The Fate of Slaves in the American War of Independence

Slave handcuffsDuring the American War of Independence, there were around half a million slaves of African origin in America, a sixth of the total population. They were enslaved mainly in Georgia, North and South Carolina, Maryland and Virginia.

George Washington opposed slavery, but he could not speak out as many members of Congress, including Thomas Jefferson, were slave owners. Most blacks supported the British cause as they saw that this was their best chance of freedom.

On 30th June 1779, the British commander-in-chief, Sir Henry Clinton, issued a proclamation that slaves would be granted their freedom if they joined the British. Tens of thousands of slaves responded to this offer. Many Americans were outraged and there was the contradiction that many of those who signed the Declaration of Independence, which stated that “all men were created equal”, now rallied against losing their slaves.

However the British motive for freeing slaves was also somewhat cynical. It was well known that the economy of America depended on unpaid labour and this was an opportunity to undermine it. Indeed, with the shortage of ready money, slaves were eventually used as a form of currency.

Slaves previously owned by Americans who worked or fought for the British were promised freedom after the war. They received provisions, clothing and two shillings a day, the same as most British soldiers. However, the Americans retaliated by inflicting severe penalties, usually hanging, on slaves who were caught trying to escape.
At the end of the war, the freed slaves were in a very dangerous situation, having backed the loser. The British made considerable attempts to help the blacks to flee, transporting at least 30,000 to the West Indies, where many were set free albeit in great poverty. Some fled to Canada and at least 1000 were resettled in Freetown, Sierra Leone.

Read more about the role of the British Army in the American War of Independence in the “Wessex Turncoat”.

Source – A Few Bloody Noses, by Robert Harvey
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