Slavery in Nova Scotia (

Watch the following about slavery and important African Canadians:

Although Nova Scotia was never a major slave colony, it was neither unknown nor unusual. Wealthy families in particular often had a few bound servants, and there are records of slaves being sold and inherited in Halifax. However, the land was unsuitable for most agriculture and African slaves had trouble tolerating the cold climate. The plantation economy was a nonstarter in Nova Scotia, and thus slavery was an accepted custom with no specific legal standing.

This changed with the mass influx of Loyalists. Many of the refugees were wealthy slave owners who had taken their slaves with them when they came to Nova Scotia. The word slave was rarely used however, the preferred phrase being servant or Negro servant. Of course, the reality of perpetual servitude was the same no matter what term was used. Brutal punishment was uncommon enough to be condemned by the community when it happened, but there were no legal consequences.

In one such case the slave of a Loyalist in Truro had a habit of running away frequently. After several escapes and recaptures the master cut a hole in the slave's ear, passed a rope through it, and dragged him on the ground behind his horse for several miles. Not much later, he died. While the people of the town thought the treatment was cruel and vicious, there were no charges brought against him.

Indenture was a more common threat. A form of temporary slavery, an indentured servant would sign a contract that took away their liberty for a year or more, in return for a lump sum payment on the completion of the contract. Indentured servants could be punished as slaves and sometimes were subject to the most humiliating mistreatment. Convicts who could not pay their fines were usually indentured in order to pay them. At other times indenture was part of the sentence for a crime.

Given the poverty of the Black Loyalists and the prejudice of the legal system, many became bonded servants either through choice or as a punishment for vagrancy. In 1784, when a list of indentured servants was drawn up in order to investigate corruption in the distribution of supplies, there were about 125 servants; around 10% of the blacks in Shelburne at the time. This occurred at a point when all Loyalists of any colour were supposed to be drawing supplies from the British crown. The list was written to investigate abuses of the rationing system, as it was common practice to indenture blacks and then keep their supplies. In effect you were paid with food and tools for the privilege of receiving free labour.

Other abuses were common as well. Many would find some excuse to release the servants just before the end of their term and so avoid the promised payment for their services. Others sought to trick illiterate blacks by promising a one year term but writing up a much longer contract. One woman was fooled into signing a 39 year contract. Others would arrange some way of getting their servants out of the province (exporting slaves was forbidden) and then selling them off to permanent slavery in the West Indies. Some people would forge ownership papers so as to hold their servant indefinitely. Since the word of a black wasn't given much weight in the courts, the master had little fear of repercussions.

Justice and Fair Play

Justice for the Black Loyalists was rarely blind. In fact, they were assumed to be an inferior sort of citizen, barely capable of making their own decisions. From the start they were denied the right to vote, which was not entirely unusual at the time, and denied the right to be tried by jury. Their unequal status put them in grave danger in an era where slavery was still very real.

Even the most seemingly trivial expressions of independence were condemned as evidence of immorality. Shelburne, in particular, made a crusade of banning the dances, 'frolicking', and gambling that were popular activities among the town's free blacks. Handbills were printed and distributed around town, and offenders were summarily convicted and thrown in jail. Still, the frolicking and dances continued; a year later blacks were entirely banned from gathering for non-religious purposes. Repeat offenders might have their homes seized by the town. This came about in a town of 7,000 residents and 29 licensed taverns, whose citizens were snidely described by a local merchant as 'dancing beggars'. White dances and gambling dens were both popular and tolerated. Clearly there was more at work here than a mere concern for public order.

Blacks were denied any right to a jury trial; they were instead summarily tried and sentenced by a magistrate. Blacks often received harsh sentences for minor crimes while whites would typically receive a fine. One girl in Shelburne was sentenced to 350 lashes for stealing a couple of small items. Another man was whipped publicly all over town (20 lashes at each of 5 stops), and then indentured for five years. Banishment and forced labour were common punishments, even for offenses as minor as idleness. One man was sentenced to forced labour simply for eyeing a white man's potato patch too hungrily.

Many blacks received half rations and were forced to work most of the week. Under the circumstances they had little choice but to take employment under whatever terms were available. The alternative was usually indentured servitude, since unemployed blacks were commonly sold off to provide them with food and keep them off the streets. Lacking land, savings, or any other way to support themselves, they were forced into the uncertainties of the labour market.

