by Larry Smith
When a dramatic vote of no confidence in Prime Minister Lynden Pindling was called 40 years ago, probably no-one in Cecil Wallace-Whitfield's group of dissident PLPs (who were later to constitute themselves as the FNM) knew that this parliamentary measure was first used in 1782 to topple the British prime minister, Lord North, after a decisive American victory in the War of Independence.
That's one of the fascinating snippets of history contained in a monumental new book about the rarely reported other side of the American Revolution - the loyalists who supported the British Crown during the conflict and who ended up as Imperial refugees afterwards.
Liberty's Exiles, published this year by Harvard historian Maya Jasanoff, is the first global history of the estimated 60,000 white colonists, free blacks and native Americans, plus 15,000 African slaves, who fled the United States of America in the 1780s to build new lives in Canada, the Bahamas, Jamaica, Britain and Africa.
Bahamian historian Gail Saunders described the persecution of loyalists by the American patriots in her 1983 publication, Bahamian Loyalists and their Slaves. "Some had their property confiscated; others were socially ostracised and their businesses boycotted. All types of atrocities in the name of patriotism were inflicted against the loyalists, the most infamous and common being that of tarring and feathering."
Liberty and Slavery
The American Revolution's ideals of liberty and justice were also marred by the continued enslavement of Africans and the deliberate destruction of native American societies. In contrast, Jasanoff points out that some 20,000 slaves were emancipated by the British in return for their support during the war, and several Indian nations, like the Creeks and the Mohawks, chose to ally themselves with the empire.
She also notes that the secession of more than two million white American subjects drove home the fact that the British Empire was a majority nonwhite enterprise. This realization led to systematic reforms aimed at preventing misrule in India, which became the new jewel in the imperial crown.
At the same time, the Revolution removed half a million slaves from the empire, as well as a major interest group in the form of American slaveholders. Abolitionists were able to draw a moral contrast between Britain, where slaveowning was unlawful, and a United States in which slavery was constitutionally prrotected. It was no coincidence that the first abolition bill was introduced to the British parliament in 1789.
Jasanoff provides new estimates for the loyalist exodus. About 8,000 whites and 5,000 free blacks fled to Britain after the war, but most headed for other British colonies - 35,000 to the Canadian provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Quebec; 6,000 whites and most of the 15,000 slaves to Jamaica and the Bahamas. Some 1200 blacks later moved from Canada to Sierra Leone in West Africa. And a few loyalists ended up as far away as India or Australia.
"Loyalist refugees conveyed American things and ideas into the empire," Jasanoff says. These included material objects such as the printing press used by the Wells family of Charleston to produce the first newspaper in the Bahamas (the Bahama Gazette), and the racial attitudes that accompanied the loyalists' mass transport of slaves.
Jasanoff chronicles the contradictions that characterised the postwar restructuring of the British Empire: "an empire that gave freedom to black loyalists, but facilitated the export of loyalist-owned slaves; it gave land to Mohawk Indian allies in the north, but largely abandoned the Creeks and other allies in the south; it promised to compensate loyalists for their losses, but in practice often fell short; it joined liberal principles with hierarchical rule."
Perhaps nowhere were these contradictions more evident than in the Bahamas, and Jasonoff devotes an entire chapter to the loyalist experience here.
In late 1783 the British government decided to buy out the hereditary proprietors of the Bahamas to offer land to loyalists. A few months before, a group of about 1500 New Yorkers had moved to Abaco, where they laid out a town (near present-day Treasure Cay) named after Sir Guy Carleton, the general who supervised the British evacuation from America and who was later appointed the first governor-general of Canada.
The Abaco settlers soon discovered the island to be "not so fertile as had been expected", and began fighting over food distribution. Some split off to found a rival town at nearby Marsh's Harbour, which is Abaco's capital today. The settlement of Carleton disappeared from the map, until archaeologists rediscovered it in the 20th century.
"By the middle of 1784," Jasanoff writes, "transports were disgorging refugees and slaves onto New Providence by the hundreds...Many stayed in rudimentary conditions around Nassau; others emigrated to the dry, empty out islands...All told more than 6,000 loyalists and their slaves arrived in the Bahamas, doubling the prewar population and raising the ratio of black to white inhabitants from a little more than one to one, to two to one."
Tormenting and Dissatisfied
Most had arrived from Florida, where they had taken refuge following the British defeat at Yorktown. They had been forced to move again when peace negotiations ceded Florida to Spain in exchange for Gibralter. Described as "the most tormenting, dissatisfied people on Earth," these Florida refugees soon created turmoil in the somnolent Bahama Islands. "If the remainder who intend coming here are of the same sort," the governor said at the time, "civil government is in danger."
