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The Pursuit of Happiness: The African American Diaspora in the Revolutionary War

Evening Lecture/Seminar

Thursday, September 14, 2023 - 6:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. ET
Code: 1M2277
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Detail from John Singleton Copley, The Death of Major Peirson, 6 January 1781 (1783), Tate Gallery, London

During the American Revolutionary War, the British military made big promises to enslaved Americans. In return for taking up arms against the patriots, enslaved people won pledges from British commanders that they would be freed when Britain won the war. But what happened once Britain lost?

University of Maryland historian Richard Bell explores these Black fugitives’ extraordinary odyssey through the remainder of Britain’s global empire after 1783 to examine the ways they tried to pursue happiness and forge an African American diaspora.

When the Royal Navy evacuated New York City at the end of the Revolutionary War, British sailors would leave accompanied by 3,000 Black asylum-seekers. Their ships would deposit most of these refugees in Nova Scotia, a harsh and under-resourced Canadian colony. It was not the post-racial paradise these refugees had been promised, and after several years of hardship and struggle, hundreds of them petitioned to be resettled in Sierra Leone, a new colony on the coast of West Africa founded by British antislavery activists, to pursue their dreams of happiness and liberty there.

Bell explores this forgotten chapter of the American Revolution through the life of Harry Washington, a loyalist Mount Vernon stableman who found his way to British lines in 1775 before voyaging to Nova Scotia and then onward toward Sierra Leone in 1792, where he sought to start a new life as an independent farmer.

Using his ocean-crossing odyssey as a case study, Bell examines how African American settlers in this new West African colony soon discovered that it lacked infrastructure, investment, and every other prerequisite for prosperity. In a surprising climax to this globe-trotting story of the African American diaspora, Washington and his fellow settlers rebelled in 1797, staging a dramatic uprising to depose the colony’s British administrators and declare their own independence once and for all.

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