THOMAS PETERS

‘THE LEGEND’
THE BLACK LOYALISTS’ FOUNDING FATHER OF FREETOWN, SIERRA LEONE

Thomas Peters (also known as Thomas Potters) was born in June 25, 1738 in Nigeria, and was an ethnic Yoruba of the Egba community.

Peters abducted from Nigeria and escaped to Freetown, Sierra Leone.

By 1760 when he was twenty-two years old and had already been married twice, and in all probability a father, he was abducted and placed on a ship bounded for America. He somehow managed to escape in an unknown area of the West African coast (now believed to be around present day Wilberforce barracks in Freetown, Sierra Leone) and settled with folks who apparently were slaves who had rebelled and escaped from the boat the “Clara S. Williams”.

Peters abducted from Sierra Leone and enslaved in America

Unfortunately for him, he was abducted a second time and sold to the captain of the French slave ship the “Henri Quatre” and transported to French Louisiana.

He never adapted to slavery, rebelling at least three times and paid the price by being severely whipped the first time, branded the second and then made to wear heavy ankle shackles after his third try. He was sold to an Englishman sometime after that, where he probably got the name we recognize him as “Thomas Peters”. In 1770 he was sold to William Campbell, an immigrant Scotsman who had settled in Wilmington, North Carolina on the Cape Fear River.

Black Loyalists in the American Revolutionary War

As war clouds gathered in the American colonies in the summer of 1775, the British offered “encouragements” to Black Americans to escape from their enslaved masters and fight with them. The proclamation issued by Governor Lord Dunmore of Virginia in 1775, promised freedom to the enslaved who joined the loyalist forces.

In March 1776, Thomas Peters’ opportunity arrived and he redefined himself as a man instead of a piece of property and made a good escape.

The British had previously promised freedom to the enslaved in exchange for supporting the war effort against the colonies that formed the new United States. Many former slaves joined the British after the United States had been established as a nation.

Thomas Peters fought with the British as a member of the Black Pioneers; was wounded twice and made sergeant, which was the highest rank a Black American could rise to at that time. Though uncommon during this time, Peters had taken on a wife named Sally who taught him to read and write. 

The result of Black Loyalists after the American Revolutionary War

After the war, Thomas Peters and his family and some 3,000 other African Americans who had fought with the British were relocated to New York. It was apparent that they could not stay New York as victorious Americans. They were sure that they would be hated by the Americans because they supported the war against the colonies that formed the new United States. More also, they were still enslaving blacks from north to south of the colonies and they were subject to re-enslavement. In 1783, as the British evacuated him and other patriotic blacks to Nova Scotia, the ship he was in got blown off course and they had to seek refuge in Bermuda for the winter. The black loyalists finally arrived in Nova Scotia the following spring and the dream of life, liberty and happiness quickly turned into a nightmare. Eventually Thomas Peters and his family settled in Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia. Peters and his fellow Black Pioneer, Murphy Steele petitioned the government for land together. Both Murphy Steele and Thomas Peters had developed a friendship during their service to the Black Pioneers.
Peters went to London and petitioned for Blacks Loyalists to settle in Freetown, Sierra Leone.

The white Nova Scotians were no more willing than the Americans to accept freed blacks as fellow citizens and equals. Peters became disheartened with what he saw as broken promises of land by the British government and he decided to travel to England to demand the land promised to him and others.

After six years of subsistence living, Peters gathered the signatures and marks of over 200 African-American settlers in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick before getting funds to travel to London (with the risk of being re-enslaved) and convinced the Government to settle the blacks in Nova Scotia elsewhere.

He composed a petition to the Secretary of State in London and in 1791, Peters went to London where he located members of the Black Poor community and through them he came in contact with abolitionists Granville Sharp, Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce. He arrived in London at a fortuitous time when the abolitionists were trying to petition the Government to abolish the slave trade forever. Through them, he succeeded in getting the Government to agree to transport the Black Nova Scotians to the new colony in Sierra Leone that was to be Freetown, Sierra Leone.

Peters was well received during his trip to London, and he was also introduced to some notable people by his former commander, General Henry Clinton. It was decided in London that Peters and the Naval Officer John Clarkson, the brother of English abolitionist Thomas Clarkson, would assist in recruiting blacks to settle in Sierra Leone.

