By Megan Morrow, SLNC Government and Heritage Library, July 2023
ca. 1738 - June 25, 1792
The person known as Thomas Peters (Potters, Petters) was born around the year 1738, likely in present-day Nigeria. Thomas Peters was given his name by a captain on a slave ship; his original name and the members of his family are unknown. Peters was born into a wealthy Nigerian family who were members, and potentially nobility, of the Yoruba tribe, specifically the Egba branch. French enslavers brought Peters to French Louisiana from present-day Nigeria on the slave ship Henri Quatre. He was sold to a French planter and tried three times to escape while in Louisiana. He was caught each time, and his enslaver branded and flogged him as punishment. Around 1760, a Scotsman named William Campbell in Wilmington, North Carolina bought Peters. During his enslavement in Wilmington, Peters became a millwright, which is someone who works on heavy machinery. While there, he also met his wife, Sally, and together they had a daughter, Clairy, born in 1771, and a son, John, born in 1781.
The British monarchy issued many Acts in the 1760s, including the Stamp Act. Many colonists hated the Acts and wanted independence from Britain. By April 1775, calls for independence had developed into war. The American Revolution placed those who wanted independence (Patriots) against those who wanted to remain with Britain (Loyalists). Wilmington was a large city at this time and many people there had conflicting ideas of loyalty during the Revolution. Both sides wanted people to fight for their cause and offered rewards for doing so. In November 1775, Lord Dunmore, the Royal Governor of Virginia, issued a proclamation offering freedom for any enslaved person or indentured servant that was “able and willing to bear arms” in support of Britain.
On February 9, 1776, the British sloop Cruizer moved up the Cape Fear River to bomb Wilmington. The city was evacuated as more British ships arrived from Boston under the command of Sir Henry Clinton. The British ships attacked the city, and riverside homes and plantations. The destruction allowed many enslaved people to escape freely. Peters’s enslaver fled, and he was no longer technically enslaved. It was here that Peters, his wife, and daughter allied with the British. In 1776, a captain under Clinton named George Martin organized the formerly enslaved people from the Cape Fear area into a military company known as the Black Pioneers. The men served as soldiers, and the women and children helped maintain supplies. They served in many different campaigns throughout the war until the surrender of Yorktown, Virginia. Thomas Peters was sworn into the Black Pioneers on November 14, 1776, at New York. He swore the following oath of loyalty:
“I Thomas Peters do swear that I enter freely and voluntarily into His Majesty’s Service and I do enlist myself without the least compulsion or persuasion into the Negro Company commanded by Captain Martin and I will cheerfully obey all such directions as I may receive from my said captain…so help me God.”
Martin served as captain of the Black Pioneers. The unit had a sum of about seventy men; all of the officers were white, but there were three Black sergeants and one to three Black corporals in the Black Pioneers unit. Peters, Mingo Leslie, and Murphy Steele were sergeants, and George Kendle was a corporal. The Black Pioneers received the same pay as other provincial infantry. One shilling per day for sergeants, eightpence per day for corporals, and sixpence per day for privates. Peters was paid one shilling a day for being a sergeant. For two months, Clinton’s twenty ships sailed along the North Carolina coast, controlling it. During his time in the Black Pioneers, Peters was twice injured by the Patriots.
The British began evacuating the United States after their defeat in the war. About 3,000 Black Loyalists and others left New York City for British Canada. Peters’ evacuation was part of a group of 67 Black Pioneers, servants, and manual laborers for the King’s army. It consisted of 21 men, 28 women and 18 children. Peters, along with Sally, Clairy, and John, traveled to Nova Scotia in November 1783, sailing on a ship called Joseph James Mitchell. He carried along with him a passport “to all commanders,” which attested to his faithful and honest service to the British Army. Strong winds blew the Joseph James Mitchell off course, forcing the ship and its passengers to dock in Bermuda for the winter. The Joseph James Mitchell did not reach Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia until May 25, 1784.
The British government promised food, land, tools, and free travel to Loyalists evacuated from New York when they arrived in Nova Scotia. The aid promised would decrease each year, with the first year’s installment being a year’s supply of food for free. The aid was designed to help the Loyalists until they were able to settle in Nova Scotia, cultivate crops, and secure their own supply of meat. However, the first year of food was delayed. When it finally arrived, they received 12,096 pounds of flour and 9,352 pounds of pork, which was only enough to last the 160 adults and 25 children 80 days. This barely lasted through the end of the summer and wouldn’t get them through winter in Nova Scotia, where conditions were very harsh. Conditions were harder still for the Black Loyalists, who were placed into racially segregated villages with poor land where little would grow. In addition, white Nova Scotians were very prejudiced against Black Nova Scotians and sometimes destroyed their homes and farms, or even re-enslaved free Black Nova Scotians. Black Nova Scotians often worked hard jobs for low wages.
