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Black Loyalists were in a panic at the thought that they would be returned to their masters. American slave owners traveled from all over the south to kidnap their former property. The British had to make a decision: would they honour their promises of freedom, or would they make the politically expedient decision? The outcome was far from certain. Many Loyalists sensed that there would be no chance of compensation for their lost property if slaves of Patriots were evacuated with the other Loyalists.

General Carleton felt that justice and honesty demanded that the blacks be treated fairly. He wrote a letter to General Washington informing him that since the blacks were free at the time the Treaty of Paris was signed, he had no right to deprive them of their freedom. Consequentially, they would be evacuated to British Colonies with all other Loyalists.

Washington was furious and demanded a meeting with Carleton. He felt that the intent of the treaty was clear: return of all stolen property, including the blacks who had been specifically mentioned in the treaty. Carleton held firm though, and told Washington that some of the blacks had already been evacuated. However, he did hold out an olive branch, promising that compensation for freed slaves would be made to their former owners. Towards this end all blacks leaving New York were being issued certificates proving their claim of freedom before the signing of the treaty. At the same time a log was made of all blacks intending to evacuate the city. This log book became known as Carleton's Book of Negroes.

When the Brigadier General Birch began issuing these Certificates of Freedom to those blacks who could prove their length of service, the fear and panic among the blacks began to subside. A commission was appointed to hear out disputed cases. Of the 14 cases, nine were decided in favour of the slave owners, and 2 in favour of the blacks. The remaining three were rejected on the grounds that the board had no authority to hear cases from Loyalists who claimed that Black Loyalists had escaped from them.

Over the spring and summer of 1783 thousands of blacks were recorded in the Book of Negroes and evacuated to British ports in England, Florida and Nova Scotia, officially granted the status of free men.

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Image of a Certificate of Freedom
One of only two remaining Certificates of Freedom. (PANS)

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General Birch

Guy Carleton


Certificate of Freedom

Book of Negroes

Carletons's Orders Regarding Blacks