#1792Project still writing letters to Black Loyalists who left Nova Scotia 230 years ago

A project commemorating the 1,196 Black Loyalists who left Nova Scotia’s shores in 1792 is still collecting letters, according to one of the organizers.

#1792Project is an advocacy and letter-writing campaign aimed at educating people about the history of the 1,196 Black Loyalists who, in January of 1792, left Nova Scotia aboard 15 ships on a mass exodus to Sierra Leone in Africa. This year marks 230 years since the exodus.

“Right now we are still moving forward with the collection of the 1,196 letters and what we wanted to do is we wanted to make sure that we had a letter for each seafarer who actually traveled on one of those 15 ships that went from Nova Scotia to Sierra Leone,” said Karen Hudson, principal of Auburn Drive High School in an interview with the Halifax Examiner.

But so far, the project hasn’t collected enough letters.

“I’m up to about 520 but individuals and schools have reached out saying that [more] letters are coming,” Hudson said.

The project started as an art installation in October 2021 at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21. As part of the installation, people were encouraged to write letters to seafarers aboard the 15 ships that left Halifax for Sierra Leone. The installation was called Message in a Bottle: 15 Ships to Sierra Leone and was started by Kathrin Winkler, a retired teacher from Ontario.

Winkler was inspired by Dr. Afua Cooper’s poem, 15 Ships. Winkler first learned of the Sierra Leone Exodus through the poem and has since gone on to do more research about the exodus and create the art installation last year.

“I did not learn about this incredible journey in school, and that is unacceptable as a teacher, and as a grandmother of six grandchildren and one on the way,” Winkler said at a #1792Project event at the Halifax Central Library in March.

“It’s just wrong. And it became clear at the exhibit at Pier 21 that most children and adults across Canada don’t know about the 15 ships to Sierra Leone. But all of us can work together to change that.”

After the art installation at Pier 21, Hudson, junior high school teacher Megan Neaves, and community activist Carol Millet joined Winkler to help continue and grow the initiative that eventually became #1792Project.

They continued to encourage high school and junior high school students, as well as elected officials and other community members to write letters as part of the project.

“We wanted to continue on making sure that schools don’t just focus on February, but how did they see this as a long-term project that they could talk about this history of Black Loyalists,” said Hudson.

Last year, Hudson lobbied Halifax Regional Municipality to issue a proclamation recognizing the 230th year anniversary of the Exodus, which it did, on January 15, the anniversary of the day the ships first left Halifax for Sierra Leone.

Other municipalities throughout the province have also since issued proclamations, and Hudson said the group is still urging other municipalities in the Atlantic region to issue proclamations, too.

Before losing the American Revolutionary War to the United States, Britain issued a proclamation promising protection, land, freedom, and equality to any escaped slave in in the US willing to join the British forces.

Following the war, in 1783, white British soldiers and loyalists, and over 3000 Black Loyalists ended up settling in other British colonies, including Nova Scotia and what is now New Brunswick. Birchtown and Shelburne, Nova Scotia, were the first communities in the western hemisphere home to large numbers of free Black people.

Though the promise of freedom was generally kept, the promise of equality was not. This was evident in a series of dynamics that culminated in the Shelburne Race Riots — the first recorded race riots in the western hemisphere, which left many Black people displaced from the area.

By virtue of the fact that they had worked as slaves their whole lives, many of the Black labourers in Shelburne were essentially tradesmen and were more skilled and more productive than the average white labourer in the town.

Because they were used to working for free, combined with a widespread North American ideology of Black inferiority, employers were able to offer Black labourers lower wages than their white counterparts. In turn, the employers received a higher level of productivity and quality of work, and at a lower cost.

That drove down wages for white labourers, leaving many of them under-employed and some unemployed.

That, in turn, helped fuel the flame of an already anti-Black racist sentiment among white townspeople and labourers, and sparked the Shelburne Race Riots.

