On 7 November 1775 the royal governor of Virginia, John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore, issued Dunmore’s Emancipation Proclamation, offering freedom to any slave who would fight for the British during the American Revolutionary War. This caused the slave-owning elites of Virginia, both loyalist and rebel, to shit a brick.
In the last quarter of the 18th century, the abolition movement was becoming a political force to be reckoned with. This was a big part of the reason that the slave-owning states of the future USA were amenable to rebellion, even though Great Britain was a major importer of the goods produced there. Super-rich Southern slave owners didn’t want anyone taking their human chattel away, by gum!
Initially Dunmore had been very pro-colonist, and not particularly prone to demonstrate respect for the rights of Native Americans or blacks. Notwithstanding his earlier support, the Americans began to get on his last nerve with their agitation for independence. On April 21, 1775, Dunmore seized colonial ammunition stores and sparked a near-riot among the colonists, which eventually drove Dunmore out of the colony and onto the frigate HMS Fowey at Yorktown on 8 June for his own safety.
He issued his emancipation proclamation for completely cynical reasons, rather than humanitarian concerns. He wanted to shore up his forces and upset the slave-owning insurrectionists, rather than strike a blow for abolition. After all, Dunmore himself owned slaves. He was simply hoping that his proclamation “would create a fear of a general slave uprising amongst the colonists and would force them to abandon the revolution.” To this end he failed to understand the determination of slave-owners to keep hold of their profitable victims AND rebel against their own ‘masters’.
Virginians responded by threatening to kill every runaway slave they could get their grubby paws on, declaring that “by an act of the General Assembly now in force in this colony, it is enacted, that all negro or other slaves, conspiring to rebel or make insurrection, shall suffer death, and be excluded all benefit of clergy”. They did, however, promised mercy to any slave who repented his naughty rebellious urges and surrender forthwith.
At least 800, and perhaps as many as 2,000 slaves escaped and joined Dunmore forces, becoming what was known as Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment. (God only knows how many enslaved men were killed by lynch mobs trying to get to him.) Unfortunately, Dunmore’s troops were hit by a smallpox outbreak that weakened their numbers below a critical threshold. Furthermore, enraged whites, most of whom did not own slaves, were motivated by his proclamation to join the Virginia Militia, lest someone eventually make black folks their equals. Such horror could not be endured!
In 1776 Dunmore fled the colony, taking 300 of the former slaves with him in his escape to modern Canada. By the end of the Revolutionary War, the British had evacuated about 3,000 former slaves to Nova Scotia in exchange for their service to the crown.