Blacks were valuable employees in many ways. Most of them had been tradesmen of some sort, usually in rough trades like carpentry and woodcutting. Large numbers of them had experience in the Black Pioneers, where they had dug trenches and constructed forts. White soldiers frequently had no skills, and were used to the inflated wages they had received during the war. By comparison, the blacks were much more useful, especially since their lack of power and protectors meant they could be freely exploited.

In some rare instances, blacks earned as much as half of what a white tradesman could expect, but on average, they received only one quarter of the wage. The labourers in Colonel Blucke's Black Pioneers were paid 8 pence per day, while a white laborer in Halifax might demand as much as 3 shillings (36 p.). White businessmen quickly became dependent on black workers. Their cash was quickly running out, and the wages whites demanded were unusually high. This, in turn, infuriated the white soldiers, who felt they were being cheated out of their living. That resentment eventually led to an ugly outbreak of prejudice in Shelburne.

One exception laid in the fishing industry. For whatever reason, blacks usually received an equal wage to white fishermen. Like today, they were often paid in a share of the catch, or they might go into business on their own and fish from small dories. Either way, the sea proved to be an attractive career for many Black Loyalists. A fish on the end of a line didn't much care what colour the fisherman was.

In Birchtown and Halifax, some men went into service on larger boats. Boston King was hired on to a salmon fishing boat in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, and received a fair wage and a share of the catch. Others became privateers in the West Indies. There had been several black pilots in service to the British navy, and apparently their skills were well valued in these seafaring places.

It's possible that other attitudes were a factor. White Loyalists were frequently in conflict with the more established settlers. They were often from the southern states and had strong beliefs about the racial inferiority of blacks. The old comers, as they were known, had seen few blacks and were more willing to accept them on their own worth. As the old saying goes, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Old inhabitants dominated the seagoing fishing trade of the area.

The officials responsible for the settlement of new communities in Nova Scotia received many more settlers than they expected. They were unprepared to feed and house such a large number of people. And there simply weren't enough qualified people to run the affairs of the settlement effectively and efficiently.

The main surveyor, Benjamin Marston, was extremely busy when Shelburne was first being settled. He wrote in his diary that some people who were eligible to draw for land were left out because officials did not consider them to be acceptable. Blacks were of course ineligible to draw for lots in Shelburne. Marston made comments in his diary regarding blacks and children whohad tried to cheat their way into the draw. He also unsparingly criticized what he saw as the incompetence of the captains who ran most of the affairs of Port Roseway at the time.

Free blacks often had trouble getting their fair share of provisions. Many had to indenture themselves to white people and so their provisions were drawn by the person to which they were indentured. This led to abuse, as many of the whites would give the servant only a small portion of the provisions and keep the rest for themselves.

In addition, many blacks had their provisions drawn for them by the head of the company that they came with, experiencing similar results. Even blacks who were not indentured had to work three days a week on the roads to receive their fair share of supplies. It seems clear that the tools and lumber that were brought for the Loyalists almost never came into the hands of blacks.

The Black Loyalists had been promised good farmland upon their arrival in Shelburne and other parts of Nova Scotia. Not only did most never receive farmlands, but most black settlements were erected on poor, rocky land. While all the whites of Shelburne had received their farm lots by the summer of 1786, only one black, Stephen Blucke, had received his. It was two more years until the rocky lands at Beaverdam were surveyed for them. Of course, the fact that it was the last to be surveyed meant that their land was remote and infertile.

Many blacks were displaced from what they thought was to become their land. This occurred in Brindley Town, where blacks who were just about to receive their land had to be removed because the land had been set aside for church and school land. Similar examples happened near Birchtown and Preston.

Poor relief was another form of assistance offered by the government as the King's rations were ended. The money for poor relief was in control of the white overseers of the poor. They felt no direct responsibility for the blacks, and felt that the blacks ought to be taxed separately so they could take care of their own. Of course the poverty of the black communities would have ensured either high taxes or non-existent relief.

At one point two blacks named James Young and Tobias Johnson were appointed as overseers of the poor at Birchtown. They made a petition to the magistrates asking for help for the blacks living in Shelburne and Birchtown. They commented that blacks in these areas were in a terrible condition and that some would die if they did not receive relief.

