When the British attacked Charleston (Charlestown), South Carolina in the spring of 1780, thousands of enslaved Africans fled to the British lines as Loyalists. General Sir Henry Clinton, the British commander, offered them freedom as an incentive to leave rebel masters. Among those who took up the offer was a young man named Boston King. (Image: Charleston, c. 1770)
King was born enslaved on a plantation near Charleston owned by Richard Waring, around 1760. His father, who was literate, had been born in Africa but "stolen away into slavery when he was young." King relates that Waring had been on good terms with his father and his mother, a skilled herbalist, and treated them well. Boston's experience was less fortunate.
As a boy he trained as a house servant. When he was sixteen, Waring apprenticed him to a carpenter in a nearby settlement. His new master often beat him "without mercy. When the opportunity came, King joined the exodus of the enslaved fleeing to the British lines at Charleston. "I began to feel the happiness, of liberty, of which I knew nothing before " he later wrote. The British welcomed him, but did not always treat him well. (Image: Siege of Charleston, 1780, a somewhat fanciful depiction from 1862)
At the time, smallpox had broken out in and was spreading across South Carolina. The black runaways were highly vulnerable to this deadly, agonizing disease. Few of them had survived smallpox or had been inoculated, the two means of achieving immunity. It spread among them with terrifying rapidity, and King became infected.
British authorities removed the infected blacks about a mile away from their camp to prevent their soldiers from being infected. There, most of them lay in the open without adequate food or care.
King wrote later that he owed his survival to the kindness of a British soldier who had nursed and fed him. He was later able to do the same for his benefactor, when he was wounded in battle. Soon after, he narrowly avoided being sold into slavery by a white Loyalist officer. Captain Lewes was stealing horses from the British army and was about to switch to the rebel side. King escaped from him and alerted his British superior to Lewes' plan.
King went on to serve the British army in Carolina by carrying dispatches through enemy lines. One message he carried while stationed at Nelson's Ferry (Near Eutawville) helped save 250 soldiers from being captured by the Americans.
He later joined the crew of a British man of war and took part in the capture of a rebel ship in Chesapeake Bay. His ship went to New York City with its prize. King decided to stay and worked at various jobs, including as a crewman on a pilot boat. The boat was captured by an American ship and King was nearly forced back into slavery. But he escaped once again and returned to New York.
By that time, the war was coming to a close. Thousands of black Loyalists had converged on New York City, the last British stronghold in the former thirteen colonies. In New York, King married Violet, an enslaved woman from North Carolina who had also joined the British. But once again the threat of re-enslavement threatened him.
Article 7 of the Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolutionary War in 1783 stipulated (at the insistence of Henry Laurens of South Carolina) that the British return all American property to its owners, including runaway slaves. The news filled King and his acquaintances with "inexpressible anguish and terror."
Fortunately, the British Commander in New York, Sir Guy Carleton refused to implement Article 7. He argued that the black Loyalists were no longer property but free persons. Returning them to slavery would violate Clinton's promise. Prior to the British evacuation of New York, Carleton sent them to the British territory of Nova Scotia, where many white Loyalists also took refuge. In all, the British issued certificates of freedom to more than 5000 black Loyalists.
Boston and Violet embarked for Nova Scotia in July 1783. There they helped to establish a black Loyalist settlement called Birchtown. (King calls it Burch Town in his memoir). The settlement was named for General Samuel Birch, the British commandant in New York City who had issued certificates of freedom and overseen the evacuation of the black Loyalists. In Birchtown, King worked as a carpenter and various other jobs to support himself. (Image: Halifax, Nova Scotia, 18th century)
Methodist missionaries arrived in the area the following year. The Kings were among the first to be converted. Boston became a circuit riding preacher. Life was initially extremely hard, as in all new pioneering settlements The difficulties were increased by poor soil and a harsh climate. Tensions with white neighbors were often high as both communities competed for scarce resources and jobs.
After a few years conditions began to improve, but in 1792 the Kings accepted an offer from the new Sierra Leone Company to emigrate to a new British colony in West Africa. They helped to recruit hundreds of other black Loyalists in Nova Scotia to join them.
The Company's backers were antislavery leaders in Britain, including Granville Sharp, William Wilberforce, and brothers Thomas and John Clarkson. They established the colony as a refuge for freed slaves, most of them Loyalists living in Canada and Britain. They called it the Province of Freedom. It was later renamed for the nearby Sierra Leone Mountains.
John Clarkson led about 1100 Nova Scotia settlers, including the Kings, to the new colony. Together, they established the settlement of Freetown, now Sierra Leone's capital. Tragically, Violet died soon after their arrival, probably of yellow fever or malaria. Many other new arrivals, both white and black, also died. Few had immunities to the local fevers. [Images of Freetown, mid-19th century]
The Sierra Leone Company employed King to preach to the indigenous people. He was the first Methodist preacher to do so. That task proved immensely difficult, because he did not understand their language. He proposed to open a school. In 1794, the Company sent King to London to study at a Methodist institution, Kingswood School, near Bristol.
At Kingswood, King trained as a missionary and teacher, returning to Sierra Leone in 1796. While at Kingswood, he wrote his autobiography, which the Methodist Magazine published in 1798. It is one of few accounts written by a black Loyalist or any Loyalist for that matter.
Meanwhile, King had remarried. He and his second wife Peggy relocated about 100 miles inland to missionize among the Sherbo people. The couple died there in 1802, probably of a fever.
Boston King, "Memoirs of the Life of Boston King, A Black Preacher," Methodist Magazine, 21, 1798. King's memoir is republished in The Life of Boston King, Black Loyalist, Minister, and Master Carpenter, ed. by Ruth Holmes Whitehead and Carmelita A.M. Robertson, Nimbus Publishing Limited & The Nova Scotia Museum, 2003.