On November 7, 1775, John Murray, fourth Earl of Dunmore and governor of the British colony of Virginia, wrote the document known as Dunmore’s Proclamation. It promised freedom to any indentured servants, enslaved African Americans, or others held in bondage by American revolutionaries, so long as they were willing to bear arms for British troops fighting against American forces during the Revolutionary War. A week after drafting the proclamation, Dunmore had it published on November 14.
“I do hereby further declare all indentured Servants, Negroes, or others, (appertaining to Rebels,) free that are able and willing to bear Arms, they joining His MAJESTY'S Troops as soon as may be,” he wrote.
In addition to promising freedom to the enslaved, Dunmore’s Proclamation imposed martial law and stated that the American patriots had betrayed the Crown.
Loyalist Governor Sought to Expand His Troops
The proclamation was months in the making, as Dunmore was in a vulnerable position as throngs of rebels filled the Virginia capital of Williamsburg, prompting the loyalist governor to depart for Norfolk. Worsening matters for him was that many of his forces had deserted him, leaving him with only about 300 troops.
Given Dunmore’s dire predicament, six months before he issued the proclamation, rumors spread that he was considering this course of action, and a group of enslaved African Americans approached him about joining forces with the British against their American captors. Although he ignored these African Americans, the colony’s plantation owners feared that he would act on his plan to grant freedom to the enslaved.
On June 8, Dunmore boarded the British battleship Fowey at Yorktown. He proceeded to expand his troops, including by asking enslaved African Americans to accompany him. This all culminated with Dunmore’s Proclamation, the complete text of which appeared in newspapers such as the Virginia Gazette.
Dunmore figured that his proclamation would make plantation owners more concerned about possible insurrections of the enslaved than they would be about battling British troops. Without material support from the British troops stationed in Boston, Dunmore needed more resources, which he felt he would have by building up his forces with enslaved Black men, though some women were part of the effort as well.
Response to the Proclamation
Colonists who feared that enslaved African Americans would join ranks with the British tried to foil any attempts to do so by closely patrolling both the land and the water and limiting gatherings of enslaved people. Moreover, they tried to convince the enslaved that collaborating with the British would be a self-destructive move. And they pointed out that Lord Dunmore had enslaved Black people as well.
The month after Dunmore issued the proclamation, the Virginia Convention drafted its own declaration stating that enslaved fugitives would forgo punishment if they returned to their captors in 10 days but would face stiff consequences if they did not. An enslaved person who took part in an insurrection faced a death sentence.
In the end, between 800 and 2,000 enslaved men teamed up with the British. Known as "Lord Dunmore's Ethiopian Regiment," their uniforms featured the words "Liberty to Slaves." But smallpox outbreaks led to many casualties among this group. By August 1776, the British sailed away after wrecking a majority of their fleet, and an estimated 300 enslaved African Americans left with them. While that’s a modest number, up to 100,000 people attempted to escape enslavement and fight for the British to win their freedom throughout the Revolutionary War.
The war led to chaos and uncertainty on many plantations, motivating enslaved African Americans to take their chances with the British. But, to leave, enslaved Black people had to be situated on farms close to the British lines or have the means to reach them.
Many African Americans did not make the choice to flee bondage, however. They may have been old, sick, disabled, or unwilling to leave behind family members who would remain enslaved. That said, not until the Civil War would so many African Americans acquire their freedom. The document known as the Philipsburg Proclamation played a key role in helping enslaved Black people achieve freedom during the Revolutionary War by expanding upon the promises made in Dunmore’s Proclamation.
Philipsburg Proclamation Expands Call
On June 30, 1779, Sir Henry Clinton, British commander-in-chief of the Crown’s North American forces, issued the Philipsburg Proclamation which granted freedom to the enslaved in rebel states whether or not they fought for the British. Like Dunmore earlier, Clinton sought a way to expand his troops and thought he could win the war by joining forces with the enslaved African Americans the Southern patriots relied on for labor.
In his proclamation, Clinton stated that he would "most strictly forbid any Person to sell or claim Right over any NEGROE, the property of a Rebel, who may take Refuge with any part" of the British army. He promised "to every NEGROE Who shall desert the Rebel Standard, full Security to follow within these Lines, any Occupation which he shall think proper."
George Washington, Thomas Jefferson Lose Enslaved Workers
First published in the New York Gazette, word about the proclamation spread throughout the colonies. When British troops captured Charleston, South Carolina, in 1780, thousands of enslaved African Americans accompanied them. Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson lost members of their enslaved plantation populations as a result of the Philipsburg Proclamation.
Harvard historian Maya Jasanoff writes in her book Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World, that approximately 20,000 Black enslaved men joined the British during the American Revolution. In contrast, historians estimate that between 5,000 and 8,000 Black men served in the Continental Army.
In August 1781, British commanders such as Charles Cornwallis told Virginia Governor Thomas Nelson that African Americans "have come to us from different parts of the country" seeking their freedom. But when Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown in October 1781, he returned many African Americans to their captors.
The Philipsburg Proclamation remained the Crown’s official policy as the war ended. Sir Guy Carleton, who served as commander-in-chief after Clinton, granted liberty to all formerly enslaved African Americans who reached the British lines before November 30, 1782, the date marking the first peace agreement.
On May 6, 1783, Carleton told George Washington that he would be relocating these African Americans. Ultimately, about 3,000 formerly enslaved African Americans left New York and headed to Nova Scotia with the British in 1783. Some Black Americans settled in Caribbean colonies, like Jamaica and the Bahamas (some ended up back in slavery). Approximately 400 sailed to London, while in 1792 more than 1,200 emigrated to Africa in a new settlement in Sierra Leone. Among the newly relocated was Harry Washington, who had escaped enslavement under George Washington—the new U.S. president.
Proclamation of Earl of Dunmore, Africans in America, WGBH Educational Foundation.
Lord Dunmore's Proclamation, Black Loyalists.