Date of Award

Spring 5-10-2019

Level of Access Assigned by Author

Open-Access Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)




Liam Riordan

Second Committee Member

Mazie Hough

Third Committee Member

Jacques Ferland


Individuals of African descent who arrived in Nova Scotia during and after the War for American Independence have been the subject of extensive commentary by historians. Spurred by the rise of Social History in the 1970s, these individuals have increasingly been identified as a coherent group – particularly by the historian James W. St. G. Walker, whose pioneering 1976 monograph did a great deal to create the term “black Loyalist” as a category of analysis. In Walker’s wake many other researchers have expanded the concept, which now has a prominent place in the public historical memory of Nova Scotia. However, archivist and historian Barry Cahill warned of the errors in not acknowledging how the institution of slavery impacted this group in an Acadiensis article in autumn 1999. Cahill asserted that the ”black Loyalist” concept had been misconstrued to promote contemporary social inclusion with the consequence of misshaping our understanding of late-eighteenth century history. Walker responded to Cahill’s critique in the same issue of the journal and argued that black Loyalists were a significant and widely recognized component of the Loyalist diaspora at the time. This thesis builds on primary and secondary sources to assess the wartime experiences of these evacuees, their significant post-war migration to Nova Scotia, and their departure for Sierra Leone. Understanding how the wartime roles of enslaved and loyal blacks informed their progression to freedom via siding with the British and evacuating to Nova Scotia are central to this study. The Book of Negroes, which documented the status of nearly 3,000 black people who evacuated from New York City with the British in 1783, is an especially rich source that carefully chronicled information about black refugees including their legal status. Their individual journeys varied from thankless service to the extraordinary acquisition of freedom. Yet, always, the threat of re-enslavement loomed even after evacuating to post-war Nova Scotia. The priority here is to understand the people recorded in the Book of Negroes and how the fluidity of status shaped black Loyalists in the context of slavery and racism in the late-eighteenth century. A British military perspective often informs the assessment of black Loyalists adopted in this thesis. Who were the black Loyalists? This thesis supports Walker’s assessment that the black Loyalists were a meaningful group in the period, yet also find value in Cahill’s call that we recognize status variations among black people in Nova Scotia after 1783. The persistence of slavery and the intensification of racism is crucial to understanding black Loyalists, and we should be wary of succumbing to a celebratory Loyalist Myth, whether of black or white Loyalists. Walker rightly defended the black Loyalist concepts because many did acquire their freedom through individual perseverance, sacrifice, and commitment to the British. However, many others, as Cahill acknowledged, had other motives and most never fully escaped slavery and its broadly oppressive influence.