On November 7, 1775, John Murray, Fourth Earl of Dunmore and Governor of the British Colony of Virginia, wrote the document known as Dunmore’s Proclamation. He promised freedom to all indentured servants, enslaved African Americans, or others held in slavery by American revolutionaries, as long as they were ready to bear arms for British troops fighting against American forces during the independance War. A week after drafting the proclamation, Dunmore had it published on November 14.
“I hereby further declare all indentured servants, negroes or others (belonging to the rebels) free who are able and willing to bear arms, they join His Majesty’s troops as soon as possible,” he said. he writes.
In addition to promising slaves freedom, Dunmore’s proclamation imposed martial law and declared that American patriots had betrayed the Crown.
Loyalist governor seeks to expand his troops
The proclamation had been in the works for months, as Dunmore was in a vulnerable position as mobs of rebels filled Virginia’s capital, Williamsburg, prompting the loyalist governor to leave for Norfolk. The worst thing for him was that many of his forces had deserted him, leaving him with only around 300 soldiers.
Given Dunmore’s plight, six months before he issued the proclamation, rumors spread that he was considering this course of action, and a group of enslaved African Americans approached him. to join forces with the British against their American captors. Although he ignored these African Americans, the colony’s plantation owners feared he would implement his plan to grant freedom to slaves.
On June 8, Dunmore boarded the British battleship Fowey at Yorktown. He proceeded to expand his troops, including asking enslaved African Americans to accompany him. It all culminated in Dunmore’s Proclamation, the full text of which appeared in such journals as the Virginie gazette.
Dunmore believed his proclamation would make plantation owners more concerned with possible slave insurgencies than with fighting British troops. Without the material support from the British troops stationed in Boston, Dunmore needed more resources, than he thought he had by bolstering his forces with enslaved black men, although some women were also involved in the effort.
Response to proclamation
Settlers who feared enslaved African Americans would join the ranks of the British attempted to thwart any attempt in this direction by closely patrolling both land and water and limiting gatherings of enslaved people. . In addition, they tried to convince the slaves that collaborating with the British would be self-destructive. And they pointed out that Lord Dunmore had enslaved black people as well.
The month after Dunmore issued the proclamation, the Virginia Convention drafted its own declaration stating that enslaved fugitives would forgo punishment if they returned to their captors within 10 days, but would face dire consequences if they were to return to their captors within 10 days. they didn’t. A slave who took part in an insurrection risked the death penalty.
In the end, between 800 and 2,000 slaves joined forces with the British. Known as “Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment”, their uniforms featured the words “Liberty to Slaves”. But smallpox epidemics have claimed many lives among this group. In August 1776, the British withdrew after destroying the majority of their fleet, and about 300 enslaved African Americans left with them. Although a modest number, as many as 100,000 people attempted to escape slavery and fight for the British to win their freedom throughout the War of Independence.
The war led to chaos and uncertainty on many plantations, motivating enslaved African Americans to try their luck with the British. But in order to leave, the enslaved blacks had to be on farms close to the British lines or have the means to reach them.
However, many African Americans did not make the choice to flee bondage. They may have been old, sick, disabled, or unwilling to leave behind family members who would remain in slavery. That said, it was not until the Civil War that so many African Americans gained their freedom. The document known as the Philipsburg Proclamation played a key role in helping enslaved blacks gain freedom during the War of Independence by expanding on the promises made in the Dunmore Proclamation.
Philipsburg proclamation broadens appeal
On June 30, 1779, Sir Henry Clinton, British Commander-in-Chief of the North American Crown Forces, issued the Philipsburg Proclamation which granted freedom to slaves in rebel states, whether or not they were fighting for the British. Like Dunmore earlier, Clinton looked for a way to increase his troops and figured he could win the war by joining forces with the enslaved African Americans that the Patriots of the South relied on for their work.
In his proclamation, Clinton said he would “very strictly prohibit anyone from selling or claiming rights in any NEGROE, owned by a rebel, who can take refuge with any part” of the military. British. He promised “to every NEGROE who desert the rebel standard, full security to follow in these lines, any occupation he deems appropriate.”
George Washington and Thomas Jefferson lose slave workers
First published in the New York Newspaper, the word of the proclamation spread to all the colonies. When British troops captured Charleston, South Carolina in 1780, thousands of enslaved African Americans accompanied them. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both lost members of their enslaved plantation populations following the Philipsburg proclamation.
Harvard historian Maya Jasanoff writes in her book Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World, that approximately 20,000 black slaves joined the British during the American Revolution. In contrast, historians estimate that between 5,000 and 8,000 black men served in the Continental Army.
In August 1781, British commanders such as Charles Cornwallis told Virginia Governor Thomas Nelson that African Americans “came to us from different parts of the country” in search of freedom. But when Cornwallis visited Yorktown in October 1781, he returned many African Americans to their captors.
The Philipsburg proclamation remained the official policy of the Crown at the end of the war. Sir Guy Carleton, who served as Commander-in-Chief after Clinton, granted freedom to all formerly enslaved African Americans who reached British lines before November 30, 1782, the date marking the first peace agreement.
On May 6, 1783, Carleton told George Washington that he would move these African Americans. Ultimately, about 3,000 formerly enslaved African Americans left New York City and headed for Nova Scotia with the British in 1783. Some black Americans settled in Caribbean colonies, such as the Jamaica and the Bahamas (some ended up in slavery). About 400 sailed to London, while in 1792 more than 1,200 emigrated to Africa to a new colony in Sierra Leone. Among the newly displaced was Harry Washington, who had escaped slavery under George Washington, the new president of the United States.
Proclamation by the Earl of Dunmore, Africans in America, WGBH Educational Foundation.
Proclamation of Lord Dunmore, Black Loyalists.
John Murray, Fourth Earl of Dunmore, Virginia Museum of History and Culture.
The Philipsburg Proclamation (June 30, 1779), Our American Revolution.