The man was African, African-American, Afro-Nova Scotian. A son of Nigeria and a father of Sierra Leone, his freedom was ripped from him by slavery, and then by the brutal racism of "free" societies. He fought to take it back on the battlefields of the American Revolution and in the salons of British politicians. An engineer, a soldier, a leader of men, he left behind no autobiography and no portrait. (Perhaps he looked like the man above, who lived in the same time and places.) What he does leave us are the fragmentary records of a man who, in an era of inequality, consistently refused to bow to overwhelming injustice.
His name: Thomas Peters. His story? Freedom.
In 1760, Peters was a 22 year old Yoruba man, living in what is now Nigeria. Oral tradition suggests he was prosperous; certainly his many later talents suggest that he might have been a man of some prominence, perhaps already with a family. This all mattered little to the African slave traders who kidnaped him and marched to the coast.
He left us no description of his experiences. Doubtless, like other slaves, he was subject to a frightening forced march far away from home, to one of the slave-trading centers where his African captors bargained with European traders. He left no personal recollection, but several of his contemporaries published accounts of the brutal, startling dehumanization that was the process of enslavement:
... the horrors I soon saw and felt, cannot be well described; I saw many of my miserable countrymen chained two and two, some hand-cuffed, and some with their hands tied behind. We were conducted along by a guard, and when we arrived at the castle, I asked my guide what I was brought there for, he told me to learn the ways of the brow-sow, that is the white faced people. [...] But when a vessel arrived to conduct us away to the ship, it was a most horrible scene; there was nothing to be heard but rattling of chains, smacking of whips, and the groans and cries of our fellow-men. Some would not stir from the ground, when they were lashed and beat in the most horrible manner.-----
Extract from Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Commerce of the Human Species, --Ottobah Cugoano "John Stuart", 1787
Contemporary manuals for European slave traders suggested several methods of gaging the "quality" of the human beings they were about to buy and sell; one suggested licking the skin of the "merchandise." Peters was likely licked, fondled, poked, prodded, brutalized, kept in chains and dungeons as the merchants dined in splendor in the castle above.
The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us. This produced copious perspirations, so that the air soon became unfit for respiration, from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died, thus falling victims to the improvident avarice, as I may call it, of their purchasers.
This wretched situation was again aggravated by the galling of the chains, now become insupportable; and the filth of the necessary tubs, into which the children often fell, and were almost suffocated. The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable.The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa the African, by Olaudah Equiano (Gustavus Vassa), 1789
Peters somehow survived the psychological and physical horrors of "the Middle Passage." He seems to have been sold first in the Spanish possession of Louisiana; oral history says he tried to escape at least three times and was brutally punished. By 1770, he had been sold to William Campbell, of Wilmington, North Carolina, the county seat of New Hanover County. Possessed of about 200 houses, it was the colony's principal port, trading with the West Indies on a regular basis.
Here Peters practiced his trade: millwright. A millwright could design and build the complicated machinery needed to run mills of all sorts. Today we might describe him as an engineer who also mastered carpentry. As Sir William Fairbairn, a 19th century Scottish engineer, wrote of the profession: "...the millwright of the late centuries was an itinerant engineer and mechanic of high reputation. He could handle the axe, the hammer, and the plane with equal skill and precision...He could calculate the velocities, strength, and power of machines, could draw in plan, and section, and could construct buildings, conduits, or watercourses, in all the forms and under all the conditions required in his professional practice..."
Campbell might have rented out Peters' labor and made a tidy profit. It's even possible that Peters had some opportunity to rent out his own labor; slaves in the community were under curfew and other restrictions, but also were able to move somewhat freely about. No doubt this freedom helped Peters socialize; it seems he met his wife Sally at this time; a daughter, Clairy, was born in 1771. We know less about Sally and Clairy even than we do of Peters. Perhaps Sally was employed as a washerwoman, sempstress, cook, or even a field hand. Perhaps she was a nurse to the Campbell's children, and a in close contact with the household;
If she were, she would have been privy to every aspect of her employer-master's situation. Slaves were well aware in the 1760s and 70s of the increasing tensions between Britain and America that would eventually erupt into revolution. As the founding fathers were debating what "natural rights" the king was depriving them of, all up and down the coasts of Georgia and the Carolinas, slaves were spreading messages of their own. They understood perfectly well the contradictions between the white colonists's call for liberty and the practice of colonial slavery:
In 1765 the Sons of Liberty paraded around Charleston Harbor shouting "Liberty! Liberty and stamp'd paper!" Soon after, black slaves organized a demonstration of their own, chanting "Liberty!" planter Henry Laurens believed this action to be merely a "thoughtless imitation" of white colonials, but it frightened many South Carolinians.
—Davidson and Lytle, After the Fact, the Art of Historical Detection 66-67.
They had reason to be afraid. The Stono Rebellion of 1739 represented an organized uprising of armed slaves, ready to fight whitmilitias for the chance to liberate themselves and others before escaping to Florida. Dutch Guiana and British Jamaica both saw major slave rebellions in the 1760s. And most of the Caribbean colonies were home to consider populations of maroons. These communities of escaped slaves lived in remote forests and swamps, heavily armed to support their independence. They did not balk at raids on plantations, and were greatly feared by slaveholders. In the Americas, large groups of escaped slaves found their way to Florida, living among the Seminole as maroons.
Slaves needed no Enlightenment theorist to tell them that freedom was a natural right, nor a formal Declaration of Independence justifying marronage. Their natural rights violated on a daily basis, they were quite prepared to seize the political storm between Britain and her colonies as an opportunity for their own community's liberation. Living in close quarters with Patriot slaveholders, they were privy to all sorts of information about the coming storm.
