PETERS (Petters), THOMAS, black soldier and leader; b. c. 1738; d. 25 June 1792 in Freetown. Sierra Leone.
Legend has given Thomas Peters a noble birth in West Africa, whence he was supposedly kidnapped as a young man and brought as a slave to the American colonies. The earliest documentary evidence places him in 1776 as the 38-year-old slave of William Campbell in Wilmington, North Carolina. In that year, encouraged by the proclamation issued by Governor Lord Dunmore of Virginia in 1775 promising freedom to rebel-owned slaves who joined the loyalist forces, Peters fled Campbell’s plantation and enlisted in the Black Pioneers in New York. In 1779, in response to a new invitation to rebel-owned slaves to place themselves under British protection whether they wished to bear arms for the crown or not, a 26-year-old woman named Sally from Charleston, South Carolina, appeared in a British camp, and she too joined the Black Pioneers. In that service she met Peters, who by 1779 had been promoted sergeant, and they were married.
When the provisional peace agreement was signed in Paris on 30 Nov. 1782, the Peters were in New York awaiting evacuation. The ship carrying them to safety went first to Bermuda in 1783 and then to Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia, where they disembarked in May 1784. They were among 3,500 free black loyalists taken to Nova Scotia after the revolution. Peters was placed in charge of the Annapolis County blacks, and he settled with more than 200 former Pioneers in Brindley Town, near Digby. Although loyalists were entitled to three years’ worth of provisions to sustain themselves while establishing homes and farms, the Annapolis County blacks received enough to last only 80 days and, unlike the whites, were required to earn their support by working on the roads.
On 21 Aug. 1784 Peters and a fellow sergeant, Murphy Still (Steele), petitioned Governor John Parr for the land grants to which all loyalists were entitled. In response, the government surveyor, Charles Morris* Jr, ordered Thomas Millidge* to lay out one-acre town plots for 76 black families at Brindley Town. When the blacks attempted to settle on larger farming plots, however, they were twice removed because of conflicting claims to the land. Without provisions or land sufficient for farming, they sustained themselves with kitchen gardens, fishing in the Bay of Fundy, and the assistance of their white neighbours and English charities. They quickly formed Church of England and Methodist religious groups and in January 1785 the Associates of the Late Dr Bray provided financing for a school. Community life was therefore established, but the settlers lacked the means of self-support. Having again failed to obtain land in July 1785, Peters crossed to New Brunswick, where on 25 October he petitioned Governor Thomas Carleton* for farms for the Annapolis County blacks. He was told that his people would receive equal treatment with other loyalists, but his petition was unsuccessful. In fact, although slaves who joined the British cause had been promised the same rewards and considerations as white loyalists, only about one-third of those who went to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick received any land at all.
In 1790, after six years of fruitless waiting and five different petitions to colonial officials, Peters determined to appeal directly to the British government. He was given power of attorney by several hundred blacks in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick to represent their case, and by November, “at much trouble and risk,” he had made his way to London. There he met the abolitionist Granville Sharp, who arranged for him to present his petition to the secretary of state for the Home Department, Henry Dundas. One of the documents Peters sent Dundas outlined the blacks’ general grievances, noting that the rights of free British subjects, such as the vote, trial by jury, and access to the courts, had been denied them. The other gave a detailed account of their futile efforts to obtain land. It stated that Peters had been deputed to procure for his people “some Establishment where they may obtain a competent Settlement for themselves” and pointed out that although some blacks wished to remain in North America, others were “ready and willing to go wherever the Wisdom of Government may think proper to provide for them as free Subjects of the British Empire.” This alternative was undoubtedly inspired by Peters’ contact with the directors of the Sierra Leone Company, whose freed-slave colony in West Africa had been destroyed the previous year in a raid by indigenous people. Peters quickly accepted their offer to take his group into the colony, and the directors successfully negotiated with the government to pay the costs of transporting the blacks to Sierra Leone. Lieutenant John Clarkson of the Royal Navy, brother of the abolitionist Thomas Clarkson, was appointed to recruit the emigrants and organize their safe passage.
As a result of Peters’ charges Governor Parr was ordered to institute an inquiry into the Annapolis area land problem. If Peters’ description proved accurate the blacks were to be located immediately on good land. Those who chose not to accept grants could either enlist in a black army unit for service in the West Indies or remove to Sierra Leone. In the fall of 1791 Peters visited Annapolis and Saint John to promote the colonization scheme; Clarkson, who arrived in October, toured the black settlements in Halifax and Shelburne counties with the same intent. In New Brunswick Peters met with determined opposition from the whites, who did not wish to lose cheap labour or have his charges corroborated by mass emigration. False debts and indentures were fabricated, officials harassed Peters and his recruits by demanding proof of free status, and the story was spread that Peters would receive a fee for every black he inveigled to Africa for sale into slavery. The situation in New Brunswick was not exceptional. Agents appointed by both colonial governments to publicize the alternatives available to blacks deliberately misconstrued the Sierra Leone Company’s intentions. The blacks nevertheless responded with enthusiasm to the offer of free land, racial equality, and full British rights in Sierra Leone. Some 1,200 emigrants gathered in Halifax, almost 500 of them from Peters’ recruitment areas.
