The proper definition of the term “Loyalists” during and after the British- American wars (1812-1814) has been controversially presented in historical accounts. Specifically, the question on whether to include black people in the definition of the term Loyalists has remained a topic of debate. While it has widely been accepted that there was a significant difference between the terms “black loyalists” and “black refugees”, several historians have disagreed with the inclusion of “fugitive slaves” in the “loyalist” category1. In particular, the inclusion of back communities, who had fought side to side with the British army and the white loyalists against the American rebels, has often been controversial. Some scholars have often argued that there was nothing like “black loyalists” because the black people were not referred to as “loyalists” either by the British government or by their white colleagues. James G Walker and Barry Cahill are some of the best-known scholars who have presented in-depth arguments on whether there was something like “black loyalists” or whether the term “loyalist” may have been academically derived.
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On his part, Barry Cahill presents a strong argument that depicts the term “black loyalist” as a product of academic work rather than a historical term. He argues that this is a myth rather than a historical reality. On the other hand, Walker presents an argument in which he criticizes Cahill for his use of unfounded arguments. He thinks that the black people who fought alongside the British during the 1812-14 wars were regarded as “loyalists” and had an almost equal recognition as that given to the white loyalists before the war, but racism affected their recognition after the war and settlement in Canada2. However, when one compares these arguments with the historical accounts (such as the letters of a petition written by the former black soldiers requesting for land and fulfillment of other promises the British had made), it is clear that there were “black loyalists”, “white loyalists” and “black refugees”3. As some of the petition letters reveal, the blacks who fought alongside the British army were recognized as “loyalists”, were entitled an equal recognition as that given to the white loyalists. However, racism continued to derail and prohibit them from getting the same land rights given to their white counterparts. Arguably, Cahill’s work depicts a derivation of an academic argument that seems to turn historical facts into a myth, which Walker has largely revealed to be wrong and unfounded.
The “black Loyalist Myth” according to Barry Cahill and Walker’s critique of the myth: How do their perspectives compare with historical reality?
In his work “The black loyalist myth in Atlantic Canada” written in autumn, 1999, activist Barry Cahill presents a strong argument in which he attempts to portray the “black loyalist” as a term created and defined by scholars and critics of the British colonialists in North America after the British-American wars4. Cahill believes that there was nothing like “black loyalists” during and after the war, but the term could have been coined years after the war. To explain his theory, Cahill opens his argument with a depiction of an artistic portrayal of the “loyalists” as they arrive in Nova Scotia from the United States. In the early 1800s painting by Benjamin West, the words “reception of the American loyalists by Britain in Canada, 1783” were written as the heading of the work, depicting a group of whites and a few black families arriving in Canada from the US after the war5. In his theory, Cahill argues that by a simple look at the picture, one can conclude that the term “loyalists” included everyone in the picture, even the backs6.
According to him, this depiction is hypocritical and represents the falsehood that the British colonialists used to entice black slaves to join them in the war7. Cahill argues that West’s allegory hides some truth because the black families shown in the picture were mainly the fugitives who were transported to Nova Scotia alongside their masters, the captured slaves, and the white loyalists after the war. He argues that this does not make them “loyalists”8. Accordingly, he argues that “history has become a mythology” due to the inclusion of falsehood and allegory by people like West, and now adapted by Walker and other history scholars. Cahill argues that the academic invention of the term “black loyalists” is not only a myth but also a dangerous allegation that contributed (and can still contribute) to social unrest if black families in Canada seek to claim their rights as equal citizens and fulfillment of the promises made by the British colonialists9. On the other hand, in his paper “Myth, history and revisionism: The black loyalists Revisited” Walker has presented a theory in which he attempts to describe Cahill’s theory as unfortunate and unfounded within historical and academic realm10.
Comparing the walker and Cahill’s claims with Historical facts: Who is right?
Unlike Cahill, who draws initial information from allegories made by artists such as Benjamin West, Walker draws much of his supportive evidence from the letters of by black immigrants as they petitioned British rulers in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick provinces after the settlement11. Here, it is evident that most of the letters contain indications that the white loyalists, the British government and the blacks recognized a group known as “black loyalists” during and after the War12. For instance, Walker has drawn evidence from the letters of a petition by Thomas Peters and Murphy Still. On behalf of their Black Pioneer veterans, the two representatives claim their rights of land and equal recognition. In their letters to Governor John Parr, they described themselves as representatives of the “loyal black community” that had fought alongside the British. In other letters of the petition, some other Black people, like Thomas Peters and William Fischer, described themselves as “black Pioneers and loyalists”.
From this analysis, it is quite clear that Walker’s critique of Cahill’s work is justified by history. Cahill seems to draw much of his evidence from allegory and unfounded claims in an attempt to develop a theory aimed at reducing the social danger that would arise when black communities seek justice based on the unfulfilled promises the colonialists made. Historical accounts, such as those found in the petitions, prove that Walker’s argument is quite stronger than Cahill’s theory of “loyalist myths”. Therefore, it is clear that Cahill’s theory seems to turn history into myth, but Walker has used historical facts to reveal factual and academic weaknesses in Cahill’s arguments.
Cahill, Barry. “The black loyalist myth in Atlantic Canada.” Acadiensis 29, no. 1 (1999): 76-87.
Eardley-Wilmot, John. Historical view of the commission for enquiring into the losses, services and claims of the American loyalists. London: OUP, 2001.
Norton, Mary. “Eardley-Wilmot, Britanni and the Loyalists: A painting by Benjamin West.” Perspectives in American History 6 no.2 (1998): 128-131.
Walker, James. “Myth, history and revisionism: The Black loyalists revisited.” Acadiensis 29, no. 1 (1999): 88-105
- John Eardley-Wilmot, Historical view of the commission for inquiring into the losses, services, and claims of the American loyalists (London: OUP, 2001), 421.
- James Walker, “Myth, history, and revisionism: The Black loyalists revisited,” Acadiensis 29, no. 1 (1999): 88.
- Eardley-Wilmot, 127.
- Barry Cahill, “The black loyalist myth in Atlantic Canada,” Acadiensis 29, no. 1 (1999): 77.
- Mary Norton, “Eardley-Wilmot, Britanni, and the Loyalists: A painting by Benjamin West,” Perspectives in American History 6 no.2 (1998): 128.
- Cahill, 78.
- Norton, 130.
- Cahill, 81.
- Cahill, 84.
- Walker, 89.
- Walker, 92.
- Walker, 96.