'What they call free in this country': refugees from slavery in Revolutionary America, 1775-1783
Item statusRestricted Access
Embargo end date07/06/2024
Mackay, James Neil
This thesis explores how Black refugees experienced refuge with the British military during the American Revolutionary War, 1775-1783. It examines how refugees from slavery created and were denied sanctuary with the British forces. This thesis employs a chronological structure, while also elucidating important aspects of Black refugees’ experiences, such as flight, siege, occupation, movement with the British army, and evacuation. This study focuses on Black refugees’ experiences in the Revolutionary South, extending from Virginia to Georgia, before moving to New York City in the final chapter. This thesis makes several arguments. It contends that Black refugees’ ability to gain sanctuary with the British military was circumscribed by factors including mobility, geography, enslavers’ allegiances, and the gendered contours of British offers of sanctuary. This thesis shows that the Revolutionary War changed the dynamic of Black refugees’ flight. Throughout the conflict, Black refugees, through their mobility, engaged in distinctive processes of refuge seeking and refuge making. At the war’s conclusion, this thesis reveals that whether Black refugees had forged refuge through service with the British military or by fleeing to British-occupied territory became critical in determining whether British officials would recognise them as refugees. In the war’s final years, two distinct conceptions of refuge emerged: one based on military service and the other based on mobility. This thesis makes a significant intervention in our understanding of slavery and emancipation in the American Revolution. Seeing enslaved people fleeing bondage as refugees helps to foreground the perspectives of Black freedom and sanctuary seekers. It demonstrates that refuge from slavery, as fleeting, precarious, and uncertain as it often was, better characterises the ambiguous relationship between Black refugees and the British forces than the binary of slavery and freedom. The term “refugee,” this thesis shows, encapsulates the liminal status of enslaved people who sought sanctuary with the British military. In doing so, it historicises the degrees of unfreedom that Black refugees navigated to carve out sanctuary for themselves.