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By the end of the 1780's, life in the black settlements was desperate. Everybody was reduced to humiliating poverty, forced to sell their clothes and tools to stay alive. The winters were incredibly harsh, and the stream of provisions from the Crown had just ended. Life in Nova Scotia seemed without hope.

The artificial boom of house construction and public works that had accompanied the beginning of the settlements was over; even the wealthy white families were reduced to poverty. In a city of merchants like Shelburne, there was almost nobody to trade with and certainly nothing to trade. By 1787, Shelburne had 350 empty houses; those loyalists who had the choice had returned to the United States.

Blacks, of course, had no choice. Their only alternative to poverty was slavery. Deprived of farmland and without a chance to return to their birthplace as free men, they had to work as wage labourers under whatever terms they could get. As people spent their last dollars on food or fled the depression-struck province, there simply wasn't enough work to support everybody. Many starved, and many of the rest sold themselves into indenture simply so they could survive.

All the descriptions of this period are filled with heart-wrenching stories, such as Marrant's account. He was near death himself, but carried a woman who had collapsed from sickness and exhaustion, in the snow, for 3 miles to Birchtown. Boston King tells us how he dragged a wooden chest along a 5 mile path in the dead of winter. He finally reached Shelburne, only to have it rejected as inadequate. Nearing starvation, and without any money or means of support at all, he had to drag it back to his home and build a new one. David George nearly died from exposure to the cold while traveling in the winter without a blanket or proper clothing.

Not everybody was so lucky. Some turned to theft to escape starvation, but for those who were caught a fate just as cruel awaited them. Many were whipped severely for stealing small amounts of food or clothing. One woman in Halifax was executed for stealing a bag of potatoes. Another, Alicia Wiggins, met the same fate for stealing a used dress. Her sentence was carried out despite the fact that she was pregnant. For those who were fined and could not afford to pay, indenture was the common means of payment.

Local whites also commented on the dire poverty of the blacks of the time. Two accounts come from military men in Shelburne; William Dyott and William Booth. Dyott was horrified by his glimpse of Birchtown; commenting that 'I never saw wretchedness and poverty so strongly perceptible in the garb and the countenance of the human species as in these miserable outcasts.' Booth was less shocked, but came to similar conclusions, noting that Birchtown's inhabitants were 'very poorly lodged indeed'. The traveling Methodist preacher William Jessop walked twenty miles through the snow without complaint, but found the leaky huts of Birchtown a bit too uncomfortable for his taste.

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Image by Tina Elliot and Jason Buchanan
By the end of the 1780's terrible poverty gripped all of the black communities.

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Boston King's Account

David George's Story

John Marrant's Story

Dyott's Description of Birchtown

Booth's Description