone some 500 Maroon warriors from Jamaica. These were the descendants of runaway slaves who had intermarried with the Caribs, long before Jamaica became a British colony, and who lived in self-regulated communities in the mountains. They had not been defeated in the Maroon war of 1795 but had surrendered in response to a treaty offer from the British commander that was subsequently repudiated by the colonial government and they were deported to Nova Scotia. Utterly miserable in frigid Nova Scotia, the Maroon chiefs had petitioned the British government to move them to a more appropriate place. Desperate to find a solution, the British government seized the offer from the Sierra Leone Company. To sweeten the deal, the parliament allowed a substantial sum of money to the company to fortify Government House in Freetown and to garrison a detachment of soldiers in the colony.
Ludlam knew about these developments when he formally assumed the governorship of Sierra Leone in November 1799. He decided it would be wise to withhold this information and first tackle the greatest source of perceived injustice by removing any restrictions on children attending the schools. His masterstroke was to abandon the quit rent. The son of a mathematician, Ludlam had done the sums to show that the quit rent required the settlers to pay the full value of the land every twenty years. He felt they were right to regard it as unacceptable. No money had ever been collected by the end of 1799, and he argued the case that it never could be collected.37
The new governor’s conciliatory gestures may have worked, had not he felt duty-bound to inform the settlers that their judicial appointments would not be permitted. On May 20, 1800, Ludlam called a meeting to explain why he was obliged to reject these appointments. For a judge to apply for the appropriate penalties, he must be versed in English law and able to read, he explained. In any case, he added ominously, under the royal charter being drawn up in England, all such decisions would be the King’s prerogative and if the settlers did not accept the decision they would be tried for treason. Here was the first intimation that the company was about to get far greater power over the settlers’ lives than it currently managed to exercise. The governor failed to mention that a detachment of soldiers was to be stationed in Freetown to protect the company and uphold the charter. Nor did he reveal that over 500 new settlers, of a notoriously aggressive nature, were to arrive in the colony within months.38
Ludlam hoped that his hint about the royal charter would induce “perplexity and doubt” among the dissident settlers. Quite the opposite was the case. The settlers decided that they must move immediately if they were to secure their democratic independence. On September 3, nearly all the heads of black households in Freetown attended a meeting to formulate a new code of laws to regulate trading practices, animal husbandry and farming procedure, as well as domestic and social behavior. The governor’s authority was deemed to extend no further than the company’s business. The “paper of laws” required every black settler be bound by the law or leave Freetown.39
Two weeks later Ludlam was so troubled by stories of “meetings of a most seditious and dangerous nature,” that he called to his house all the company employees, about thirty loyal settlers and all the African seamen from the company ships, “for the purpose of forming a strong guard and assisting the civil power in the execution of its warrants.” That night, the new code of laws was displayed, drawing curious crowds the following day. A witness later reported that “people being on farms, hearing of this news, gathered themselves together to hear and understand” at one of the settlers’ houses. The frightened young governor overreacted. He sent a group of loyal black settlers he had armed and deputized as marshals to arrest several men on charges of treason. The marshals burst into the house just as the meeting was breaking up.40
In the melee that followed, three men were arrested, while about forty men escaped out of the town and set up camp by the bridge on the road to Granville Town, where they were joined by Harry Washington, whose farm was nearby. The next day rewards were posted the supposed ringleader who were charged with for “treasonable and rebellious practices.” Subsequently the Sierra Leone Company subsequently tried to portray these men as dangerous hotheads who wished to annihilate the company employees and loyal settlers. Significantly, they were were all middle-aged —Harry Washington was sixty — and they were largely without arms. They had some guns, but no ammunition, which was almost all stored at Government House. Apparently, on September 28 or 29 they stole a gun and some powder from the governor’s farm, as well as powder and shot from the farm of another company servant. This was hardly evidence of preparation for an armed coup; they were as likely to have wanted the arms for hunting game for food.
