In 1775, faced with growing rebellion among the American colonies, the British
offered rewards to any Americans who would fight on their side. Lord Dunmore,
the British governor of Virginia , promised to free any slave who came to him.
By the end of the year he had formed a “Royal Ethiopian Regiment”, mostly made
up of runaway slaves. Both sides in the war tried to recruit black people,
but tens of thousands of them fought for the British. These “Black Loyalists” were
used not only as soldiers but as guides, boat pilots, servants to other soldiers
and often, labourers.
After the war when the British had to withdraw, thousands of black men also
had to leave. Most went to Canada , Nova Scotia or the Caribbean , but several
hundred came to Britain ; most of them to London . They were often penniless
when they arrived, and even those who had not been disabled in the war found
it hard to get work.
However, they did not receive the same support as the white “loyalists”. The
Commission for American Claims in London heard the claims of around 5,000 white
American soldiers for compensation for wartime losses, most of whom were given
help. By contrast, the 47 black claimants whose details survive were mostly
told that since they had “gained their liberty,” nothing more was due to them.
Only twenty of them received payments, mostly of £5 to £20, while
the payments to the white petitioners started at £25. Any “black loyalist” who
had been a slave before the war, who had no white person to vouch for his losses
or who could not write (the petitions were required to be in writing) received
no help at all.
As a result, the number of black beggars on the streets of London increased
sharply after 1783. Some Londoners responded with panic and calls for the “Black
aliens” to be thrown out of the country. It was at this time that the plan
was begun to resettle London 's poor blacks overseas – what became the Sierra