... a black harbor pilot, Thomas Jeremiah, was arrested, tried, hanged and burned to death for plotting an insurrection that would enlist the help of the British navy. Jeremiah had told other blacks that "there was a great war coming soon" that "was come to help the poor Negroes." According to James Madison, a group of Virginia slaves met together and chose a leader who was to conduct them when the English troops should arrive." -----After the Fact, 67.
Secret meetings, planned rebellion–African-Americans mirrored the activities of the Sons of Liberty, yet for them the King's forces represented hope, not oppression. The royal governors of Massachusetts and Virginia both found themselves approached by groups of slaves offering to fight on the condition that their freedom be recognized. In 1775, the British commander of Fort Johnston near Wilmington, gave "Encouragement to Negroes to Elope from their Masters." That fall, the royal governor Virginia did the same on a grand scale. Lord Dunmore's Proclamation offered:
And I do hereby further declare all indentured Servants, Negroes, or others, (appertaining to Rebels,) free that are able and willing to bear Arms, they joining His MAJESTY'S Troops as soon as may be, for the more speedily reducing this Colony to a proper Sense of their Duty...—Lord Dunmore's Proclamation
.It should be noted that many African Americans chose the Patriot side; Peter Salem, for example, the Massachusetts minuteman and a hero of Bunker hill, was one of thousands of free black men to serve in the Continental armies. Hundreds more served at sea. But the prospect of freedom impelled thousands of slaves to liberate themselves via the British cause.
When viewed through the eyes of Black Loyalists, the American evolution looks a great deal like a slave rebellion on a grand scale. Free African-Americans also joined the Loyalist side in large numbers. Some were reacting to personal experiences with Patriot violence. Take, for example, the horrific testimony of Shadrack Furman, a free man, about his experiences with his white neighbors, who suspected him of being a Loyalist. In a petition to the British government, made after the war, he explained that:
... in order to extort Intelligence from Petitioner respecting the British Troops he was Seized by the rebels and after dangerously wounding him in divers parts the Marks of which Petr. can still shew, then Stripped tied up and gave him 500 Lashes and then left him almost dead in the Field by reason of which your Honors Petitioner lost his Eye Sight, and the use of one of his Legs by a stroke of an axe they gave him, and his Health is otherwise so much impaired from the wounds in his Head received from them, that he is sometimes bereft of reason.—Petition of Shadrack Furman
In March 1776, Thomas Peters joined the vast slave rebellion, making his way to British lines. He was sworn into the Black Pioneers by Captain George Martin, an officer under Sir Henry Clinton. The Pioneers were the largest division of black soldiers in the British forces, but not the only one.
Elite members of the Royal Ethiopian Brigade were some of the most feared soldiers under British command. Under the leadership of "Colonel" Tye or Titus (the title was a courtesy as British military practice did not allow Black men to hold commissioned ranks), they made lightning raids throughout the countryside, often targeting the homes of prominent Patriot slaveowners. Tye later commanded a small "black Brigade" of 24 men in the Queen's Rangers who conducted raids in defence of Loyalist-held New York:
On June 12, while the British attacked Washington's dwindling troops, Tye and his band launched a daring attack on the home of Barnes Smock, capturing the militia leader and twelve of his men, destroying their cannon, depriving Washington of needed reinforcements, and striking fear into the hearts of local patriots.. In a single day, he and his band captured eight militiamen (including the second in command), plundered their homes, and took them to imprisonment in New York, virtually undetected and without suffering a single casualty.----Africans in America
The Black Pioneers that Peters joined were commanded by white commissioned officers and three black sergeants, a rank Peters quickly rose to. As such, he received pay of a shilling a day, the same rate given white sergeants. The Black Pioneers (later the Black Pioneers and Guides) performed all kinds of military and paramilitary services: they were spies, guides, guards, pilots, drummers, hunters, and more. They also performed engineering work; doubtless Peters excelled at this.
While in the service, he saw the British bombardment of Charleston, South Carolina before moving north to help occupy Philadelphia. Wounded twice during the war, at its end he found himself in New York, a town full of Loyalists desperately seeking refuge away from the victorious Patriots. White Loyalists feared violence and theft of property; black Loyalists feared re-enslavement and death. Black Loyalist Boston King reported of their anguish:
[P]eace was restored between America and Great Britain, which diffused universal joy among all parties, except us, who had escaped from slavery, and taken refuge in the English army; for a report prevailed at New-York, that all the slaves, in number 2000, were to be delivered up to their masters, altho' some of them had been three or four years among the English. This dreadful rumour filled us all with inexpressible anguish and terror, especially when we saw our old masters coming from Virginia, North-Carolina, and other parts, and seizing upon their slaves in the streets of New-York, or even dragging them out of their beds. Many of the slaves had very cruel masters, so that the thoughts of returning home with them embittered life to us. For some days we lost our appetite for food, and sleep departed from our eyes. -----–Memorial of Boston King
Sometimes we forget that the American Revolution was truly a Civil War; many of the Loyalists sailing from New York were third, fourth, fifth or more generation Americans. White and Black alike sought unfamiliar shores for refuge; many fled to Britain or the West Indies.
Thomas Peters, along with about 4,000 free Black Loyalists and thousands more white Loyalists and their slaves, boarded a ship bound for Britain's northern American possessions. He and Sally along with their children were bound for Nova Scotia and the promise of freedom. Yet even with the war over, their struggle was just beginning. Join me in Part 2 to follow Thomas and Sally as they continue their quest for a land of freedom...
All images believed to be in the public domain because of their age, more than 100 yrs + lifetime of the creator.