The Resolution of Black Patriots

ANNETTE TELLS TALES Americans Who Support the British In Pursuit of Their Own Liberty, and Who Keep Fighting For Their Cause After the British Leave

UPDATE 11/15/2021 After discussion with Professor Tim Lockley, I have clarified my use of the word “maroon”, and also stressed that taking refuge in the swamps of Georgia and South Carolina was a form of resistance to slavery before the Revolution.

The Volunteer Guide Through the Swamps

“Sir James Baird attacks the American rear, Capture of Savannah, 1778”. The caption someone added to the image above makes it sound like Baird is poking American butt with a bayonet.

And all by himself, too.

Of course, Sir James Baird, the British officer on the horse, didn’t go into battle all by himself.

We can see his troops behind him, for one thing.

But who is the guy in front?

His name’s Quamino Dolly. In 1778, he happily took the British Army round the back way to Savannah to surprise the Patriot forces, leading them through the swamps.

I mean, just look at him go!

“This way, gents! Mind the alligator there! Oops, don't step on the snake!”

It worked. The British captured Savannah.

This story tends to gobsmack people. But this isn’t Twitter, so let’s talk about it.

First, let me assure you now that Dolly was far from alone among enslaved people, especially in the South.

Everyone who’s freaked out by black people being on the “wrong” side of the American Revolution needs to get a grip.

The real problem? Most people have a simplistic understanding of the American Revolution that hasn’t much changed since childhood:

Americans: Americans fight tyrannical Brits. Americans win. Wave flag. End of.

Brits: Um, we sort of owned America, I believe? Then we lost the War of American Independence to the Americans, and went home. That’s about it. It’s the Americans’ story, really.

Let me just hint at how complicated the American Revolution (including the War of Independence) really was:

This was a civil war, among people who considered themselves British at the start of the War. Most Americans remained neutral for as long as they could, and, especially in the South, many of those who took sides changed their minds about which side to be on, depending on who was winning. By the end of the war, free people were deeply divided, but most (surprise!) ultimately backed the winning team.

For today, I’ll just put this out there:

Most enslaved African Americans did not support the Patriot cause.

Wait, WHAT? That’s Awkward. Are You Sure?

With all due respect, I just don’t get why this is hard to understand.

Look, imagine you’re enslaved, working your butt off for no pay, always worried that you could be assaulted, or murdered, or sold far from your family. Think about this. Imagine it’s you. Your family. Your life.

Now imagine your owner supports the Patriot cause in the name of Liberty (his, not yours).

I mean, do you think, “Ooh, yes, let me rush to help the same side that’s supported by the guy who whipped me senseless and sold my kids? The side that is happy to continue slavery, yeah, that’s who I want to support, so people won’t be uncomfortable about my decision three hundred years from now?”

Take ten seconds to actually think about this.

See?

Can we move on now? Please.

For most black (and white) people, neutrality seemed like the wisest course, early in the war.


Reluctant Abolitionists: The Brits and Slavery in the 1780s

Britain was not an appealing team for enslaved people to support in the War of American Independence, either.

Sure, two years before the war started, English courts ruled (in the case of Somerset v. Stewart, if you want to look it up) that an enslaved man could not be returned from England to the West Indies.

Oooo….kayyy….. But what does this even mean for enslaved people on British soil, either in what we call Britain, or Big Britain, including all the colonies overseas?

Confused? Of course you are. Honestly, it’s as clear as mud what this ruling means even to the small numbers of enslaved people actually living in England, most of them domestic servants. People in England were still buying and selling and owning enslaved Africans for decades after the Somerset ruling.

Yes, the court’s ruling in Somerset, however unclear its implications, seemed like a start, perhaps a beacon of hope to folks who opposed slavery as the immoral travesty it is. Crowds of black and white British abolitionists cheered in London at what they saw as a major victory.

Witnessing the celebrations, however, Ben Franklin (who lived in London at the time, right next to what would one day be Charing Cross Station) acidly observed that Brits were congratulating themselves on freeing one guy, while they were still raking in fortunes from the slave trade. Woo hoo.

He was right. Nations have a very human but nonetheless annoying habit of congratulating themselves on small acts of humanity, while happily continuing to shaft huge groups of people, on the principle that one right makes up for 100,000 wrongs.

So, to emphasize: The British establishment in the 1780s were up to their necks in the slave trade, which was generating vast piles of loot by sending ships packed with unfortunate Africans around the world to live out their lives in oppressed misery.

