"Freedom and a Farm." The promise was exciting to the thousands of African-Americans, mostly runaway slaves, who were encouraged by the British to fight in British regiments against the Americans. They joined the tens of thousands of American refugees who had sided with the British during the American Revolution, and who pinned their hopes for a brighter future on the British slogan. The refugees left the newly independent states for British North America and pledged their loyalty to King George III.
Seventy thousand of these Loyalists came to British North America, approximately 35 000 of them to the Maritimes, mostly Nova Scotia, with the majority relocating in 1783 and 1784. Collectively, they were not a homogeneous group. They were as socially and culturally diverse as the nation they fled, comprised of soldiers and civilians, rich and poor, black, white and Indian. They shared little besides their plight as refugees.
They pledged their allegiance to the Crown for diverse reasons - love of King and the old country, fear of the chaos that would result from the revolution, the promise of free land. Nova Scotia Governor John Parr noted that "the generality of those" who made their way to Shelburne, were "not much burthened with Loyalty, a specious name which they made use of."
The better life the Loyalists sought did not come without cost. The massive influx of population created a demand for shelter and provisions that could not be met easily in what many called "Nova Scarcity." Those left most in need were the Black Loyalists.
Approximately 3000 African-Americans went to Nova Scotia, to settlements near Shelburne, Digby, Chedabucto and Halifax. Nearly half of them initially went to Shelburne, drawn by the dream of a place where they could live independently on land they owned, free of prejudice. The British promise was 100 acres for each head of household and an additional 50 for each family member, plus provisions.
African-Americans thought they would have equal claim to free land, but discovered that the land grant system had become corrupt. Some, after waiting six years, received a mere quarter acre. Most were given less desirable plots across the harbour from Shelburne. There they founded Birchtown, named for the British commander in New York who had signed their embarkation certificates. They became the objects of hostility and violence. Many sold themselves to merchants for a term of service, essentially returning to the slavery they had fled.
The Black Loyalists maintained their strength through religious faith, and several of their religious leaders became prominent in their new communities. One such was the controversial David George, born of African slaves in Virginia, who had converted to the Baptist faith while a slave in Georgia. He was a founding member, in 1773, of North America's first African-American church, in South Carolina. He went to Shelburne in 1784, and his emotional sermons drew both black and white settlers.
The Baptist emphasis on salvation through faith, rather than good works, created dissension, as did adult rather than infant baptism, and baptism by immersion rather than sprinkling. Baptist teachings appeared to defy the established Church. George, promoting free will, seemed to encourage anarchism.
George's following grew. He became the province's most famous pastor, preaching in black settlements, giving people strength and encouragement. He raised the ire of many who disliked both his message and the colour of his skin. Rioting soldiers tore down his house. George came to feel that he was no better off than he had been as a slave.
Although many African-Americans stayed and built a permanent community, George and more than one-third of Shelburne's black population accepted the challenge offered by British philanthropists who thought the Blacks would have a better life in their ancestral homeland. Nearly 1200 Black Loyalists emigrated to Sierra Leone in 1792 and established the colony of Freetown. Today, the descendants of those Black Loyalists are identified by their Nova Scotia heritage.