Looking Back, Moving Forward: Documenting the Heritage of African Nova Scotians

Nova Scotia Archives

Looking Back, Moving Forward: Documenting the Heritage of African Nova Scotians

People of African Heritage in Nova Scotia

The earliest documentary evidence of black people living in Nova Scotia comes from the surviving records from the Fortress of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island. Nearly 200 enslaved Blacks can be identified among the general population living there during the French régime, 1713-58. The early inhabitants of Halifax also included numerous enslaved and free Blacks, the latter working mostly as tradesmen and labourers.

When the New England Planters came to Nova Scotia in the 1760s, they brought an estimated 150 Blacks with them, having been promised “100 acres to every person, Master or Mistress of a Family, with [an additional] 50 acres for every white or black man, woman or child.” These Blacks were probably all enslaved, with occasional exceptions such as Barbery Cuffee, a black mid-wife in Liverpool, and Robbin Robbins, a mixed race carpenter at Cornwallis.

The 1767 township census identified 104 black people then living in Nova Scotia: “Annapolis 6; Cape Breton Island 7; Canso 2; Chester 1; Cornwallis 7; Dartmouth 1; Falmouth 4; Granville 5; Halifax 54; Hopewell 3; Horton 2; Lawrencetown 1; Liverpool 4; Lunenburg 2; Maugerville (Saint John River) 1; Newport 2; and Island of St. John’s (Prince Edward Island) 2.”

The first large group of Blacks to arrive in the province were the Black Loyalists who came as refugees after the American Revolution. Some of them had served in Loyalist regiments, others had worked in various capacities with British military and civilian units, and still others had fought in the war as part of their own company, the Black Pioneers. Some had been free before the Revolution, but most gained liberty by escaping their masters and fleeing behind the British lines, where they were emancipated.

The Black Loyalists came with thousands of other refugees evacuated from New York City in 1783. A written record known then and now as “The Book of Negroes” was compiled at their departure, listing by name approximately 3,000 black and mixed race, women and children, all free, who sailed north to begin new lives. Their arrival marked the first time that the notion of ‘community’ was a meaningful concept and a real possibility for Blacks in Nova Scotia.

The British government scattered them throughout the colony -- some in Halifax, Annapolis Royal, Clements and Granville, others in new communities, including Birchtown (near Shelburne), Brindleytown (outside Digby), Preston (near Halifax), Little Tracadie and Chedabucto (Guysborough).

An estimated 1,230 enslaved Blacks also arrived in Nova Scotia after the Revolution, travelling with their Loyalist owners and settling with them throughout the colony. An incomplete list compiled then showed their dispersal as: “Dartmouth 41; Country Harbour 41; Chedabucto 61; Island of St. John 26; Antigonish 18; Cumberland area 21; Partridge Island (Parrsboro) 69; Cornwallis and Horton 38; Newport and Kennetcook 22; Windsor 21; Annapolis Royal area 230; Digby 152; St. Mary’s Bay 13; Shelburne [not tallied]; River St. John 441.”

It was a confusing time, with free and enslaved Blacks often living in close proximity, all struggling to adjust to new realities and old attitudes. Black Loyalists received indifferent and inferior treatment compared to white Loyalists when it came to granting land, provisions and other resources to begin their new lives. As a result, some 1,200 Black Loyalists left Nova Scotia in 1792 for Sierra Leone in West Africa. Their departure removed a substantial portion of the black population, creating new challenges for those who remained.

The next major immigration was in 1796, when nearly 600 Jamaican Maroons were brought to Halifax and settled as a group in Preston Township. They helped to build Government House, worked on new fortifications at the Citadel, and served in the local militia. A few became farmers in Boydville, near Sackville.

The Maroons brought their own religion and customs, and did not see themselves as permanent residents. They pointed this out repeatedly to the authorities and in 1800, when the cost of supporting them could no longer be sustained, they were sent to Sierra Leone.

The last substantial group was the Refugee Blacks from the War of 1812. Nearly 2,000 arrived in Halifax, 1812-15. Over 300 settled in the city and a few went to Dartmouth. Otherwise they were accommodated in two large groups at Hammonds Plains (outside Halifax) and Preston; and in various smaller settlements around the province, including Cobequid Road, Windsor Road, Five Mile Plains, Beech Hill, Refugee Hill, Porter’s Lake, Fletcher’s Lake, Prospect Road, Beaverbank, Avonport, Pine Woods, Pictou and Mill Village.

Again, settling in was not easy. Although the Refugees at Hammonds Plains received land grants of ten acres each in 1816, those at Preston were given only warrants, and did not receive full title until 1842.

Occasional black settlers, mostly sailors from the Caribbean, came to Nova Scotia after the 1820s, but no sizeable group arrived until the early 1900s when black immigrants, chiefly from Barbados, came to Industrial Cape Breton to work in the steel mills and coal mines.

Today’s African Nova Scotians continue to live in their historical places of settlement, although many have moved to larger urban areas. Founding family names such as Cromwell, Farmer, Hamilton, Langford, Marsman, Oliver, Slaughter and States remain common. Proud of their ancestry, their history and their cultural traditions, they have built strong communities which continue to the present.


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