I came across an article recently with the curious title, 10 Things About Canada I Didn’t Know, and indeed I learned ten new things too. The fact I found most interesting, and I’m sure you will understand why, was the third item: "Shelburne, Nova Scotia is said to have been the fourth-largest town in North America at one point and has the third-largest natural harbour on the continent."
It’s my natural inclination to see what more I can discover whenever I’m presented with fascinating claims such as these. The Shelburne facts are so oddly presented that I simply had to know more. Shelburne seems like a pleasant enough place along Nova Scotia’s Atlantic coast. However it had fewer than two thousand residents in 2006 so clearly something happened early in its history to knock it down from the fourth-largest town on the continent to its current bantamweight configuration.
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The story actually traces back to troubles in another part of the continent in the late Eighteenth Century, as thirteen colonies struggled for their independence from Britain. Those thirteen stated boldly and with peril to the individuals who professed their convictions that, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." In so doing, they declared their independence from British rule.
A minority of people in these colonies remained loyal to the Crown. Life became difficult and uncertain for many of them as war ebbed and flowed across the colonies, often viewed as enemies by their neighbors and even by their own families. Many of them left the newly United States forever as the Revolutionary armies gained the decisive hand at Yorktown and through the ensuing Treaty of Paris. Meanwhile the British government courted the loyalists actively and offered them incentives to come across the border.
Perhaps ten to fifteen thousand of them resettled in Shelburne, primarily from the Middle Colonies and New York City. They converted Shelburne from a sleepy village into a bustling seaside town by weight of their sheer numbers. This was the town’s high water mark. The population dropped sharply in the following decades. Whether that made it the fourth largest town in North America at its zenith as is claimed, I don’t know, but it was indeed quite a bit larger than what exists there today. This might not be all that outlandish considering that Boston may have had only sixteen thousand residents at the time.
It does have a nice harbour too, and a large one, so maybe it’s the third largest in North America. I dunno. Actually I stopped pursing that line when I stumbled across something much more interesting. The Historic Shelburne website included a brief comment, almost a throwaway statement really, that completely took me aback; "As a result of this migration, nearby Birchtown became the first free black settlement in Canada." From there I first became acquainted with the Black Loyalists. Somehow one doesn’t hear much about the people of African ancestry who renounced their subjugation and sided with the British Crown in a bid for freedom. That unusual twist seems to have been glossed over in the folklore enveloping the American independence story.
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Birchtown, just down the road from Shelburne
The Revolutionaries may have declared that all men were created equally but they did not extend that philosophy to the fifth of the American population of African descent that were subjected to the bonds of slavery. The British understood that gaping contradiction. They offered promises of freedom and land to slaves who broke their shackles and joined the loyalist effort. Lord Dunmore, the Royal Governor of Virginia, pursued this strategy vigorously. It would harm the upstart colonists in a couple of different ways. First, escaped slaves could be used as a direct military force such as those comprising the Ethiopian Regiment. Additionally mass defections would cripple a plantation economy dependent on slave labor and sap the resources of the rebellion.
The full completion of the plan depended upon a British victory, and of course that did not happen. Most of the black loyalists were forced back into subjugation as the war approached its conclusion. A small but lucky few, perhaps less than ten thousand, actually avoided recapture to attain their freedom after the war. These fleeing former slaves resettled in places such as Florida and the West Indies, along with Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in British North America.
Birchtown became the largest settlement of free people of African descent outside of continental Africa itself. The population quickly swelled to 2,500 inhabitants. Few of these people ever received their promised land grants, whether due to racism, bureaucratic fumbling or a combination of both. Is it telling perhaps that the Black Loyalists did not settle in Shelburne as did their white counterparts?
In any case, today the National Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada recognizes the special history of Birchtown, and its settlement by the Black Loyalists. It provided a sanctuary for those lucky enough to grab their freedom eighty years before the American Civil War.