Sunday, January 06, 2019

The Strange Case of Henry Washington

Mount Vernon

Henry (Harry) Washington

Born on the Gambia River around 1740, Henry Washington (real name unknown) was captured and sold into slavery sometime before 1763.  He subsequently became the property of George Washington and was a groom in the stables at Mount Vernon.  In November 1775, the Royal Governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, issued a proclamation offering freedom to any slave who would help put down the American rebels.   That December, George Washington, commanding the Continental Army in Massachusetts, received a report from his cousin Lund that Lord Dunmore’s proclamation had stirred the passions of Washington’s own slaves. “There is not a man of them but would leave us if they believed they could make their escape. Liberty is sweet.”  In August 1776, a month after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Henry Washington made his escape from Mount Vernon, making his way to the British lines and joining Lord Dunmore’s all black “Ethiopian Regiment ”.  With several hundred men under arms, the Ethiopian Regiment fought for the Crown and the freedom of all blacks in slavery, under the regimental motto, “Liberty to Slaves”.  Lord Dunmore’s forces were overwhelmed in Virginia and the Ethiopian Regiment disbanded.  Henry Washington went on to serve in another Loyalist regiment, The Black Pioneers under the command of Sir Henry Clinton as they moved from New York to Philadelphia to Charleston, and, after the fall of Charleston, back to New York. 

Henry Washington was not alone in joining the British.  The so called “Black Loyalists” in the Revolutionary War are estimated to have numbered between eighty and one hundred thousand runaways who sought freedom within the lines of the British army.  By freeing the slaves the British forced slave masters to guard slaves, one of their chief economic assets, instead of fighting British troops. The British were willing to emancipate slaves if by so doing they could first cripple and then crush the rebellion.  Much as in the later American Civil War, military necessity rather than morality acted as the catalyst of history. The use of slaves by the British for military purposes soon prompted the American rebels to begin recruiting blacks.  George Washington gave his approval to Rhode Island's plan to raise an entire regiment of black slaves (the state bought and emancipated slaves willing to become soldiers). Similarly, Massachusetts raised an all-black unit, the Bucks of America under Samuel Middleton, the only black commissioned officer in the Continental Army. In October 1780, even Maryland accepted “any able-bodied slave between 16 and 40 years of age, who voluntarily enters into service . . . with the consent and agreement of his master.” New York began recruiting slaves in March 1781.  By June 1781 some 1,500 of the 6,000 troops under George Washington’s direct command were black.

In 1782, a provisional treaty granting the American colonies their independence was signed by Great Britain. As the British prepared for their final evacuation, the Americans demanded the return of runaway slaves, under the terms of the peace treaty. The British refused to abandon black Loyalists who had fought for the Crown to their fate. Some four thousand blacks who had served the Crown during the war, together with their families, were listed in “The Book of Negroes” (George Washington insisted that such a list be made so that masters could be compensated for their lost property).  Those lucky enough to make the list sailed to freedom in Canada and England.  Among them was Henry Washington.

Henry Washington embarked on the ship L’Abondance in July 1783, with 405 other black loyalists, including women and children, bound for Nova Scotia.  He was forty three years old.  His wife, Jenny was twenty four.  Most of the black loyalists on board L’Abondance were followers of a blind preacher called “Daddy Moses” who settled as a community in a place they named Birchtown.

Life in Nova Scotia was hard.  The Crown was slow in allocating land, the weather was harsh, and the soil rocky and poor.  After several unhappy years in Nova Scotia, Henry Washington together with his wife and three children and 1,192 other black colonists joined an enterprise sponsored by the Sierra Leone Company, and financed by the British government, which allowed black loyalist refugees to join the free black community established in Sierra Leone in West Africa.  In 1791, Henry Washington and his family settled in Sierra Leone. New settlers were promised twenty acres for every man, ten for every woman and five for every child. They were also given assurances that in Sierra Leone there would be no discrimination between white and black settlers.

The Company was long on promises and short on delivery.  Relations between the Company and the colonists deteriorated to the point that the Company sought a royal charter from the British parliament which would give the company formal jurisdiction over Sierra Leone.  The Company wanted full judicial authority to suppress dissent.  The Company explained, “…the unwarranted pretensions of the disaffected settlers, their narrow misguided views; their excessive jealousy of Europeans; the crude notions they had formed of their own rights; and the impetuosity of their tempers…” would soon produce a “ruinous effect.”

The settlers, who regarded themselves as loyal British subjects, petitioned the King, explaining how the black settlers had been given land by the British government as a consequence of “our good behavior in the last war.” The King hearing of their unhappiness about living a cold country offered to “remove us to Sierra Leone where we may be comfortable.” Things had not turned out in accordance with the terms of His Majesty’s offer, and the settlers sought redress. The Company insured that the settler’s petition never reached the King.

By 1799, Sierra Leone’s settlers had grown so discontented, so revolutionary in their rejection of the Company’s rule over the colony, that some in London likened them to the revolutionaries in France.   The Company noted with alarm, “meetings of a most seditious and dangerous nature.”  The governor sent armed marshals to arrest several men on charges of treason.  Within a week thirty one men were in custody.  A military tribunal was set up to try the prisoners for “open and unprovoked rebellion.”  Henry Washington and twenty three others were banished to the colony’s desolate northern shore.

The exiles elected Henry Washington their leader in 1800, only months after George Washington’s death at Mount Vernon.  In the love of liberty, Henry Washington was not excelled by the better known George Washington.

These are the often overlooked stories of early America. Stories such as the roots of racism in America, famous murders that rocked the colonies, the scandalous doings of some of the most famous of the Founding Fathers, the first Emancipation Proclamation that got revoked, and stories of several notorious generals who have been swept under history’s rug.

No comments: