Annapolis River - Steal away
Destination on the Underground Railway
A man named Mattieu da Costa is believed to have been the first Black to arrive
on Canadian soil. He accompanied Pierre de Gua, Sieur de Monts, who was founder
of Port Royal in 1605.
The first large influx of Blacks into the Annapolis River valley were among
the United Empire Loyalists fleeing the American Revolution. Some were called
‘servants-for-life,’ or slaves brought by their masters. Others were free Loyalists.
During the American War of Independence, many enslaved Blacks escaped their
masters and made their way to British military lines. The British freed any slaves
who joined their cause. When the revolutionaries won the war, many of these Blacks
fled to Canada as refugees.
Today, there are families living in the Annapolis Valley who trace their ancestry
to Black Loyalists. The Black Loyalists who arrived in the Annapolis Valley and
elsewhere in Nova Scotia often found their new lives to be impoverished and grim.
Prior to 1783, there were more than 1,200 enslaved Blacks in Nova Scotia. Black
Loyalists arriving after that time added 3,000 more to the Black population.
At first, Blacks were denied equal economic and social status. Even in their
new home, Blacks were bought and sold as property. In the face of such hardship,
most clung to strong spiritual traditions. They found comfort and strength in
communal prayer meetings and in the building of new churches in the valley.
In 1791, 1,200 of the free Blacks sailed on 15 British ships to Sierra Leone,
determined to start anew in Africa, the place from which their ancestors had
been taken into slavery.
In the 19th century, Nova Scotia continued to attract Black refugees from slavery.
They travelled by night on the so-called Underground Railroad, an organization
devoted to helping fugitives from slavery reach freedom in Canada. Many Americans
broke the law and risked their own safety by hiding the runaways in barns, basements,
wagons, and aboard ships. Deathly afraid of being discovered by reward hunters,
the runaways sometimes communicated by secret codes hidden in spiritual songs.
One such song, ‘Steal Away,’ was a clear invitation to still enslaved Blacks
to steal away to freedom:
Steal away, steal away,
Steal away to Jesus.
Steal away, steal away,
I ain't got long to stay here.
An act passed by British Parliament on August 28 in 1833 brought an end to slavery
in the British Colonies. Nova Scotian Blacks could finally begin the slow and
arduous survival task of rebuilding their lives.
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