‘Averse to any kind of controul’: American refugees from slavery building the new Royal Naval Dockyard at Bermuda
John McNish Weiss June 2012 ©
Adapted from a presentation at the conference Bermuda Dockyard and the War of 1812 (Naval Dockyards Society and National Museum of Bermuda) in June 2012, drawn from a longer paper in the course of preparation. The author welcomes comments or queries at mcnish.weiss@virgin.net.
1 Introduction One night in the course of the War of 1812, on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, four enslaved Americans were overheard planning their escape to the British, with one of them reported as ‘saying most determinedly that he would go when and where he pleased’. This same spirit of independence led the superintendent of the works at Ireland Island, the site of the new Royal Naval Dockyard in the Bermuda islands, to complain of the American refugees in his labour force that they appeared ‘averse to any kind of Controul ... and subject to no restraint but their own Caprice’. This presentation on the time spent at Bermuda by refugees from American slavery draws on material in an article still in progress to examine some of the dealings between them and the officials who attempted to direct their lives.
From Chesapeake to Bermuda
The early stages of work on the new Royal Naval Dockyard saw labour shortages eased in the period from May 1813 to July 1816 by an incidental aspect of the War of 1812. This war between Great Britain and the United States ended with the status quo ante, things as they were before, at least as between the two principal powers, but its popular characterisation as a war with no winners or losers makes no reference to two other major participants: on the one hand, native Americans, who lost everything, and, on the other, enslaved Americans, of whom four thousand won their freedom. They took leave of American slavery by way of the Royal Navy in the largest emancipation between Haiti‘s revolution and British emancipation in the 1830s. One might ask, why go to the British when slavery still continued in the British colonies? In the background was the turmoil in slavery circles caused by the Somersett case of 1772, tried in England and seen by some as one of the prime causes of the American Revolution, a case whose reports reinforced a belief that slaves became free on setting foot on British soil, and so, by extension, on a British ship. For enslaved Americans, Great Britain stood for liberty while the United States stood for slavery, the rhetoric of the American Revolution notwithstanding. British entry into the Chesapeake in 1813, for a campaign of amphibious harassment for drawing American energies away from Canada, represented fulfilment of an old dream that some day the British King would come to liberate them. Those who boarded HMS Victorious in March and April 1813 were mustered in the Ship‘s Books as Landsmen, with the supposed possibility (as for several thousands in the Revolutionary War) of ultimately being discharged in England, but subsequent refugees, including women and children, were mustered on HMS Dragon as supernumeraries and discharged at Bermuda. First port of call for many British ships leaving the Chesapeake, landing them here was not only a convenient way of disposing of them in the short term but also seen as useful in adding hands to a labour force that was under strength.
Disregard of Slave Trade Act in the Dockyard
The flow of refugees from coastal estates around the Chesapeake increased rapidly during 1813 and some were taken direct to Halifax, but as numbers at Bermuda grew so did evidence of dissatisfaction with their situation. The dockyard labour force at the time included not only men in continuous employment and hired men, white and black, but also a number known as ‘King‘s Slaves’, and this last designation, essentially faulty in part, gives some clues as to attitudes. Some had been purchased by the Crown for service in the Bermuda dockyard, as with others around the British overseas world, but two groups, small but significant for evidence of officials' perspective, had been found as slaves on ships taken as Prize of War and so were required by the Slave Trade Act of 1807 not to be treated as slaves. Men from the French ship Le Pératy, captured in August 1808 and brought to Bermuda in October, had been entered nevertheless in the new workforce muster on 18 January 1809 as ‘French Negro Slaves’, and later lumped together with the purchased slaves as ‘King‘s Slaves’. Men from the American schooner James Madison , a United States federal revenue cutter, the first Americans to appear on the dockyard workforce as a result of the War of 1812, similarly appeared as ‘King‘s Slaves’ on 3 April 1814. In its official capacity as a US federal vessel, James Madison should not have been carrying slaves, but on being taken to Halifax the authorities there, according to American reports, declared them to be slaves and hence emancipated by the provisions of the Slave Trade Act. The master declared them free but the owner later claimed compensation for them as slaves. In this respect the dockyard officials at Bermuda acted as though they concurred, treating them as with the men from Le Pératy, in defiance of the law, and with an inability to see ex-slaves as anything but still enslaved, something to which we return later. This attitude was a shadow behind the treatment afforded the American refugees, who first appeared just a month after the arrival of those from James Madison .
Inconsiderate enough to refuse
These first American arrivals were mustered initially on HMS Ruby, men, women and children all receiving rations as supernumeraries, but when they were in time discharged to shore the superintendent, Commodore Evans, found, first, that there was no protocol for issuing rations to women and children, and second, that when he proposed allocating the work of picking oakum to the women in exchange for rations, they were, in the words he used in reporting to Admiral Cockburn , ‘inconsiderate enough to refuse’. An exchange of letters in October 1813, between Evans and Cockburn, with a parallel report from Evans to his own superiors, the Navy Board in London, gives a record of events and instructions and in addition reveals both the attitudes and personal perceptions on the British side and the reactions of the Americans. Opinions aired by the Bermudian Assembly must also be noted, even though, within the Crown enclave, the refugees were outside their control. This context of attitudes forms a framework in which the experiences of the Americans may be viewed, a framework of prejudice in which the refugees in turn made their own contribution that ultimately brought their presence on the island to an end.