The loyalists clashed with the older Bahamian population, known as conchs, who they felt were favoured by the governor. And they protested vigorously against what they considered to be a lack of representation. These protests extended to "explosive public outbursts, riots and assaults, and proto-revolutionary councils." According to Jasanoff, "These doubly displaced refugees came bearing enormous resentment against their own government for abandoning Florida."
Such an environment provided fertile ground for all manner of anti-government conspiracies. Jasanoff tells the amazing story of William Augustus Bowles, a Maryland-born white loyalist who became a Creek Indian chief and moved to the Bahamas after the War of Independence. He brought with him word of a daring plot by leading Bahamian loyalists to mount a coup against the governor and secede from the empire.
Nothing ever came of this conspiracy, but Bowles was encouraged by Lord Dunmore, the Bahamian governor at the time, to pursue an even bolder scheme - using the Bahamas as a springboard to overturn Spanish authority in Florida. With the support of the Creeks he would then create an independent Indian state called Muskogee that would ally itself to the British Empire.
Styling himself Director-General of the Creek Nation, Bowles set off on an Atlantic circuit to win British aid, and successfully recruited the governor of Nova Scotia to his plan. In 1790 he arrived in London to petition the king, and managed to secure limited backing. At the time, the conventional wisdom was that the United States would probably fragment and the British were looking to improve their position in North America.
But Bowles' subsequent expedition to Florida turned into a fiasco when he was captured by the Spanish and imprisoned in Havana, from where he was soon deported to the Philippines. "Instead of becoming the lord of Muskogee, Bowles became surely the only American loyalist to be exiled in southeastern Asia," Jasanoff writes, describing him as "a shooting star over the Bahamian scene."
It wasn't until 1794 that the unrest in the Bahamas subsided when a new House of Assembly was elected with substantial loyalist representation. But a combination of insect pests, soil exhaustion and hurricanes ultimately wrecked loyalist plans for a lucrative new life on the islands. The remains of their failed plantations can still be found on New Providence, San Salvador and Cat Island.
"The Bahamas never took off as an agricultural economy," Jasanoff says, "The islands flourished best in their position as a maritime centre, way station, and offshore hub—a role they continue to play more than two centuries later. In the end, despite loyalist efforts to make it otherwise, the Bahamas remained marginal to imperial interests."
In a fascinating aside, Jasanoff reports that Bowles resurfaced in Sierra Leone years later after escaping from a prison ship cruising up the West African coast. Making his way to London, he was entertained by his old benefactor, Lord Dunmore, and eventually returned to Florida at government expense, building a settlement near present-day Tallahassee and drafting a Muskogee constitution.
But changing currents turned the Creeks against him and Bowles was eventually handed over to the Spanish, who again imprisoned him in Havana's Moro Castle, where he died in 1805.
When Bowles escaped off the coast of Sierra Leone in 1798 he sought refuge in Freetown, where 1200 black loyalists from Nova Scotia had resettled with the aid of leading British abolitionists. This was the final British-sponsored migration of American loyalists.
These refugees left Halifax in January 1791 with high hopes. But the development of Freetown was beset by the same conflicts between loyalists and the authorities that had occurred in the Bahamas and Nova Scotia. The instability culminated in an uprising by the black loyalists in 1800 that was suppressed by British troops.
Isaac Anderson, the would-be first black ruler of a self-governed Freetown was executed, and several other coup leaders were exiled - included Harry Washington - one of George Washington's runaway slaves. Among those who helped put down the rebellion were a group of Jamaican free blacks called Maroons, who had been deported to Nova Scotia in 1791 and then petitioned to be sent to a warmer climate.
Following the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, Freetown became a Crown colony, it's population supplemented by Africans liberated from slave ships. The colony also served as a model for the neighbouring settlement of Liberia, which was founded by American abolitionists in the 1820s. It became independent in 1961.
On top of these well-intentioned resettlement programmes, the British government paid out the equivalent of 300 million pounds in compensation for loyalist claims after the war. The scale of this payout "was just as unprecedented as all the other provisions - land grants, free passages, rations, and supplies - already made for refugees," Jasanoff says, noting that such a huge relief programme was born in a period when public welfare scarcely existed.
By 1815, when the British defeated the French at Waterloo to end the Napoleonic Wars, the loyalist migration from America was over. The survivors of the exodus were now subjects of a world power that enjoyed international pre-eminence for the next century or more. And they were, Jasanoff concludes, "in this sense, victors after all."
•LIBERTY’S EXILES: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World by Maya Jasanoff 460 pp. Alfred A. Knopf.