When it came to the promise of land allocation, priority was given to white British soldiers, starting with those highest in rank and who, through the war, had lost the most amounts of land and property (including slaves).

Some white British Loyalists, in fact, brought with them to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick enslaved people of African descent who were still enslaved to them, alongside the formerly enslaved Black Loyalists.

The land that was eventually allocated to Black settlers was less than what was promised, deliberately isolated from greater townships, and was of lower quality making it more difficult to grow crops and survive.

Thomas Peters, a Black Loyalist who had risen to the rank of sergeant in the British army, lobbied the British government to fulfill its promise of land grants to the Black loyalists. By 1788, nearly all the Black Loyalists had received their land grants, though it was said to be, on average, 40 acres less than the amount of land issued to white loyalist settlers.

In 1790, Peters went to London to inform the British government more directly about the conditions and broken promises to the Black Loyalists in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. In London, Peters met with the Sierra Leone Company, which was seeking new settlers for a colony of former slaves in West Africa.

When he returned from London in 1791, Peters travelled throughout the Black communities in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in a recruitment effort for the new West African colony in Sierra Leone.

The number of Black people Peters recruited was said to have been so unexpectedly high that the Sierra Leone Company nixed plans to settle white settlers from London in the new West African colony.

This was met with mixed reactions among many white Nova Scotians as many did not want to lose the availability of cheap, quality labour. Though some Blacks were said to be altogether prevented from leaving, others were made to pay fees to be able to leave.

In the end, on January 15, 1792, 15 ships carrying 1,196 Black Loyalists, including some who had travelled on foot from New Brunswick, left Halifax Harbour to settle what would become the city of Freetown, Sierra Leone.

March 11 marked the 230-year anniversary of the day the last of the 15 ships arrived in Sierra Leone. An event, History Comes Alive: 15 Ships to Sierra Leone #1792, was held at the Halifax Central Library to commemorate the day.

“This is a historical occasion,” said community activist Lynn Jones who assisted Winkler with some of her initial research, and co-moderated the event along with Hudson.

“Like, you’re part of history today. This has never been done before,” Jones said to the audience of mostly students who wrote letters as part of the project.

The event featured remarks from a number of speakers including the other #1792Project organizers, Neaves, Millet, and Winkler.

“The last ship to arrive in Sierra Leone, 230 years ago today, was The Morning Star. And there were four additional passengers on board — four babies were born on that ocean of hope,” Winkler said.

“History that moves us to do better is not about those with great power but those with great heart. The Black Loyalists, they risked everything to find a better home, and that took heart, and that took courage. Each ship and each passenger has a story.”

“You, the students, wrote about the difficulties of broken promises and how things have or haven’t changed. Your letters honour the courage and resilience of these ancestors but also questions the racism and failure of the colonial conditions that still echo today.”

The event also featured remarks from additional speakers including HRM Deputy Mayor Pam Lovelace; Freetown, Sierra Leone Mayor Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, who appeared virtually and said her family roots trace back to the Black Loyalists; and Sierra Leone Canadian Association president, Mohammed Yaffa and his son, Abubakar Yaffa, who read the letter he submitted as part of #1792Project “about an unnamed child who suffered.”

What’s next

Speaking with the Examiner, Hudson talked about what will eventually become of the letters and about what the future holds for the #1792Project.

“In the book of letters, I’m keeping track of who is giving proclamations, who’s writing letters, and this book of letters hopefully will be going to the museum,” she said.

She said they also plan to have a monument installed near Pier 21 and that they will be putting out a call for submissions from local artists.

In an interview with the Examiner, Jones said the event in March was not the end of the project but the group will likely require “people resources, money resources, [and] technical resources.”

“If they said, ‘OK we need a statue, we need plaques, we need acknowledgment in the history books, we need all these different things,’ who’s gonna do that work? And how are they gonna do it? Those four people are working from the side of their desk,” she said.

“There needs to be resources put into helping these four volunteers to continue. Because it didn’t end at that one event. I mean we have had 230 years where nothing’s been done.”


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