Any Brits complaining that contemplating this fact interferes with their aesthetic enjoyment of National Trust properties’ tea sets and paintings also needs to get a grip. Clue: You can actually do both. Sackcloth and ashes not required.

Whatever the meaning of the Somerset decision, one thing didn’t change: The vast majority of enslaved people on British soil remained enslaved.

That’s because most British slavery was outsourced to British colonies in the Americas, and especially the sugar plantations of the West Indies. There, it could be out of sight and mind, and also very profitable.

Indeed, the West Indies, which were the most economically prosperous British colonies in America, didn’t even join the rebellion launched by the mainland American colonies. They were doing very well, thank you.

Even in America, the greatest protests leading to the Revolution, and the greatest enthusiasm for war, was in the New England colonies, where slavery certainly was present, but the fewest enslaved people lived.

And yet. As a matter of crafty wartime strategy, the British authorities turned selectively abolitionist during the War of Independence. They did this, let me be clear, as part of the no—holds-barred effort to hang onto the mainland colonies in the midst of a rebellion, not from the goodness of their hearts.

The British invited enslaved people to come to British army camps. But the offer came with small print: Only enslaved people owned by Patriots could apply. Slaves owned by Loyalists, who opposed Independence, were out of luck. This policy wasn’t a strike against slavery, but a strike against the leaders of the Patriot side, many of whom were slaveowners.

As you can imagine, many enslaved people who became aware of this offer and who realized they qualified for it, didn’t spend too much time deciding whether or not to accept it.

Here’s what happened to some of the people who accepted the offer, and then found themselves unable to redeem it.


Launching Their Own Bid for Independence: Black Loyalists

During the Revolutionary War (aka the War for American Independence), maybe 10,000 enslaved people in the colony of Georgia alone either ran away from plantations, or found themselves alone when slaveowners fled.

Newly freed people flocked toward British Army camps in the South, and volunteered their services. Enslaved women did laundry and cooked for the British, while enslaved men did whatever work was required.

Savannah, a major port in the South, was captured by the British with the help of people like Quamino Dolly. Once the British held it, enslaved men helped fortify the city against attack by the Patriots. One hundred and fifty black men volunteered as soldiers to defend the city from the Patriots and their French allies.

But the British, of course, lost the war. When the British Army evacuated, some of these Black Loyalists left with them.

Not that the British staged an orderly evacuation of their allies .

Some poor souls swam after departing ships, trying to cling to them.

This sounds strangely familiar, doesn’t it?


Carrying on the Fight for Liberty: The Maroons

After the War and the departure of the British authorities, most enslaved people were forced to stay behind in Georgia. They faced a frightening and uncertain future, as slaveowners now tried to recover their human property.

In all the confusion, and desperate to remain free, some people fled into the swamps. Having no choice, they took up residence in places that most people —then and now— would consider uninhabitable. These were swamps: wetlands with tangled undergrowth, inhabited mainly by alligators and snakes.

The moment they went into the wetlands, people became what white Americans at the time referred to as “bandits”, “brigands”, or just runaways, but we shall call maroons. Maroons were refugees from slavery who started their own settlements, away from whites, forming communities to sustain themselves in the toughest of circumstances, hoping to survive as long as they could, or until a better option turned up. Going back into slavery was not a better option. Maroon communities had been formed in the Georgia and South Carolina swamps before, as a form of resistance to slavery. Now, though, with the end of the war, they offered opportunity at a time of great change.


Swamp and canal
Canal through the Okefenokee Swamp, south Georgia. This isn’t where the people we’re discussing today went, but it does give you an idea of what it was like. Image: Public Domain.

The People of the River

One of the biggest maroon communities people established at the end of the Revolution was on islands in the Savannah River, about 18 miles from Savannah.

These Georgia maroons knew the swamps well. They had traveled through them to visit family members on other plantations without being harassed: If they used the roads, they might be challenged to show their paperwork by white patrols. Enslaved people also went into the swamps when they were in grave danger of brutal punishment, taking refuge until their overseer or owner calmed down.

So, in short, maroons knew how to get around in the swamps, and how to deal with alligators and poisonous snakes, skills that Quamino Dolly had put to good use when he guided James Baird to his surprise attack on the Patriot forces.

The islands in the Savannah River were not good places to live. The ground was swampy. But maroons could build houses on the higher land, or on stilts.

Most importantly, the islands could be defended: They were surrounded by water, and hard to get to.

