Today’s post comes from James Zeender, Senior Registrar.
Last week, the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax opened the exhibition “Prize and Prejudice: Nova Scotia’s War of 1812.” It is a companion to the War of 1812 exhibit organized by the Canadian War Museum. “Prize and Prejudice” features two letters on loan from the National Archives. They were written by Black escaped slaves who were among the 3400 slaves who fled from the Chesapeake region during the war. Most of them resettled in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Trinidad. The letters were among many from the US-Canadian Boundary Commission records (RG 76) that scholar Dr. Alan Taylor cites in his recent work “Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772 – 1832: The Internal Enemy.
In December 1816, just about a year after the war’s end, young William Whiddington sent this moving letter to his “dear honored mother.”
I have often wished it was in my power to let you hear from me, as, I dare say, you have thought I was long ago dead. but Thanks be to God, I arriv’d in this place safe – and have had no cause to repent coming away – though I was very sorry to leave you, and all my relations. but though I may never see any of you again, my dear Mother, yet I shall always think of you and love you. and I hope, I shall act so honestly and soberly in this World that when I die I may meet all my Friends in a happy state of Eternity….I am a sober well-behaved Lad. I get six Dollars a month and am now comfortably cloathed, and live well. Nice Leech and his two children came away.
Later, in the same letter, Whiddington writes:
I pray and beseech you to let me hear from you and not only tell me how you and my Father, and Brothers, and Sisters all are, but I wish also to hear how my Master and Mistress – and my young Masters are – particularly, Master Clement. and I beg you will remember me to them all, and to all enquiring Friends. I wish to know where Mr. Clement is and how he does, for I feel a great love for him.
Using the Whiddington letter as an example, Taylor finds “the letters reveal the great emotional complexity to the master-slave experience. While proud of their accomplishments in freedom, some writers missed their personal relationship with a former master.”
Writing in May 1820, Bartlet Shanklyn writes with obvious emotion, perhaps anger, to his former owner, Abraham Hooe.
I take this opportunity of writing these lines to inform you how I am situated hear. I have [a] Shop & Set of Tools of my own and am doing very well when I was with you [you] treated me very ill and for that reason i take the liberty of informing you that i am doing as well as you if not better. When i was with you I worked very hard and you neither g[ave] me money nor any Satisfaction but sin[ce] I have been hear I am able to [make] Gold and Silver as well as you. The night that Cokely Stoped me he was very Strong but I shewed him that Subtilty Was far preferable to Strength and brought away others with me who thank God are all doing well.
A similar exodus of Black Refugees from Britain’s former colonies to Canada occurred earlier during the American Revolution. Those persons too are documented here in the National Archives on inspection rolls kept at General George Washington’s order so that American owners could later make claims for their lost “property”. Such removals were prohibited under the terms of the recently signed Preliminary Articles of Peace at Paris. The British Commander, Guy Carlton, however refused to return any of the refugees to slavery. At least one of the slaves recorded on the rolls escaped from Washington’s own Mount Vernon plantation seven years earlier.
For more information about the War of 1812 exhibition, see https://maritimemuseum.novascotia.ca/what-see-do/war-1812-exhibits. You can also read more about it here: in the slideshow, there are few photographs of the “Prize and Prejudice” exhibition, including one of the the case with our letters.