Stephen Davidson. Birchtown and the Black Loyalist Experience From 1775 to the Present (Halifax: Formac Publishing Company Limited, 2019).
By Bonnie Huskins
This book is a fitting tribute to two groups of African-Nova Scotians: the black loyalists who established, in Birchtown, the largest free black settlement in British North America, and their descendants in Nova Scotia and elsewhere, who have fought hard to keep the memory of their ancestors alive. Although not a descendent himself, Stephen Davidson is an educator and author well known to historians of the loyalists and loyalist era. He has published hundreds of stories and articles on the loyalists and many of his works appear in Loyalist Trails (a United Empire Loyalists’ Association of Canada publication), some of which document the stories of black loyalists (https://teachingafricancanadianhistory.weebly.com). As someone who is committed to making history accessible, Davidson’s writing is lively and engaging, and will capture the interest of the general reader. The text is also enriched by photographs taken by professional photographer Peter Zwicker, who is based in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. Part One of the book details the decades-long struggle to save the Birchtown site. This is a story worth sharing in an era that privileges development at any cost over heritage preservation. The story also serves as an inspiration for historians and members of local history societies who tirelessly campaign to preserve elements of their past.
Located on the northwest arm of Shelburne Harbour, Birchtown was identified in 1783 by Governor John Parr as the site of a separate community for the free black loyalists who arrived with the loyalist fleets in 1783. By 1784, Birchtown boasted upwards of 1530 people, making it the “largest free Black settlement outside of Africa” (58). The first documented reference to the name “Birchtown” was in the journal of deputy surveyor Benjamin Marston, who recorded on 7 September 1783 that he had sent his assistants to “Birch-Town today out for Blacks” (58). The town is named after Brigadier General Samuel Birch, who signed freedom certificates for many of the black loyalists in New York City before they sailed to Nova Scotia. The settlement eventually declined in numbers, due to a general exodus from the area, as well as the migration of many Birchtown residents to Sierra Leone in 1792.
Birchtown was kept alive through the stories and genealogies of the descendants and others who still live in the area. In 1963, a petition was sent to the Nova Scotia Historic Sites Advisory Board seeking recognition of the town’s historical significance. The chair of the Board reported to the government that Birchtown was “a sort of shack town, a settlement of the slaves who came with the loyalists and were left there by the loyalists who moved on” (11), a derogatory and inaccurate assessment.
African-Nova Scotians responded to such attitudes by promoting their campaigns more publicly. The Black Cultural Centre in Cherry Brook, Nova Scotia was founded in 1983 to “preserve and promote the heritage of African Nova Scotians” (6), followed a few years later by the Shelburne County Cultural Awareness Society (now the Black Loyalist Heritage Society), which began a more concerted effort to collect their own histories. This took on added urgency when they learned of a plan in 1992 to locate a provincial landfill at Birchtown. Community members filed a complaint with the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission, asserting that this plan was a clear expression of environmental racism. Besides the well known example of Africville, whose residents had been exposed to a series of noxious substances over the years from a fertilizer plant and slaughterhouses to an open-pit dump before it was razed in the 1960s, there were 90 landfills in Nova Scotia by the 1990s which were located on or near black communities. The report to the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission also reiterated the historical importance of Birchtown. Besides being the original site of the black loyalists’ landfall, the landing site that overlooks Birchtown Bay is also a burial ground. The Commission’s director subsequently approached the archeology unit at St. Mary’s University to excavate the site. Beginning in the fall of 1993, archaeologists uncovered over 16,000 artifacts. As Davidson poignantly notes, “The ground had begun to speak of Birchtown’s forgotten history” (14).