Race Riots

By the summer of 1784, racial tensions were building. Many white soldiers were discovering that it was almost impossible to find work. Almost no one had received farm lots, and settlements like Port Roseway were filled with large numbers of unemployed soldiers with nothing to do and no prospect of finding work.

The people of Shelburne were under the impression that they would have their land surveyed and secured much sooner than actually was the case. People who had been told that Port Roseway was fertile were bitterly disappointed. Benjamin Marston, the chief surveyor, wrote in his diary about the mood in the town just before the riot. He knew people were unhappy and that something was about to happen.

The blacks of Shelburne had trouble finding work, and they accepted low wages so they would be hired. This upset many of the disbanded soldiers who were living in Shelburne and felt that black workers were driving them out of the labour market.

David George was the leading Baptist minister among the blacks. He had a large following and was preaching in Shelburne in what was called Blacktown. People weren't too concerned about what sort of message George preached to his own colour, but when he began baptizing whites the settlers, they were furious. In one instance, a white woman was about to be baptized when a mob arrived, and tried to drag her away. Authorities intervened, and decided that by the guarantees of freedom of religion, she could be baptized in whatever manner she chose. The mob left the scene taunting George with threats.

The next day they returned armed with muskets and ship's tackle. By fixing rope onto the poles of the houses they pulled George's home over, and then set about doing the same to the homes of his followers. Some wanted to burn down the more solidly constructed meeting house, but were discouraged by the riot's leader. By this time, the mob had swelled to hundreds of people. They set out through the black quarter of town pulling down all the houses, beating people and driving them out of town. Most fled to Birchtown empty-handed, everything they owned had been stolen or destroyed.

The mob did not stop there, however. They sought out Marston, planning to hang him for the slow delivery of their land. Marston was warned by his friends and escaped to Halifax. David George had fled to a nearby swamp, but was eventually discovered. They came in a mob and beat him senseless. After this he gave up and fled to Birchtown with the rest of the town's blacks.

By this time, Birchtown must have been chaos. Prior to the riot, almost half of the free blacks of the area had settled in Shelburne, where work was easier to find. So when Shelburne's blacks were chased out, Birchtown's population was doubled. Several hundred refugees camped out all over the small lots that had been granted to other families. Almost all of the surrounding land had already been granted to whites for farm and church land, so the town was unable to expand.

Still, the rioters were unsatisfied. Many continued their attacks on the blacks, beating lone travelers and traveling to Birchtown to pull down buildings and assault the unwary. The attacks only stopped when troops arrived from Halifax the next month to restore order.

Governor Parr was dismayed by the complete breakdown of the rule of law, which reflected poorly on his administration. He needed a scapegoat. Marston, who had been accused of taking bribes, was a likely candidate. The Governor promptly fired him. The business of surveying and land dispersion was taken over by the Associates, the council of leaders who had initially developed Port Roseway. Of course, this meant that the blacks would be completely left out of the land distribution. Aid was never offered to blacks who had lost their land and homes. Parr's concern was not to assist the victims, but merely to placate the rioters.

And so, the riot sank into history, a reminder to blacks that they could not expect to be treated as equal citizens regardless what certificate they carried.


As the free blacks established themselves in Nova Scotia, religion became a crucial expression of their desire for independence. Where every other facet of their life was still controlled by whites, in their churches they were truly free to make their own rules and decide their affairs as a free people.

Religion and faith were a crucial element of the Black Loyalist experience, and we have recorded the stories of their sects and ministers.


Christianity among the Slaves

Some slaves were Christian before being freed. A powerful symbol of the dividing lines between their society and that of their oppressors, slaves began to make their own Christianity.

The Anglicans

As the religion of the Loyalist establishment, becoming an Anglican had desirable associations that were both symbolic and very practical.

The Huntingdonian Methodists

Representing a strain of Calvinist Methodism preached by George Whitehead, John Marrant brought his faith to the Black Loyalists of Nova Scotia.

The Wesleyan Methodists

The remarkable Moses Wilkinson was probably the main preacher of the religious revival among the Black Loyalists, forming the largest congregation of free blacks.

The Baptists

Only David George's Baptists were completely free of any outside religious authority.



African Religion and Black Christianity

The distinctive characteristics of black Christianity may have had their roots in African cultural traditions.