Thomas Peters and Murphy Steele both settled in a suburb of Annapolis Royal called Digby and became leaders of the community. White and Black Nova Scotians competed for land in Digby. Both Peters and Steele petitioned Governor John Parr for better land than what was offered in the racially segregated villages, but they received none. Racial tension in Nova Scotia became worse. Peters went to New Brunswick and even asked their governor, Thomas Carlton, for their own land:
“That your Petitioner and Numbers of other Blacks are unprovided with Lands, he humbly implores in the name of the whole that something May be done for them as he and many others are suffering. Their present Situation is Such that they are incapable of paying the poor tax.”
Peters also worked in St. John, New Brunswick for about six years as a millwright. Conditions were very harsh and many Black Canadians struggled. The British government was not fulfilling its promises of a better life for those who assisted the King during the Revolution.
Many years of failed petitions and requests from Black Canadians demanded action. About 200 Black families in Canada charged Peters with carrying their pleas to London; Peters decided to leave Halifax to personally petition the British government in London in the summer of 1790. When he arrived there, a series of debates over the Transatlantic slave trade were taking place. The slave trade would not be abolished in the United Kingdom until 1807; however, the debates helped the position of Black Loyalists like Peters. A bill to establish the Sierra Leone Company was passed in 1791. The company would manage a new colony in West Africa created for Black Loyalists of the American Revolution. Peters helped negotiate the terms of the Sierra Leone Company’s involvement in the colony, and stayed in London for approximately a year negotiating before returning to Nova Scotia. Peters met and negotiated with many prominent abolitionists in Britain, like Granville Sharp and John Clarkson. Peters returned to Halifax from London in fall 1791.
White Nova Scotians did not like the idea of creating a free state in West Africa for Black Loyalists in Canada. If the Black laborers left Nova Scotia, white Nova Scotians would have to do the hard jobs themselves. Black Nova Scotians, however, strongly supported the idea, as it promised freedom. Peters and John Clarkson, now in Nova Scotia, gathered support for the colony through church sermons and petitions, and by the end of 1791, about 1200 Black Canadians agreed to return to West Africa with the Sierra Leone Company. On January 15, 1792, roughly 1200 Black Canadians left Halifax for West Africa. The journey was hard, and about 70 people died during the trip. Fifteen ships transporting Black Loyalists and company administrators were docked on the coast of modern-day Sierra Leone by March 9, 1792.
The crews began building housing using materials from their ships. Peters reported the successful landing to the British government:
“We…desire to return our Sincere Thanks to your Lordship, and to our greatest Sovereign, for the Faviours [sic] we have received in our removal from Nova Scotia to Sierra Leone.
We are intirely Satisified, with the place and the climate…The treatment we received on our passage was very good; but our Provisions was ordinary; we was allowed Salt Fish four Days in a week and one half was Spoilt, the Turnips also no use to us, for the great part of them was Spoilt…”
The message Peters sent also showed that the colony was struggling with supplies. Problems started to arise again for the colonists and they looked to Peters for help. A power struggle between Peters and Clarkson over who would lead the colony also threatened the colony. Clarkson feared that too many people supported Peters.
After their settlement, the Black Loyalists that came to Freetown, Sierra Leone, were very upset about the problems they were encountering. They had been promised new land and civil rights in the new colony, and neither had happened. Clarkson feared Peters was causing trouble by making too many promises. Around the same time, Peters was accused by a jury of theft when trying to collect a debt, and was found guilty. The court sentence was likely politically motivated. Arguments over the colony continued. Soon Peters became sick, with Clarkson’s records noting that he “appears far from well” on June 16, 1792. By June 23, Peters was too sick to leave his home, and Peters died a few days later, at 54 years old, on June 25, 1792.
Peters had been instrumental in helping create a modern nation in Sierra Leone, even though the colony of Sierra Leone may have struggled during his lifetime. His final resting place is in Freetown, Sierra Leone, and a statue of Thomas Peters is located at St. George’s Cathedral in Freetown.
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