Seen as slaves still
Already mentioned is the dockyard officials' difficulty in seeing ex-slaves as anything but slaves still, exemplified, in parallel with the men from Prize of War being lumped in with purchased slaves as ‘King's Slaves’, by the Americans' listing, in Ruby's musters, as ‘slaves escaped from the enemy’, whereas on at least one Royal Navy ship they had been more respectfully mustered as ‘American emigrants’. We see the complexity of changing from enslavement to freedom as involving issues of the differences between becoming free, being free, being considered free and being treated as free, matters that receive further attention in the fuller paper. The most obvious prejudices in the case would appear to be that involving the colour of their skin, though the most explicit on this score, the Bermudians themselves, had, it can be recalled, only limited influence. The Privy Council in London had recently annulled their legislation depriving people of colour of civil rights, but the question of former status also came up in the Assembly's distress at the influx of these American migrants, and their ‘conviction, that such an importation may produce the most pernicious effects in this Colony’, referring to them as ‘probably of the worst class’ and, pointing to the obvious ‘Effect in demoralising our own Slaves’, asking that they be sent to Nova Scotia or some other place where ‘their importation may not be detrimental to the public’.
Prejudice as to social position
A different dimension of prejudice, with roots far removed in time from the question of colour or African origin, appears within Admiral Cockburn's response to Commodore Evans, displaying a reaction against people of the lower orders attempting control of their own lives, for ‘nothing can be so pregnant with evil as giving way to People of this Description’. His papers at large suggest strongly that the phrase ‘of this Description’ refers not to colour nor their previous lives in slavery but to their position in the social scale. He indicated that though the men had been absolutely free from the moment they reached His Majesty's ships, and could not and would not be considered as slaves, they could not be maintained in idleness and must work for their food, clothing and lodging, in this respect to be treated precisely as ‘His Majesty's English born Subjects’. And here is the sting in the tail, the general issue of the British handling of subaltern classes. For Cockburn, these refugees from American slavery fell within the class of people not capable of fending for themselves, the type of person subject to impressment, to be treated within the British framework developed for the indigent poor in Elizabethan times, as echoed both in the provisions for impressment and in the apprenticeship provisions of the Slave Trade Act: they, as with the Parish poor at home, were for him a labour resource at the disposal of local officials. Their resulting treatment contrasted with the state of self-hiring slaves of the island who had freedom of movement and choice of work and could bargain for both wages and conditions of work, and it was not the freedom the Americans expected as free people on British territory. It is their resulting protests and behaviour, seen as ungrateful and inappropriate rebelliousness, to be countered notionally by military discipline, that underlie this paper.
Corps of Colonial Marines brought to Bermuda
On reaching London, the correspondence was handed around and across the hierarchy of government but in the end appears to have brought no response, and nothing more appears in the archives on this subject. At the beginning of 1814 there were other fish to fry, and orders were being prepared for a new naval commander-in-chief, Vice-Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane , with a new approach to the would-be emigrants from American slavery, refugees to be positively encouraged rather than simply permitted, in a transfer of labour from the American economy to the British. While the principal objective was to recruit volunteers in Georgia and the Carolinas to be trained in Jamaica for the West India Regiments, other emigrants were to be sent to Canada if from Maryland and Virginia and to Trinidad from the more southerly states. Cochrane famously issued a proclamation, ostensibly to give effect to these orders, though as it merely confirmed a British reception of refugees already a year old it seems more probable that he intended, by issuing a public proclamation rather than simply sending appropriate orders to his captains, to anger and worry the Americans at large - we might see Cochrane thus as a scaremonger rather than a liberator.* His principal innovation, contrary to government orders to send volunteers away for military training, was to order Cockburn to recruit a Corps of Colonial Marines for immediate and local service. Recruiting for the West India Regiments failed, being seen as slave regiments (which they had not been since 1807) and as African (which was generally so), a first sign of prejudice from the refugees. Recruited in the Chesapeake and on the coast of Georgia from April 1814, the Colonial Marines and their families stayed with the British forces while the refugees in general continued to be taken to Bermuda and Canada. With the end of the war, the Colonial Marines faced an uncertain future, but when the decision was made to station them at Bermuda, the refugees at large who had made a substantial, if uncomfortable, contribution to the dockyard workforce were moved on to Nova Scotia to make way for them. In Cochrane's recommendation for establishment at Bermuda he affirmed that, in the case of any renewal of hostilities, they would be of great value, for during the war ‘they were infinitely more dreaded by the Americans than the British Troops’. He was aware of some of their prejudices from their rejection of enlistment into the West India Regiments and their preference for his own new Corps of Colonial Marines, and indicated that once they were all assembled there in Bermuda they would be ‘worth all the West India Regiments united, and fit for any service, but they have a dislike to the West Indies and prefer serving here or upon the continent of America’. He considered them ‘fully equal to Garrison this Island, and to perform all the work at the Naval Yard where there is full employment for a number of workmen for five years to come - and by their being so employed there will be no occasion to have other workmen at the extravagant wages of the Country’. It was clear to him, as it had been to Cockburn with regard to the earlier refugees, that their employment on the works could help to drive down wages for hired men.
