Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 10, 2013

Lord Dunmore and the Ethiopian Regiment

Filed under: bourgeois revolutions,Britain,slavery — louisproyect @ 5:10 pm

Lord Dunmore: the great emancipator

Yesterday I posted a link to an article titled 10 Things You Should Know About Slavery and Won’t Learn at ‘Django’ to the Marxism mailing list written by Imara Jones, who has a BA in political science from Columbia University and an MA in economics from the London School of Economics.

Item 5 in Jones’s list (“Defense of slavery, more than taxes, was pivotal to America’s declaration of independence”) might have not sit well with some of our subscribers. Most are veteran Marxists and partial to the classical definition of 1776 as a bourgeois revolution, or what is sometimes referred to as “the first American revolution” that would be fulfilled—like Jesus’s second coming—by Lincoln’s Civil War.

One old hand said this:

I think this is a very questionable essay on the “Things” the essay lays out. I would proceed with caution on some of this stuff, especially on the economics and the ‘reason’ the colonies pushed for independence.

As it so happens, I keep a copy of Gary B. Nash’s “The Unknown American Revolution”, a “revisionist” study of the type I am particularly keen on in reserve for occasions like this. For those who have been following my analysis of the bourgeois revolution over the years, I am more than a bit skeptical of the “revolutionary” bourgeoisie—particularly when it comes to slavery. When the Communist Party was in the giddying heights of its pro-America populism during the New Deal, I wonder why nobody with both feet on the ground and a grasp of American history would have advised against the idea of naming the party’s school in New York after the slave-master Thomas Jefferson. But, hey, that’s just me.

Here are Nash’s credentials, while we are at it:

Professor at the University of California, Los Angeles (1974-Present); Associate Professor (1968-1974), Assistant Professor (1966-1968)

Co-chaired the National History Standards Project from 1992-1996.

Past positions include: Dean of Undergraduate and Intercollege Curricular Development; University of California, Los Angeles; President, Organization of American Historians; Dean, Council on Educational Development, University of California, Los Angeles.

Complete CV is at http://www.history.ucla.edu/people/faculty?lid=953

What you see below is an excerpt from Chapter Four of Nash’s history, most of which deals with Lord Dunmore’s raising of the Ethiopian Regiment, something far scarier than the Nat Turner revolt since it was backed by British muscle. Immediately following it is Lord Dunmore’s emancipation proclamation of 1775. (Long live feudalism?) I encourage you to read the two in their entirety, but want to make sure that you don’t miss the last two paragraphs that substantiate Imara Jones’s point:

Regardless of the horrible death toll at the hands of smallpox, Dunmore’s Proclamation reverberated throughout the colonies and became a major factor in convincing white colonists that reconciliation with the mother country was impossible. Dunmore’s Proclamation, wrote South Carolina’s Edward Rutledge, was more effectual in working “an eternal separation between Great Britain and the Colonies … than any other expedient.”

Among African Americans, Dunmore remained the “African Hero,” as Richard Henry Lee, destined to be one of Washington’s generals, derisively put it. Indeed, Dunmore did seem like a biblical Moses to slaves. As far north as Philadelphia, where the Second Continental Congress was sitting, news of the “African Hero” galvanized blacks. Encountering a white “gentlewoman” on the street, a black Philadelphian insulted her. When she reprimanded him, he shot back, “Stay you d[amne]d white bitch ’till Lord Dunmore and his black regiment come, and then we will see who is to take the wall.” “Hell itself,” wrote one Philadelphian, “could not have vomited anything more black than his design of emancipating our slaves… . The flame runs like wild fire through the slaves.”

* * * * *

Gary B. Nash full excerpt:

A few weeks after the Second Continental Congress authorized a Continental army, white Carolinians uncovered the insurrectionary slave plot they anticipated. The leader was not a slave but a free black man. Jeremiah, a fisherman and boat pilot who knew the shallow waters of Charleston’s harbor, hoped to be the agent of deliverance for thousands of slaves. Several months earlier, he had spread the word that “there is a great war coming soon” and that the British would “come to help the poor negroes.” After arresting him, white authorities charged Jeremiah with plotting an insurrection and intending to pilot the Royal Navy over the treacherous sandbar that blocked the entrance to Charleston’s harbor. On August 18, 1775, white authorities hanged Jeremiah and burned him at the stake, despite the efforts of  William Campbell, the newly arrived royal governor, to save his life. Believing that the evidence against Jeremiah was very thin, the governor wrote home that “my blood ran cold when I read what ground they had doomed a low creature to death.” His efforts to save Jeremiah “raised such a clamor amongst the people, as is incredible,” wrote Campbell, “and they openly and loudly declared, if I granted the man a pardon they would hang him at my door.” Executions and burnings at the stake were acts of terror to keep rebellion-minded slaves intimidated. But reducing Jeremiah to ashes or cropping the ears of slaves did not hold back the waves of slave unrest in the summer of 1775.

