The American Revolution

During the Revolutionary War, the Royal Navy offered many slaves a chance to embark on a new life. Escape was a calculated risk, since slaves never knew if the British might sell them back into slavery in the British West Indies. However, British ships might provide sanctuary from the colonial slave system, and many British commanders also valued the skills and talents of the former slaves under their protection. The British were not acting entirely from altruism: by encouraging slaves to flee, they were deliberately seeking to weaken their enemy, whose economy rested heavily upon the labor of enslaved Africans. Some African-Americans did serve on the side of the colonial forces as pilots and seamen. The hope of a new nation may have led some to believe that their lives would be different as well.

The Earl of Dunmore was Virginia's last royal governor. In November 1775, operating from the HMS William in the Elizabeth River, Dunmore published a proclamation that called for slaves to join him in return for their freedom. To counter this, colonial revolutionary officials in Maryland and Virginia alternately promised harsh punishment and leniency to defectors. Approximately 800 slaves throughout the Bay region stole sloops, schooners, and scows to join "Lord Dunmore's Ethiopian Regiment." Slaves served as boatmen, guides, and foragers for Dunmore. Joseph Harris, a runaway bondsman trained as a pilot, earned the praise of Royal Navy officers for his navigation knowledge of the lower Bay.

However, within a year the governor's scheme had failed. Defeated at Great Bridge, harassed, and devastated by smallpox, the remnants of Dunmore's flotilla divided and sailed for St. Augustine, Bermuda, and Sandy Hook.

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