Rejection of transfer to WIR
Once established at Bermuda, they were used to man the garrison and to join the labour force for dockyard works: many were specialist artisans and able to offer more than mere labour. There had been, however, no lessening of the threat of slave uprising in the West Indies, and there remained a need to enhance numbers in the West India Regiments. This, together with reduction in naval budget in the wake of the wars with France, led to a decision to transfer the Colonial Marines to the army. They could not be returned to their ex-masters, they could not be discharged into Bermuda, and they were the most obvious solution, even if only partial, to the problem of the West India Regiments' shortfall in numbers. Government arrangements for transfer to these regiments were ready by June 1815, but instructions sent to Bermuda put the cat amongst the pigeons. Representations on behalf of the Colonial Marines by the Governor, Sir James Cockburn, elder brother of the admiral, initiated a new flurry of correspondence at the highest level, between departments, ministers, secretaries and boards. Amongst the objections raised by governor Cockburn, his description of their prejudices merits attention, as when he mentions ‘the strong & determined prejudices of these men against the West Indian corps, & the high ideas of superiority which they attach to themselves over the African negroes who chiefly compose those regiments; with whom, I am assured, no inducement could probably tempt them to indiscriminately mix & enlist themselves in the same corps’. These prejudices, expressed by these Americans who were themselves of African descent, and even, in the case of some eighty of them, actually African-born themselves, might be seen as result of their Americanisation even though their experience of being American was as slaves; the prejudices remained with them long into their future lives in Trinidad.
Loss of yet another labour force
It can be noted in passing that the prospect of losing once more a new labour force, which had only recently replaced the refugees that had been sent on to Canada, dismayed the dockyard superintendent Evans, who was responsible to the Navy Board for the progression of the work. The Navy Board's paymasters, the Board of Admiralty, insisted however that the men could not be kept on within the naval paylists, and the suggestion was then made that on transfer to the Army they might then be seconded for dockyard work, but the superintendent declared that previous experience had shown this to be an unworkable arrangement, since the men would then necessarily be under the orders of army officers, whom he had found in the past to be quite unsympathetic to his needs.
Decision on Trinidad
Finally, a solution to the impasse was proposed by the minister himself, Bathurst , as a result of his holding a responsibility for the colonies as well as for war matters. The economy of the relatively new colony of Trinidad required a new body of independent farmers, and Europeans having proved in general unsuited to the climate, the notion of a free Black yeomanry was a better solution. While the government's original instructions to Cochrane indicated settlement in Trinidad for emigrants from Georgia, administrative incompetence had sent them all to Canada, but the final evacuation of British forces from the Gulf of Florida had sent a couple of hundred refugees from Louisiana and from West and East Florida to Trinidad in the course of 1815. The same intention now appeared to solve to the quandary of how to deal with the Colonial Marines, now surplus to requirements as far as the Admiralty was concerned, or at any rate outside their fiscal capabilities, and apparently impossible to transfer to the West India Regiments against their will, and in February 1816, after prolonged correspondence between departments, they were offered settlement as farmers in Trinidad. Though part of their resistance to joining the West India Regiments had been a fear of being sent to Trinidad and being sold back into slavery, assurances received through their commanding officer and Governor Sir James Cockburn reassured them after initial misgivings. The great majority of them were from the Chesapeake and from small estates and farms, where they had been used to cultivating their own ground and, in many cases, taking surplus produce to market for their own financial benefit, and this activity, which was independent of their duties as enslaved men, coupled with their likely adoption of Jeffersonian notions that equated liberty with the holding of one's own land, must have been of considerable influence in their final decision to accept the offer to settle in Trinidad, ultimately forming the community of The Company Villages, the Merikens.
The Americans' departure
The Colonial Marines' last day of pay in Bermuda was 15 July 1816, and on that day left for Trinidad in the hired transports Lord Eldon and Mary & Dorothy. That day saw the last of the American refugees' contribution to work on Ireland Island, and there followed a hiatus in the supply of labour until the British government's decision, late in 1822, to send convicts from Britain. Those who arrived in 1823 were the first of many whose coerced labour contributed to the further progression of the works.
* A paper on this subject, "Cochrane and his Proclamation: liberator or scaremonger?" is included in the programme for the conference The War of 1812: Myth and Memory, History and Historiography, London, July 2012.

John McNish Weiss © 2012
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