As the initiator of the project and natural leader of nearly half the emigrants, Peters became unofficial second in command to Clarkson. Together they inspected the ships and made arrangements for the journey. To channel complaints from individuals Clarkson appointed Peters and the preachers David George* and John Ball superintendents over the emigrants. Peters not unnaturally expected special status, and according to Clarkson he felt piqued at not having been given absolute charge of the emigration. He was less willing than the others to accept Clarkson’s every word as law, and a conflict grew between the two men. No major disruptions were caused, however, and on 15 Jan. 1792 a fleet of 15 ships left Halifax for West Africa. Meanwhile Parr had appointed Alexander Howe* and Job Bennet Clarke commissioners to investigate Peters’ charges. Though Dundas undoubtedly intended their investigation to include the complaints Peters made on behalf of all the blacks, the commissioners chose to interpret their task as an examination only of Peters’ landless situation. Having heard evidence from Peters and the officials involved in land distribution, they upheld the facts of Peters’ description but concluded that the reason he had not obtained land was his “hasty” departure for New Brunswick in 1785. The fact that blacks who had remained in Nova Scotia had received no land was ignored, and no remedial action was suggested.
Arriving in Sierra Leone early in March, the black loyalists immediately began clearing a site for their settlement, Freetown, but the promised land they expected was not to be realized. During Clarkson’s recruitment mission the Sierra Leone Company had introduced a new constitution for the colony providing for a government made up of white officials appointed from London. Clarkson was made superintendent, and later governor. To add to the settlers’ disappointment, rations were short, the rainy season brought fever and death, and the distribution of land was delayed by sickness, the inexperience of the administration, and the interference of the indigenous population. Instead of becoming free landed proprietors the black loyalists found themselves paid employees of the company. Their discontent was voiced at a meeting on 7 April, when Peters was chosen to represent their demands to Clarkson. Clarkson interpreted this action as an attempt to replace his government with a black one headed by Peters. A sincere humanitarian and abolitionist, he was convinced that a successful colony in Sierra Leone would benefit black people everywhere and that anarchy and disorder would destroy it. He assembled the entire population the following day and, addressing Peters as a traitor, announced that “either one or other of us would be hanged upon that tree before the palaver was settled.” When he challenged the people to choose between himself and Peters, none moved to Peters’ side. To extricate himself from this confrontation Clarkson chose to accept Peters’ explanation that his wish had been only to act as spokesman for the settlers, but privately he feared Peters’ intentions and assigned spies to watch his movements. For his part, Peters continued to remind the people at Methodist meetings of the promises made to them and the realities of their situation.
On 1 May 1792 Peters was accused of stealing from the trunk of a settler who had died of fever. His defence, that he had simply recovered property owed to him, was not accepted, and he was sentenced to return the goods and receive a public reprimand. The humiliation shattered his credibility, which was not revived before he too fell victim to fever on the night of 25 June 1792. He died in dishonour, denied the respect of the people he had led to Africa.
The end of Peters’ career, like its early years, has been shrouded in legend. Posthumous stories had him travelling to England in 1793 to lay the settlers’ complaints before the company’s directors, becoming the first elected mayor of Freetown, and facing even Queen Victoria with the British betrayal of his people. Though untrue, these later embellishments are more faithful to Peters’ legacy. His true image was not that of the sneak thief and frustrated leader. Rather he should be remembered as the courageous opponent of injustice and discrimination and as a primary inspiration for black self-expression and self-determination in both North America and West Africa. He represents a valuable tradition for Canada’s racial mosaic.
BL, Add. mss 41262A, 41262B, 41263, 41264. PANB, RG 10, RS108, Land petitions, bundle 16, Thomas Peters, 18 March 1789; series I, York County, no.386, Thomas Peters, 18 April ; series II, Thomas Peters, in Council, 25 Oct. 1785. PANS, RG 1, 359, no.65; 376, pp.73–77. PRO, CO 217/63; CO 267/9; FO 4/1; PRO 30/55, Book of Negroes (copy at PANS). USPG, Dr Bray’s Associates, minute books, 3; unbound papers, box 7. [John Clarkson], Clarkson’s mission to America, 1791–1792, ed. and intro. C. B. Fergusson (Halifax, 1971); “Diary of Lieutenant J. Clarkson, R.N. (governor, 1792),” Sierra Leone Studies ([Freetown, Sierra Leone]), no.VIII (March 1927). A. M. Falconbridge, Two voyages to Sierra Leone during the years 1791–2–3, in a series of letters . . . (London, 1794).
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