The wave crested in late fall when Virginia’s governor, Lord Dunmore, made official what everyone had known he intended for months. On November 7, 1775, aboard the William, anchored in Norfolk harbor, he drafted a royal proclamation declaring martial law and labeling as traitors to the king any colonist who refused “to resort to his Majesty’s standard.” The proclamation included the dreaded words: “I do hereby further declare all indented 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, for the more speedily reducing the Colony to a proper sense of their duty, to His Majesty’s crown and dignity.”

Lord Dunmore did not publish the proclamation for another week. But the timing and place of the public proclamation were poignant. On November 14, a contingent of British soldiers under Dunmore’s command, supplemented by escaped slaves, thrashed a Virginia militia unit at Kemp’s Landing, on the Elizabeth River south of Norfolk. Dunmore’s force killed several militiamen, captured both militia colonels, and put the rest of the Virginians to flight. One of the colonels, Joseph Hutchings, was captured by two of his own escaped slaves. Flush with this victory, Dunmore issued his proclamation.

Among the first to flee to Dunmore were eight of the twenty-seven slaves who toiled at the stately Williamsburg dwelling of Peyton Randolph, Speaker of Virginia’s House of Burgesses and one of Virginia’s delegates to the Continental Congress. Hearing almost simultaneously of Randolph’s sudden death in Philadelphia and Dunmore’s Proclamation, Aggy, Billy, Eve, Sam, Lucy, George, Henry, and Peter slipped away from Randolph’s house. Eluding the slave patrols walking Williamsburg’s streets, they reached the British forces not far from town. Three weeks after Dunmore issued his proclamation, Lund Washington, manager of his cousin George’s Mount Vernon estate, warned the general that among the slaves “there is not a man of them but would leave us, if they could make their escape. . . . Liberty is sweet.”

Within several months, between eight hundred and one thousand slaves had flocked to Dunmore, and many hundreds more were captured while trying. Many of them, perhaps one-third, were women and children. Mustered into what Dunmore named the Ethiopian Regiment, some of the men were uniformed with sashes bearing the inscription LIBERTY TO SLAVES. The slaves of many of Virginia’s leading white revolutionary figures now became black revolutionary Virginians themselves. They soon formed the majority of Dunmore’s Loyalist troops. Commanding the Ethiopian Regiment was the British officer Thomas Byrd, the son of patriot William Byrd III, one of Virginia’s wealthiest land and slave owners.

Dunmore retreated to Norfolk and ventured out on December 9, 1775, with six hundred troops, half of them escaped slaves, to take on the Virginians at Great Bridge on the Elizabeth River. The Ethiopian Regiment fought “‘with the intrepidity of lions,” according to one observer; but the Americans vanquished Dunmore’s forces, convincing the governor to withdraw from Norfolk and board his contingent on ships in the harbor.20 Slaves seeking sanctuary now had to commandeer boats and slip down the rivers emptying into Chesapeake Bay in order to clamber aboard the British ships. Cruising the Chesapeake Bay on Dunmore’s ships, they went out in foraging parties to procure provisions for the British.

Escaping slaves augmented Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment day by day. But an outbreak of smallpox soon reversed these gains. Crowded together on small ships, black men and women who had tasted freedom only briefly contracted the infection rapidly. By June 1776, Dunmore admitted that the killer disease had “carried off an incredible number of our people, especially blacks.” Dunmore briefly occupied Gwynn’s Island, near the mouth of the Piankatank River, but here, too, smallpox tore through his ranks. By July, he withdrew his disease-riddled forces, sending part of them to Saint Augustine and the Bermudas and others, including three hundred of the strongest and healthiest black soldiers, northward to New York City, then to be sent south-ward a year later for a land assault through Maryland to Pennsylvania.

The dread of slave insurrection that swept South Carolina and Virginia in 1775—76 also engulfed North Carolina. Especially in the coastal towns of Edenton, New Bern, and Wilmington, patrols searched slave huts for hidden weapons. In the Cape Fear region, where slavery was extensive, white officials nipped a slave insurrection in the bud just before July 8, 1775, when slave leaders, according to the Pitt County Safety Committee chairman, planned “to fall on and destroy the family where they lived, then proceed from house to house (burning as they went) until they arrived in the back country where they were to be received with open arms by a number of persons there appointed and armed by government for their protection, and as a further reward they were to be settled in a free government of their own.” “Armed by government” meant that Governor Josiah Martin, who had recently deplored the military force used by his predecessor to crush the Regulators, was the instigator of this slave insurrection. About forty slaves who had fled their plantations were found with arms and arrested. Many were whipped and had their ears severed; one was executed. Governor Martin fled to Fort Johnston, at the mouth of the Cape Fear River, and tried to recruit Loyalists to strengthen the small royal garrison there. Unwilling to keep this serpent in their nest, the Wilmington Committee of Safety, infuriated by the governor’s “base encouragement of slaves eloped from their masters, feeding and employing them, and his atrocious and horrid declaration that he would incite them to an insurrection,” raised a militia to attack Fort Johnston on July 17, 1775.