The islands were far enough from Savannah, the only settlement of size in the area, for the maroons to hope to avoid attracting attention. And the swamps and alligators kept away the curious.

Because they were on the border of Georgia and South Carolina, it might not be clear, if they were discovered, which state was responsible for getting rid of them, another advantage.

This land is still remote and pretty much uninhabitable by modern standards: Today, it’s part of the Savannah River National Wildlife Refuge. When even developers hesitate to build, you get some idea of how tough it would be to live here.


Continuing the Revolution, Against the Odds

The British Army was gone. It was the United States of America, now. And in at least one of those states, Georgia, slaveowners began buying Africans and West Indians off the incoming slave ships to replace the people who had walked away.

In the land of liberty, slavery was no less miserable and brutal than it had been before. A German traveler in 1784 reported that “On the rice plantations, with wretched food, they are allotted more work, and the treatment which they experience at the hands of their overseers and owners is often tyrannical.”

No wonder escaped people were so desperate, that they were prepared to settle in swamps. Likely about a hundred people, men, women, and children, settled in this one remote and secluded camp on the Savannah River islands.

Among them? Men who had fought for the British.

While maroon women planted rice and corn, men built boats and fished, and hunted for turtles. For four years after the War ended, they led a hard but independent life, one that, despite its enormous challenges, was still happier than in the slave labor camps we call plantations.

And then, after four years of peaceful living, the maroons on the river got overconfident. They began robbing rice plantations for additional food and desperately-needed supplies. Their actions were necessary for their survival, but they also triggered disaster.

The Georgia government did not hesitate. They sent the Savannah militia, which attacked and destroyed the camp.

Now that the authorities knew where the maroons were, the fugitives could not rebuild in the same place. And yet there was nowhere else to go, not in 1786. They had no choice but to raid rice plantations to support themselves. They actually explained to one slaveowner, as they carried off bags of rice, that they were taking them as compensation for the food the Savannah militia destroyed.

But this was desperate stuff, and the maroons on the Savannah River islands were living on borrowed time. Savannah authorities would not allow their community to survive, not only because of the robberies, but because they set an example to enslaved people of Black resistance and independence. Slaves indeed felt solidarity with the maroons, and did their best to support the maroons with food and supplies.

The following year, the governors of Georgia and South Carolina sent troops to track down the maroons,  capture them, and destroy their new camp. When the camp was located, it was discovered to be about 700 yards long, 150 yards wide, and held 21 houses, with room for up to 200 people.

The maroons had done their best to develop and defend their camps, applying military techniques acquired in West Africa, and drawn also from their service with the British.

But they lost the battle, and fled, empty-handed, into the swamps. Six maroons were killed.

Some were captured, and their leader, Lewis, was put on trial. The court learned that he had been co-leader with a maroon named Sharper, until they disagreed over the killing of a white man whom Lewis had brought to the camp to trade items they desperately needed.

Sharper was furious that Lewis had brought a white man into camp, concerned that he would betray them. He wanted to kill the trader. Lewis disagreed. There was a quarrel. They split up.

In the end, Lewis’s mercy did him no good. He was hanged, and following a Georgia law that was only applied to rebellious slaves, his head was cut off and placed on a pole at Marsh Island on the Savannah River, as a warning to others.

The message was clear: In 1787, maroon camps were no longer an option. However enslaved people became free, it would not be by forming alternative communities in the Georgia swamps.

But you can't always judge success by the final outcome. For five years, the maroons had survived and lived. For five years, the American Revolution, in the form of a struggle for liberty by people who truly had none, had continued in the swamps near Savannah, long after the War of Independence had ended, as the maroons lived out the meaning of “all men are created equal” as best they possibly could.

And that struggle for liberty would continue in the decades to come, and in so many ways.

To Find Out More

As ever, I encourage academic historians to let me know if I have goofed on anything, and know that I value your time and encouragement.

This post is my take on a fantastic essay by Professor Timothy Lockley: “The King of England’s Soldiers”: Armed Blacks in Savannah and Its Hinterlands during the Revolutionary War Era, 1778-1787”, which you’ll find in Leslie M. Harris and Daina Ramey Berry, Slavery and Freedom in Savannah (2014). Intended as a coffee table book, and issued with lavish illustrations, this attractive volume is, alas, written by historians (in fairness, some are more entertaining than others, so no disrespect to Dr. Lockley). It is printed in microtype. But if this is a subject you want to explore regardless, give it a try.

Has this story affected how you think about the American Revolution?

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