When the sailing ship anchored in the sheltered estuary of the Sierra Leone River, Thomas Peters and his fellow passengers had finally arrived in what they were told was the promised land. After years of exile, they were part of a pioneering social experiment — the founding of a new colony of freed slaves in Africa. They had seized their liberty by fighting alongside the British during the American Revolution, and now, seven years after those hostilities had ended, they were about to claim their just reward. Or so they thought.
Little is known about Peters’ early life. Scholars believe he was born in 1738 to a Yoruba-speaking family in what’s now southeastern Nigeria, kidnapped by slavers around age 22 and shipped to Louisiana, then a French possession. The earliest documentation of his life shows Peters’ master selling him in 1770, after three attempts to escape, to William Campbell, who owned a plantation and flour mill along the Cape Fear River, in Wilmington, North Carolina.
Scholars now suggest that Peters was sabotaged by officials of the Sierra Leone Company who were frightened by his “radical” ideas about democracy.
Peters found himself in a town full of revolutionary zeal, a place flush with pamphlets decrying British tyranny and oppression — sentiments that must have struck Peters and other slaves as hypocritical, at the very least. Soon after the “shot heard round the world” was fired in Lexington in 1775, the British took advantage of this schism and proclaimed that slaves who fought for the crown in suppressing the American rebellion would be rewarded with their freedom.
The following spring, when the Redcoats arrived outside Wilmington, Peters emancipated himself. He joined the Black Pioneers, an unarmed company that provided logistical support for the British Army. Wounded twice in battle, Peters rose to the rank of sergeant. In 1779, a runaway slave named Sally from Charleston, South Carolina, showed up in a British camp, where she met Peters. They had a daughter, Clairy, and a son, John.
In 1783, when the tide of the war turned against the British, Peters, his young family and 3,000 other newly liberated people of African descent were evacuated. Black Loyalists, as they were known, were promised land and equal treatment under British law, but their holdings in the Canadian Maritimes were stony and infertile, the climate punishing and the locals hostile. “In Nova Scotia, the dream of life, liberty and happiness turned into a nightmare,” writes UCLA historian Gary B. Nash in his chapter on Peters in Struggle and Survival in Colonial America. “White Nova Scotians were no more willing than the Americans had been to accept free Blacks as fellow citizens and equals.”
Peters soon became the informal representative of the Black community, presenting its concerns to authorities in the Canadian provinces and eventually in London. There he met Granville Sharp and other white abolitionists, who were setting up the Sierra Leone Company in conjunction with the British government to establish an outpost for “legitimate” trade — that is, no slaving — with the interior. The company had investors but lacked settlers. Granville offered to relocate disaffected Black Loyalists in Canada to what he touted as the “Province of Freedom” in Africa.
Peters returned to Canada and convinced 1,200 men, women and children to seek a better life in West Africa. The recruits included Harry Washington, formerly a slave owned by George Washington, and David George, the founder of one of the first Black Christian congregations in the American colonies.
The symbolism was not lost on the settlers as they boarded ships to take them back to Africa. According to a British abolitionist helping Peters, “an old woman of 104 years of age requested me to take her, that she might lay her bones in her native country.”
After months at sea, the settlers anchored on March 11, 1790, at the tip of a verdant, hilly peninsula. They waded ashore and began building a settlement that eventually became known as Freetown around a giant cotton tree that still stands in the heart of Sierra Leone’s capital city.
The settlers soon realized that the company’s English white officials had the same racist and paternalistic attitudes they had encountered in North America. Once again taking up the mantle of leadership, Peters reminded settlers during evening prayer meetings of the company’s unfulfilled promises, such as adequate supplies, tools, land grants and democratic government.
Feeling duped, the Nova Scotia settlers turned on Peters, who soon lost influence. He was charged with theft when he tried to collect a debt and was convicted in a jury trial. In many accounts, when he died in 1792, reputedly from malaria, he was a disgraced man, but scholars now suggest that Peters was sabotaged by officials of the Sierra Leone Company who were frightened by his “radical” ideas about democracy and threatened by his leadership. “Thomas Peters’ project was about an independent Black nation,” says Dr. Ibrahima Abdullah, a former professor of history and African studies at Fourah Bay College at the University of Sierra Leone, “but the British would not allow that, so he got edged out.”
It took Sierra Leone until 1961 to gain independence. In 2007, to commemorate the bicentennial of the abolition of slavery in the British Empire, officials renamed Percival Street in Freetown as Thomas Peters Street and erected a statue of him outside one of the oldest churches in Freetown.
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