On September 30 a large British transport ship, the Asia, arrived in Freetown harbor carrying over 500 Maroons and forty-seven soldiers of the 24th Regiment. The next day the Maroon chiefs called on the governor to discuss the allocation of land they were promised and were surprised to find all the company employees huddled together under armed guard. Ludlam pointed out to them that “the rebellion then raging in the heart of the colony” would put their promised land grants in jeopardy. According to his account, the Maroon chiefs made “a unanimous and hearty offer” to put an end to the rebellion. What they actually said, according to the white agent who accompanied them, was that they “like King George and white man well — if them settlers don’t like King George nor his government—only let the Maroons see them.” After months at sea they were desperate for some physical activity so were pleased to be invited to “stretch their legs a little,” as one of the company’s directors, later joked, and hunt the rebels down. 41
Significantly, the Maroons refused to sign the land grant agreement when it was presented to them. Having once been betrayed by the breach of a treaty they had been persuaded to sign, they had determined never to sign any agreement again. Ludlam was in no position to argue. He thought it was “prudent not to insist,” as to do so might “sour their minds and indispose them to render those services which we so much wanted.” They were never told that this so-called rebellion was a dispute over settlers’ rights between the company and people resettled from Nova Scotia, as they were. When the Maroons were subsequently confronted with the quit rent, they opposed it with just as much vigor. 42
Within a week, Ludlam had thirty-one men in his custody, but he still had not received the charter of justice that would allow him to try them on criminal charges. Keen to avoid the expense of holding the prisoners, his expedient solution was to establish a military tribunal made up of an officer from the Asia and two from the 24th Regiment. The court martial was in session from October 10 and each of the prisoners was tried for “open and unprovoked rebellion.” Six men were banished for life to the British garrison at the slave fort of Goree, a sure sentence of death. Harry Washington and twenty-three others were banished across the Sierra Leone River to the Bullom Shore. The personal tragedy and appalling loss in human resources that resulted from these dubious and draconian decisions was of no consequence to the directors of the company. They believed that Sierra Leone was much better off without these men and “the crude notions they had formed of their own rights.” The runaway slaves from America had made “the worst possible subjects,” William Wilberforce concluded in disgust, “as thorough Jacobins as if they had been trained and educated in Paris.” They had, of course, been trained and educated in the American Revolution and the radical notions about their rights as free men and women were forged in the tortuous negotiations to secure their freedom and to make it a tangible reality in their lives. George Washington was prepared to risk his all for such ideals. It should be no surprise that a man he purchased to dig his ditches as property might feel the same.43
1 Harry Washington declared himself born in Africa when he signed up to go to Sierra Leone, “List of the Blacks at Birchtown who gave their names for Sierra Leone in November 1791”, CO 217/63, National Archives of UK (NA). For Harry’s likely origin in Africa and subsequent deployment in America, see Donald M. Sweig, “The Importation of African Slaves to the Potomac River 1732-1772”, William and Mary Quarterly, Series 3, 42 (1985), 516-23. For the purchase of Harry, W.W. Abbot and Dorothy Twohig, eds., The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, vol. 7 (Charlottesville, 1990), 300.
2 Ibid., 314-5, 442-3, 516. For an account of the company Washington formed to drain the Dismal Swamp, Charles Royster, The Fabulous History of the Dismal Swamp Company: A Story of George Washington’s Times (New York, 1999).
3 The Papers of George Washington: Colonial Series Vol 9, 238; for Harry’s escape, Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds, The Diaries of George Washington, vol.3 (Charlottesville, 1978), 45; for description of Harry, see Lund Washington n.d. ‘List of Slaves Taken By the British’, Willard Collection, Library of Congress, Washington DC.
4 Washington to Fairfax, 24 August 1774, The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, vol. 10, 155.
5 Washington to Reed, 15 December 1775, The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, vol. 2, 553.
6 Dunmore to Germain, 30 March 1776, CO 5/1373, NA; Naval Documents of the American Revolution, vol. 5, (Washington 1970) 669; Dunmore to Germain, 26 June 1776, CO 5/1373, NA.
7 Book of Negroes, PRO /55/100, NA.
8 ‘List of Negroes employed in the Royal Artillery Department, October 1781’, Wray Papers, Vol 7, Clements Library, University of Michigan, Madison, MI.
9 Leslie to Carleton, 27 June 1782, PRO 30/55/43, NA; Carleton, n.d. ‘Answer to General Leslie’s Queries’, PRO 30/55/45, NA.
10 Mathews to Leslie, 12 October 1782, PRO 30/55/51, NA and Charleston Commissioners to Mathews, 13, 14 October 1782, PRO 30/55/51, NA; Leslie to Carleton, 18 October 1872, PRO 30/55/52, NA.
11 Siebert “Loyalist Exodus to the West Indies: Legacy of revolution” in Charles W. Toth, ed., The American Revolution in the West Indies, (Port Washington, 1975), 213.For St Lucia, George Tyson, “The Carolina Black Corps: Legacy of Revolution, 1783-1798”. For Jamaica, Pulis, “Bridging Troubled Waters’”, 187; and Siebert, The Legacy of the American Revolution to the British West Indies and Bahamas: A Chapter out of the History of the American Loyalists, (Columbus, 1913), 212.
12 For slaves who bought their freedom, George McCowan, The British Occupation of Charleston, 1780-82 (Columbia, 1972), 106. The historian was David Ramsay History of the Revolution in South Carolina, vol. 2,  (Spartanburg, 1960), 32.
13 Contrary to common belief Washington’s slaves were not “taken” by the British but ran way over a period of several days. The report of eighteen “refugees” from Mt Vernon can be found in Log of Captain Thomas Graves, HMS Savage, ADM 51/862, NA. Washington’s runaways were: the overseer, Frederick; Sambo, a carpenter; Gunner, a brickmaker; Stephen, a cooper; and Watty, a weaver. Lucy, Deborah, Esther, Peter, Lewis, Peter (2), Thomas and Frank were house servants while James, Tom and Daniel worked as laborers at one of the farms. They are named in an undated list probably drawn up for a claim against the British in 1782 or 1783. I do not believe this group included Harry, as claimed on the list. See the undated list of Lund Washington.
