Search the records of Black Loyalists evacuated by the British from New York in 1783 after defeat in the American War of Independence.
Disclaimer: Please note that the terms used in historical records reflect the attitudes and language of the time and may now be considered inappropriate, derogatory or offensive.
The records in the Inspection Roll of Negroes (also known as the Book of Negroes) are very detailed. Exact content varies according to the status of the individual evacuee (for instance, whether free, or former slave, or slave of a Loyalist). The following fields are usual:
• Brief physical description
• Vessel evacuated on
• Destination port
• Accompanying Loyalist
• Circumstances – previous history, including former enslaver and year of escape, where applicable
From spring to autumn 1783, the defeated British evacuated by ship from New York, with most vessels heading for the still British Nova Scotia and what was shortly to become New Brunswick. The Loyalists evacuated with them a significant number of black and mixed race individuals and families, who became known as the Black Loyalists.
One way of looking at Black Loyalists is that they preferred personal liberty and freedom under the British to continued enslavement in a newly independent America. This is epitomised by the existence in the records of three former slaves of General George Washington, a prodigious slave-owner soon to become the 1st President of the United States. These slaves are the 22-year-old Daniel Payne, the 20-year-old Deborah Squash and the 43-year-old Harry Washington, who had left him four, four and seven years previously respectively.
It is important to understand that the status of the persons on the Rolls varied. The majority – about 58% – were former slaves, such as Washington’s. These might be regarded by their former enslavers as runaways – in other words, they had had the temerity to leave without consent and joined the British troops or other Loyalists, following the Proclamations. Only about 4% were freed slaves, being those who had been freed by their former masters or been bought out of slavery. A further 3% are described as free (their exact circumstances not always clear) and an additional 11% were clearly born free (if we include those minors who were born within the British Lines during the War). There are also a number of former servants (rather than former slaves), who make about 2% of the total. In addition, there are 15 indentured servants, some of whom had only just become indentured (in some cases seemingly voluntarily, albeit in circumstances unknown and perhaps driven by necessity). In 259 cases we are unsure of the status of a person – while most of these are accompanied children, in other cases the original record is silent or the text ambiguous.
This leaves a balance of 369 individuals, or 12%, who are slaves, and it is clear from references to bills of sale and receipts that some had been subject to recent slave transactions. These are slaves of Loyalists. This is an important qualification to the statement made earlier about Black Loyalists choosing freedom under British rule as opposed to slavery under American rule. Clearly, these slaves of Loyalists were not choosing freedom; they were being taken by their Loyalist enslavers to a new enslaved life wherever that might be. In most cases, that would have been the Canadian Maritimes of New Brunswick or Nova Scotia, but some were taken to the Bahamas, Britain or Germany. King George III was Hanoverian, of course, and the British troops and Loyalist forces had been supported by German troops from Hesse and elsewhere. Some of the evacuees were Black drummers and trumpeters in German regiments (quite a fashionable or totemic role in this era).
One individual on the Inspection Roll seems to have been a runaway slave of a Black enslaver. This is Tom Cain, aged 30, who is described as having been “formerly the property of John Thomas, a black freeman” of Charleston SC. Cain had left him four years previously, circa 1778/79.
There are two versions of the original document, created at the same time. One copy was created by the British and has been deposited in The National Archives in London (although at the time of writing it is lent out to the Nova Scotia Archives). It is a single bound volume and its title is simply Book of Negroes. The second copy was created by the Americans and has been deposited at NARA in Washington DC; it is in parts known as books. The title of this second copy is the Inspection Roll of Negroes. There are many differences in detail between the two versions, including some differences in paging and sequencing of records; neither version is more authoritative than the other. We have used the American title for our transcription as being more descriptive of the content. These documents were called inspection rolls because they are the record created by American inspectors of all Black persons boarding British vessels evacuating New York. The British themselves were not inspecting as such (they had already established to their satisfaction the bona fides of the Black Loyalists, largely via interviews held at New York’s Fraunces Tavern), although they likewise registered the Black evacuees. The Americans registered each and every Black evacuee, including their status and former enslavers, in the expectation that they would be returned to them, as their rightful property, as part of the terms of a final treaty in due course. The British went along with this as a charade, having no intention of returning Black Loyalists to the Americans. They had granted freedom to them in exchange for their support and loyalty in the recent War and, for once perhaps, meant to honour their promise.
The promises of freedom had been by proclamation. Among the proclamations were Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation of 1775, Sir William Howe’s Proclamation of 1776 and the Philipsburg Proclamation of 1779. Essentially, these said that any slaves who left their American enslavers and joined the British would be afforded protection and given their freedom. A number of records refer explicitly to freedom being exercised in direct response to proclamation.
Many of the free or formerly enslaved Black Loyalists were carrying emancipation certificates. The two principal kinds were General Birch’s Certificate and General Musgrave’s Certificate. Over 1,000 Black Loyalists in Inspection Roll Books held this documentation. These must have been precious to their bearers, as a guarantee of present and future freedom. It is interesting that one man – William Holchapan – is in possession of an Anglican baptism certificate from St Paul’s in London, England (it would have been an adult baptism, at aged 36 or so). This also seems to have served as proof of freedom. Perhaps this fact can also be associated with the increasing number of Black adult baptisms seen in England, especially in sea-ports, from the 1780s onwards – perhaps the holding of an Anglican baptism certificate was regarded, rightly or wrongly, as proof of freedom and proof against enslavement.
