Black Nova Scotians send letters to ancestors who went to Sierra Leone in 1792

A new art installation at the Canadian Museum of Immigration in Halifax explores their history and how people feel about the exodus nearly 230 years later.

Karen Hudson

It was 1792 when nearly 1,200 Black Loyalists left Nova Scotia and set sail for West Africa in search of a better life.

The British had promised to give them freedom, land and jobs in Nova Scotia in exchange for their support during the American Revolution.

However, those promises weren’t fulfilled. The Black Loyalists were free, but they were given small, infertile lands and menial jobs, while white settlers were given better opportunities.

By the 1790s, the Black Loyalists had given up hope for fair treatment in Nova Scotia. That’s when the Sierra Leone Company began recruiting for a new colony in the west African country. Within days, 79 families had signed up.

According to Nova Scotia’s Black Loyalist Heritage Centre, a group of 1,196 Black Loyalists “decided that an uncertain future was better than certain misery.”

The group, made up mostly of ministers, teachers, soldiers, craftsmen and their families, set sail for Sierra Leone aboard 15 ships.

A new art installation at the Canadian Museum of Immigration in Halifax explores their history and how people feel about the exodus nearly 230 years later.

“It is the greatest story untold from my view,” said Kathrin Winkler, who co-ordinated the installation.

Winkler said the installation, called Message in a Bottle: 15 Ships to Sierra Leone, is a letter-writing project meant to create personal connections between present-day Nova Scotians and the seafarers who left — centuries later.

She said it gives people the opportunity to learn the history, while also reflecting on why the Black Loyalists left.

“It’s really a story of a community of resilience and a community of failure, and that was a bureaucratic failure,” Winkler said.

So far, she has received 92 letters from politicians, community members, educators and students across Canada.

Principal Karen Hudson and student

Karen Hudson, the principal at Auburn Drive High School in Cole Harbour, had her students write letters to the seafarers.

She also wrote a letter. Her ancestors lived in Preston at the time of the exodus.

“I wanted people to know that there’s a history out there that has not been talked about,” Hudson told Mainstreet on Thursday. “There’s a history of unfairness that exists. Things have been left out.”

In her letter, Hudson said she understands why the Black Loyalists left Nova Scotia, but she also reassures the reader that those who remained persevered.

“To see us now the way we are living, you’d be impressed, even though we still encounter racism and other inequities. We are all free. The tenacity of our elders is formidable,” the letter reads.

She continues by describing what life is like for Black people in Nova Scotia today.

“Regardless of where we live, there is a sense of community and personal wealth among the people even when there is push back or obstacles in our way. Even in 2021, we are still not as far along as you would think, having only just named our first Black people in multiple areas of leadership,” it reads.

“We have recently achieved some important milestones in history with the appointment of our first Black female lieutenant-governor and our first Black MLA.”

Winkler said once the installation is finished, the letters will be included in a book and the public can continue submitting them.

She hopes to collect 1,196 letters — one for each passenger.