Taking advantage of this momentum, an application was made to the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada in 1994, which was successful. In 1996 a monument to the black loyalists of Birchtown was unveiled. Over the next three years, four properties were acquired. In 2000, the Black Loyalist Heritage Society opened a museum in the Old Schoolhouse. Although this one-room schoolhouse was not constructed until the 1830s, it symbolizes the significance of education to the early arrivals, who opened their first school in 1785. St Paul’s Church, built in 1906 and closed in 1989, was acquired in 2007 as a memorial to the black loyalists’ “faith heritage.” Birchtown featured many famous black preachers including David George, John Marrant, Moses Wilkinson, and Boston King. Moreover, the Black Loyalist Heritage Society established an office, hired genealogists, and compiled a Black Loyalist Registry.
Much of this research, however, was lost when someone set fire to the office in 2006. While there is no direct evidence that this incident was linked to a theft of card catalogue material on African Nova Scotians (and women) at the Public Archives of Nova Scotia in the early 1990s, both were acts of racism. Both institutions turned to the general public for help, benefiting from donations of time, money, and expertise. Part of the support that emanated from this rebuilding exercise took the form of provincial and federal funding to open a Black Loyalist Heritage Centre in 2015.
A more recent addition to the heritage complex in Birchtown is “Aminata’s Walk.” This is a forest corridor that was popularized in the Book of Negroes miniseries which aired in 2015. Although Aminata is a fictional character (originally appearing in Lawrence Hill’s award-winning novel), the walking trail encourages visitors to quietly reflect on black loyalists’ experiences in the 18th century. Perhaps one of the most poignant features along the walk is a model of a pit house. Pit houses were shelters constructed of rough-hewed materials. It is suggested that many Birchtown residents, who had served as Black Pioneers during the war, had built similar structures for the British. Although they were designed as temporary structures, there is evidence that some Birchtown residents lived in the pit houses for years.
Part Two of Birchtown and the Black Loyalist Experience chronicles relevant episodes in black loyalist history, including the residents’ African heritage, slavery in the American colonies before the revolution, the mass desertion of slaves during the revolution and their escape to the British lines, the black loyalists’ arrival in Nova Scotia and their experience in Birchtown, as well as their “Second Exodus to Freedom” in Sierra Leone.
If there is a subsequent volume on black loyalist history in the Maritimes, the following suggestions could enrich the publication. These books are not meant as academic histories, but Davidson should be commended for using a number of important academic works in his research. General readers would also be interested in understanding a bit more about how the historiography on black loyalists and slavery in the Maritimes has unfolded. Early histories chronicled the flight of runaway slaves in the American colonies to freedom in the Maritimes. But Amani Whitfield in North to Bondage: Loyalist Slavery in the Maritimes (2016), argues that we should be careful about applying such a paradigm without qualification, as many black loyalists were re-enslaved in the Maritimes. Moreover, Whitfield urges us to remember the many enslaved blacks who also journeyed to Shelburne, often on the same ships as the black loyalists. Although we often associate the black loyalists’ arrival in the Maritimes with freedom, Whitfield posits that the loyalist migration ultimately led to an expansion of slavery in Nova Scotia.
Researchers should also embrace the multiple narrative trajectories of black loyalist experiences. While almost one-third of the black community in the Maritimes left for Sierra Leone – which is a compelling story of a global search for liberty – what of the two-thirds who stayed behind? Black loyalists and slaves had multiple and contested “loyalist dreams.” Those who stayed in Birchtown, like Stephen Blucke, had a different profile from many of those who left for Africa; they tended to be land owners and non-evangelicals. In that sense, the decision of the Black Loyalist Heritage Centre to provide visitors with the names of individuals to trace through the exhibits, which provides the public with an appreciation of their multiple identities and experiences is to be applauded. Ultimately, Davidson’s work has provided us with a glimpse into the passion and perseverance of the Birchtown settlers and their descendants. But more needs to be done to uncover and convey their stories.
Bonnie Huskins teaches history at St. Thomas University and the University of New Brunswick (Fredericton) where she is also Loyalist Studies Coordinator. Her research interests include the history of loyalist Shelburne, loyalist freemasons, and the life and writings of 18th-century British military engineer William Booth.