Beginning in 1775, the British military offered freedom to any enslaved person owned by a Patriot who ran away and assisted the British war effort. They hoped that robbing the Patriots of their enslaved workforce would weaken communities and bring the war to a faster end.
Historians estimate that around 20,000 enslaved people took the opportunity to self-emancipate between 1775 and 1783. Many were women with children or whole families escaping together. There was no plan for the people who responded to the call. Some men were formed into fighting regiments. Some women were hired as washerwomen and cooks. Many were held as low paid or unpaid servants of the Army officers and staff. Life was incredibly difficult for those who self-emancipated during the war. Before the fighting ended, about 8,000 died of disease or starvation, or in battle.
The Revolutionary leaders demanded that all runaways be returned at the end of the war, and included this demand in the Treaty of Paris. But the British honored their promise to the freed people instead. By the time the final British forces left the colonies in November 1783, between 8,000 to 10,000 emancipated Black colonials had been evacuated from New York and Charleston on ships heading to Nova Scotia, East Florida, the Caribbean, and other parts of the British Empire. Life in these new places would prove to be difficult and dangerous, but every Black person who made this journey was officially free.
The British evacuation of New York City began in August 1783 and ended on November 25. British military officers reviewed the cases of thousands of self-emancipated Blacks who wanted to evacuate with the military, and made decisions about who could go and who must stay. They recorded information about those approved for the journey in books that are collectively known as the Book of Negroes, to make sure the private ships helping with the evacuation did not illegal sell their passengers back into slavery in the Caribbean.
The records indicate that 2,744 free Black people evacuated with the British Army and Navy. This is the official number of Black evacuees from New York, though American slaveholders complained that the number was much higher, because the ledgers did not list people who left on private ships. The books include details about what each person looked like (the notes “M” and “B” stand for mulatto and Black), where each person was from, and how they came to be free. This allows historians to reconstruct what that person’s experience of the war may have been. And the notes on past ownership gives us a sense of the ways people ran away in groups and with families, supporting each other in their quest for freedom.
An entire searchable database of the Canadian copy of the Book of Negroes is available online from the Library and Archives of Canada.