Lest We Forget Black Loyalists & Maroons
There have been people of African descent volunteering to fight for Canada from the earliest times to the present. Often, due to prejudiced views about Black people, they were not allowed to join units with others. This did not stop those who were passionate about being free; freedom was something that was often at stake and freedom was the idea that Africans, not too far removed from enslavement, wanted to preserve. They petitioned for separate Black units in order to be able to serve the ideals that they held so highly.
Black soldiers fought for (British-controlled) Canada during the America War of Independence, the War of 1812, the Mackenzie Rebellions of 1837 and many later battles. Black soldiers were of African heritage but may have been born in the United States, Europe, the West Indies, or Canada.
During World War I, an all-Black unit was made up of men from all over Canada. Called the No. 2 Construction Battalion, they were not to fight for their country, but to build shelters and trenches. They formed their own brass band. Pictou, Nova Scotia is the area where they trained, and where they departed for the European scene. It is now a National Historic Site.
Black Loyalists were free Blacks and enslaved Africans who accepted the British invitation to fight on their side during the American Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. They saw more active fighting than other Loyalists yet were the last group to receive land.
As many as 30% of the Black Loyalists left the Maritimes, frustrated waiting for land; the remainder survived as they could, turning their attentions to farming what land they had. With the possibility that America might take control of Canada, Black veterans tried to enlist. This was not allowed initially, but Richard Pierpoint, a Black Loyalist and veteran of Butler’s Rangers, requested permission for a Black unit under his leadership. Pierpoint, like other African-Canadians, was alarmed by the threat of re-enslavement should the British fall to the Americans during the War of 1812. His petitioned was granted, although under the leadership of a White officer. Blacks from the Niagara Region joined Captain Runchey’s Company of Coloured Men. They bravely defended the area, and later were granted land throughout the Niagara and Garafraxa areas. They were not close enough to support each other against raids and their property was far removed from other opportunities to work.
Freedom is not meaningful in society if you cannot take care of yourself, if you have no home and no job. Pierpoint petitioned again, this time to be returned to his West African homeland, but instead was given land near Guelph, Ontario where he died at 94.
The British took control of Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655. Africans used the confusion to escape into the hills to form their own free community. They were called Maroons, perhaps derived from the Spanish word cimarrón, meaning “wild peak,” which is where they lived. From there, they resisted British rule for decades. By 1796, anxious to end the intermittent battles with the Maroons, the British found a way to limit their food and water.
Additionally, fighting dogs were brought in from neighbouring Cuba. Within a few months, they surrendered. However, those who did not surrender promptly were considered for deportation. Almost 600 Maroons from Trelawney were sent to Halifax; about 550 survived the journey.
Once in Halifax, the Maroons were settled in the Preston area. It was hoped that these proud warriors would become farmers, but it quickly became obvious that they had different interests. They were put to work on building the Citadel, a fort to protect the Halifax harbour, in case of attacks by the French. They also were entrusted to provide security by forming a militia unit. However, by 1797, they were uneasy with their new, cold home; local Blacks were not welcoming since the Maroons had been given preferential treatment (the government of Nova Scotia was paid by Jamaican government to house the Maroons) and the weather was not to their liking. Finally by August 1800, the Maroons were relocated to Sierra Leone.