14 Oswald’s private letter to the Secretary of State on his deliberations in Paris, 16 November 1782 , Richard Oswald Papers, Clements Library. 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.
15 Laurens to Gervais, December 14, 1782, Papers of Henry Laurens, vol. 16, Columbia, SC, 2003) 73-4. For the business dealings between Oswald and Laurens after the treaty, ibid., 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.
16 Boston King, ‘Memoirs of the Life of Boston King, a Black Preacher Written By Himself During his Residence at Kingswood School’, The Methodist Magazine, vol 2, 1789; Baurmeister, 19 April 1783 in Bernard Uldendorf ed, Confidential Letters and Journals 1776-1784 of Adjutant General Major Baurmeister of the Hessian Forces, (New Brunswick, 1957), 556.
17 Harrison to Carleton, 18 April 1783, PRO30/55/60; Washington to Harrison, 30 April 1783, Fitzpatrick, The Writings of George Washington, (Washington, 1938) vol. 26, 369-70; Washington to Parker, 28 April 1783, ibid., 364-5.
18 Substance of a Conference between General Washington and Sir Guy Carleton, 6 May 1783, ibid., 402-6.
19 For evacuations see Book of Negroes, PRO 30/55/100, NA. Simon Schama in his Rough Crossing; Britain the Slaves and the American Revolution (London 2005) consistently uses the name Henry, suggesting he has not taken the trouble to find out anymore about tyhgis man than his name on a list. For correspondence between Commissioners to Washington see Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series vol. 1, 51-6. Washington quote, Writings of George Washington vol. 28, 283.
20 Muster Book of Free Black Settlement of Birchtown 1784, MG9 Public Archives of Nova Scotia.
21 Clarkson Journal of his Mission to America October 1791, 35-6, New York Historical Society, New York; “List of blacks who gave their names for Sierra Leone in November 1791, CO 217/63.
22 Clarkson Journal, May 1792.
23 Clarkson, Journal, 7-11 April 1792; Clarkson to Thornton, 18 April 1792, Add MSS 41262A, Clarkson Papers, British Library, London UK; petition in Christopher Fyfe (ed.), Our Children Free and Happy: Letters from Black Settlers in Africa, in the 1790s, (Edinburgh 1991) 25-6.
24 Strand Journal, 28 July 1792, Add MSS 12131, British Library.
25 Clarkson, Journal, 30–31 July 1792.
26 Jordan, Willkinson et al. to Clarkson, November 19, 1794, Fyfe, Our Children Free and Happy, 40-7. Macaulay, Journal, March 19, 1796 and September 16, 1796, Huntingdon Library
27 Anderson to Clarkson, January 21, 1798, ibid.,, 56.
28 Macaulay, Journal, January 5, February 13, 1797.
29 Sierra Leone Council Minutes, August 17, 1797, CO 270/4, NA.
30 Macaulay, Journal, August 21, 1797.
31 Macaulay, Journal, September 30, October 2, 1797.
32 York, Peters and Anderson to Captain Ball, January 16, 1797, in Fyfe, Our Children Free and Happy, 57-8.
33 King to Clarkson, January 16, 1797, ibid., 55.
34 Macaulay Journal, December 21, 1796, December 1, 1797, May 5, 1798. Ludlam, report, November 17, 1801, CO 270/6, NA.
35 Council minutes, February 1799, CO 270/5. Macaulay to Mills, January 27, 1799. Macaulay papers, Huntingdon Library.
36 Sierra Leone Company Report, (London 1801).
37 Sierra Leone Company, Minutes, November 4, 1799, CO 270/4, NA.
38 Ludlam was ill and his written speech was delivered by another white employee. Council Minutes May 20, 1800, CO 270/5, NA.
39 Sierra Leone Company Report 1801. Paper of Laws, September 3, 1800, in Fyfe, Our Children Free and Happy, 63.
40 Ludlam’s post facto account of this whole episode was printed as Appendix to Sierra Leone Company Report for 1800, CO 270/5, NA. Eli Akim and John Kizell gave evidence about this episode to the Commission of Enquiry into Sierra Leone in 1826, CO 267/92, NA.
41 Thornton to More February 16, 1801, quoted in Wilson, The Loyal Blacks, (New York 1976)393.
42 Appendix, CO 270/5, NA. George Ross, quoted in Mavis C. Campbell, Back to Africa: George Ross and the Maroons from Nova Scotia to Sierra Leone (Trenton NJ, 1993), 16.
43 Sierra Leone Company Report for 1801, p. 8;Wilberforce to Dundas, 1 April 1800, Add MSS 41085, Melville Papers, British Library