This is a new transcription. We have transcribed Book 1 and Book 2 of the Inspection Roll of Negroes held by the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington DC. We transcribed the balance of records from The National Archives’ copy. We have transcribed the original and also created enhanced search fields and, in some cases, standardised text, to improve the user experience for researchers. Below are explanatory notes on some of the fields in the transcriptions.
• Date. This is the date of inspection in port, not necessarily the date of sailing from New York. For example, there are two entries for the “Mars”, on 8th and 10th July 1783, so clearly it did not set sail until the 10th at the earliest. The vessels have sometimes been described as sailing in fleets, and we have grouped them accordingly.
• Vessel. Some vessels appear to have sailed twice or more. For instance, the “Kingston” was inspected in April, July and October 1783. It is clear that the same ship is involved, as the master is given in all three cases as John Atkinson. The “Kingston” was not detained in port for those six months from April to October; rather, it carried Loyalists from New York to its destination, Port Roseway in Nova Scotia, on three separate occasions.
• Destination Port. This has been partly standardised, so that “River St John’s” in the original appears as “St John’s River” in the transcription (although “St John’s” itself has been retained as a separate value). This is for ease of searching. Also, the spellings of Port Mouton and Bremerlehe have been silently standardised.
• Destination. In most cases, the country or land in which the port is situated is not given. We have assigned a relevant value, so that, for example, all evacuees to Nova Scotia can be searched at the same time. Note that we have used New Brunswick, anachronistically (it was not officially created out of Nova Scotia till the following year, 1784), for convenience of researchers.
• Names. These have been indexed largely as they appear. In some cases, a surname has been assigned where implicit but not stated in the original, for instance in respect of children whose forenames only are given but who are stated to be travelling with a parent or parents. In some cases, vowels are not clear and e/i are often uncertain; for example, we have transcribed some individuals as “Jem” as that is what appears to be given in the original, even while accepting that “Jim” might have been intended by the original scribe. Note that some individuals have a forename only, while many children are unnamed.
• Birth Year. This is not given in the original document. Age is given, from which we have calculated the expected approximate year of birth to help with searching.
• Sex. This has been assigned to records; it is seldom given in the original, except in the case of some small children. Note that sometimes a sex given in the original is surprising, and sometimes this was noted down by the inspectors. There is a 10-year-old called Carolina; he is a boy, presumably named after the state of South Carolina (just as other individuals are named after places such as Bristol and London). Where sex is unclear from the forename and description, this field is left blank.
• Physical Description and Distinguishing Marks. Generally speaking, the majority of evacuees are described as fine, likely, ordinary or stout, which seem to be descriptive of physical build. We do not have definitions of those terms. Blindness, lameness or scarring are also noted occasionally as distinguishing marks.
• Race. All the individuals in the Inspection Roll would have been regarded as Black – it is, after all the Inspection Roll of Negroes. However, about 15% are explicitly described as being one of black (B), mulatto (M) or, in a few cases, mustee, quadroon or Indian. Sometimes perceived degrees of mixed race heritage are given – e.g. Charles Allen seems to have been described as a “mulatto between an Indian and Spaniard”, Lucy Lydacre is “¼ mulatto”, while Thomas Tait is “almost white”.
• Occupation. This is very seldom given. The occupation of the great majority would have been slave or servant until the War of Independence. However, some men are described as, for example, carpenter or cooper, and some were employed on board ship as cook or sailor. Others served in various Loyalist regiments, such as the King's American Dragoons or the Garrison Regiment von Knoblauch.
• Accompanying Loyalist. In theory, each Black Loyalist being inspected and allowed on board ship by the Americans had to be in the company of and effectively escorted by a white Loyalist. We have indexed this person in the Accompanying Loyalist field. Note that sometimes this will be a body rather than an individual – e.g. Black Pioneers, Engineer Department or Waggon Master General’s Department. Some individuals were travelling independently (customarily described as “on his own bottom” or “on her own footing” or in similar terms); the original record is silent for others.
• Status. This is our own interpretation of the status of the individual. We have used the following terms: former slave; freed slave; free; free-born; former servant; indentured servant; and Loyalist’s slave. The field may be blank, especially for children. Refer to the Circumstances field for the person of interest to understand more.
• Where From. This is usually one of the original Thirteen Colonies in America (or East Florida), or an island or island group in the Caribbean. Where this is not given in the original text, we have inferred it where possible from the town.
• Circumstances. This is the main text describing the background or history of the individual. It has been given more or less verbatim, but with abbreviations expanded and the spellings of some places standardised. For example, we have silently corrected variant spellings of Nansemond VA and Philipse Manor NY. Note especially that we use Charleston SC instead of Charlestown. “Charlestown” is invariably the spelling in the original; modernising it is of course anachronistic but makes it more accessible. The view has been taken that this is in the interests of searching and researchers; the original spelling can be seen in the document online.
• Slave-owner. This has been extracted from the Circumstances field to make it more easily searchable. Where two or more enslavers are given in the original we have used the name that appears to have been the earliest. The name is usually that of the former slave-owner but sometimes that of the current Loyalist slave-owner.
• When Escaped Slavery. In the case of those we have called “former slaves” – those who have escaped from their enslaver and joined the British – we have populated this field. This is as per the original – it is seldom an actual year, and more usually in the format “left him 4 years ago” or “left him 3 years past”, although occasionally an event in the War is cited from which a date could be inferred by the researcher (e.g. the Siege of Savannah).
• Emancipation Certificate. This field contains one of two values: General Birch's Certificate or General Musgrave's Certificate. These have usually been expanded from the abbreviations GBC and GMC in the original document. Sir Samuel Birch was the British commandant in New York City at the start of the Loyalist evacuation; Sir Thomas Musgrave took over from him in late August 1783.