Peters recruited Black Loyalists from Halifax to Freetown, Sierra Leone

Peters returned to Halifax in 1791 with the prospect of a resettlement to Africa; along with some influential blacks in the black community such as; David George, Moses Wilkinson, John Ball, Joseph Leonard, Cato Perkins, William Ash, Isiah Limerick, Boston King and so on. They were able to convince a lot of blacks or settlers in different communities such as; Halifax, Birchtown-Shelburne, Preston, Annapolis-Digby, New Brunswick to accept the Sierra Leone offer. The same white Nova Scotians who were content to treat them as second class citizens were now opposed to their leaving because they stood to lose their cheap labor and part of their consumer market

Peters and Blacks left the shores of Halifax, Canada to Freetown, Sierra Leone  

In the end about 1,200 black Canadians (600 from Birchtown-Shelburne, 200 from Preston area, 180 from Annapolis-Digby area and 200 from New Brunswick) left the shores of Halifax on January 15, 1792 in fifteen ships to resettle in Sierra Leone. The journey took about two months and sixty-five black emigrants died en route. They arrived in Freetown Harbor between February 26 and March 9, 1792.

Thomas Peters and the Blacks Loyalists arrived in Freetown, Sierra Leone

After convincing about 1,200 of the 3,500 black loyalists to return to Africa, in 1792 they arrived at St. George’s Bay Harbor. Legend has it that Thomas Peters led the newly named Nova Scotians ashore singing an old Christian hymn (though most likely it was other more influential religious leaders).

The legend, Thomas Peters, sick from shipboard fever, led his shipmates ashore into Sierra Leone singing. “The day of jubilee is come, return ye ransomed sinners’ home”.

Thomas Peters soon became at odds with the newly established Governor John Clarkson and he called himself the “Speaker General” of the Annapolis Royal Nova Scotia settlers. Eventually the overwhelming majority of Nova Scotians chose John Clarkson as their true leader and Peters became disheartened.

Thomas Peters’ died in Freetown, Sierra Leone

Few months after they arrived in Freetown, Sierra Leone, Thomas Peters died of malaria and was buried in Freetown during the first rainy season in 1792, leaving a wife and seven children.

Thomas Peters lived for fifty-four years and spent thirty-two of those struggling years for personal survival and for some larger degree of freedom beyond physical existence.

It is a travesty that for all the trials and tribulations Thomas Peters endured for the last 32 years of his life and the everlasting impact he made on the formation of the land we now called home – Freetown, Sierra Leone.

Thomas Peters’ Descendants in Freetown, Sierra Leone

Thomas Peters is considered to be the “George Washington” figure of Freetown,
Sierra Leone. His descendants are members of the Krio or Creole ethnic group who lives predominantly in Freetown, Sierra Leone.

The Krio or Creole ethnic group in Freetown, Sierra Leone

• Four hundred black British who were once slaves were sent to establish the “Providence of Freedom”, known as the colony of Freetown and today known as Freetown, the Capital of Sierra Leone.

 Blacks from the New World (American slaves who fought with British in the American Revolutionary War) joined the settlers later.

• Other settlers who went to Freetown were Africans who were freed by the British Navy from slave ships on the open sea. These “Recaptives or Liberated Africans” came from nearly every ethnic group on or near the Atlantic Coast of the African Continent and occasionally from beyond.

As a result, FREETOWN was a major melting pot in which European, North American and West Indian influences mixed with those of various African cultures. This mixture eventually came together to form a single society collectively known as “Krio or Creole”. The language they speak is also known as, “Krio”.

Thomas Peters’ Legacy

If any African can be considered to be both the embodiment of the Biblical Moses and Joshua and still the least recognized civil rights fighters of the slave trade, that person is Thomas Peters!

• In 1988, Thomas Peters was honoured by the Sierra Leone government for his work as the ‘Founding Hero in finding Freetown.•

During 1999, Thomas Peters was honored by the Sierra Leone government and was included in a movie celebrating the country’s national heroes.honoured• In 2007, Percival Street (specifically Settlers’ Town, Freetown, Sierra Leone where Peter’s Nova Scotians settled) in Freetown was renamed in honour of Thomas Peters.

• A statue of Thomas Peters was erected in Freetown in 2011 by the Krio Descendants’ Union.

Krio Descendants Union International, Inc.

• Two hundred and twenty-four years later (1792-2016): Krio Descendants Union International, Incorporated members from Freetown, Sierra Leone returned to Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada and traced their roots.

• On Monday, August 29, 2016 – Sunday, September 4, 2016: Krio Descendants Union International, Incorporated members recaptured their footsteps from slavery in America, emancipation in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada and liberation in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Furthermore, they visited and learned more about the black loyalists and their descendants at places like the Africville Museum in Halifax and the Black Cultural Center for Nova Scotia in Cherry Brook, near Dartmouth. They also had the opportunity to bond with some of the black loyalists’ descendants.

~ Eyamidé Lewis-Coker (September 2016)