Destroying the fort was easy enough, since Governor Martin and his small contingent withdrew without a fight to a Royal Navy ship in the Cape Fear River. When Martin recruited immigrant Scottish Highlanders, especially those who had just arrived in North Carolina and whose land grants depended upon their willingness to uphold the king’s authority, the patriot cause became more difficult. But in a pitched battle at Moore’s Creek on March 27, 1776, the Americans routed the charging Loyalist Scots and dashed the slaves’ hopes for a British victory. However, a powerful British fleet arrived at the mouth of the Cape Fear River in the spring of 1776. This opened the door of opportunity for Cape Fear slaves once again.

One such slave, who has been forgotten in the fog of historical amnesia, was Thomas Peters. Captured in what is now Nigeria in about 1760, he had been brought to New Orleans on a French slave ship. Shortly thereafter, this Egba African of the Yoruba tribe started his own revolution in America, be-cause he had been deprived of what he considered to be his natural rights. He needed neither a written language nor constitutional treatises to convince himself of that. And no amount of harsh treatment persuaded him to accept his lot meekly. This personal rebellion was to span three decades, cover five countries, and entail three more transatlantic voyages.

Peters never adapted well to slavery. He may have been put to work in the sugarcane fields in Louisiana, where heavy labor drained life away from plantation laborers almost as fast as in the Caribbean sugar islands. Whatever his work role, he tried to escape three times from the grasp of bondage. Three times, legend has it, he paid the price of being an unsuccessful black rebel: First he was whipped severely, then branded, and finally fitted with ankle shackles. But his French master could not snuff out his yearning for freedom and seems to have eventually given up on trying to pacify the resistant slave. Sometime after 1760, he sold Peters north. By 1770, Peters was the property of William Campbell, an immigrant Scotsman who had settled in Wilmington, North Carolina, on the Cape Fear River.

In all likelihood, it was in Wilmington that Peters learned his trade as millwright. Three-fifths of the slaves in the Cape Fear region worked in the production of timber products and naval stores—pine planking, turpentine, tar, and pitch. As sawyers, tar burners, stevedores, carters, and carpenters, they were essential to the regional economy’s mainstay. The details of Peters’s life in Wilmington are obscure because nobody recorded the turning points m the lives of slaves, but he appears to have found a wife and to have begun a family at this time. His wife, Sally, gave birth to a daughter in 1771. Peters may have gained a measure of autonomy because slaves in urban areas were not supervised so strictly as on plantations. Working on the docks, hauling pine trees from the forests outside town to the lumber mills, ferrying boats and rafts along the intricate waterways, and marketing various goods in the town, they achieved a degree of mobility, a knowledge of the terrain, and a taste of freedom.

Like many other slaves in the 1770s, Peters got caught up in the anticipation of what the colonial resistance movement might mean for enslaved Africans. His own master had become a leading member of Wilmington’s Sons of Liberty in 1770 and later the Committee of Safety. Peters heard much about the rhetoric of white patriots attempting to secure for themselves and dieir posterity those natural rights that they called unalienable. In a town of only about 250, it was impossible to keep anything a secret. By summer 1775, Peters was keenly aware of the rumors of British intentions to inspire a slave insurrection that would bring the cheeky white colonists to account. In that month, the town’s Committee of Safety ordered all blacks disarmed and declared martial law when they heard that Governor Martin was “collecting men, provisions, warlike stores of every kind, spiriting up the back counties and perhaps the slaves.” The visiting Janet Schaw wrote that white Carolinians in the Cape Fear region believed that the Crown had promised “every Negro that would murder his master and family that he should have his master s plantation…. The Negroes have got it amongst them and believe it to be true. Tis ten to one they may try the experiment. . . .”

When Dunmore’s Proclamation reached the ears of Thomas Peters and other slaves in Wilmington in November 1775, a buzz of excitement must surely have washed over them. But the time for self-liberation was not yet ripe, because hundreds of miles of pine barrens, swamps, and inland waterways separated Wilmington from Norfolk, where Lord Dunmore’s British forces were concentrated, and slaves knew that white patrols were on watch throughout the tidewater area from Cape Fear to the Chesapeake Bay. The opportune moment for Peters arrived four months later. On February 9, 1776, white Wilmingtonians evacuated the town as word arrived that the British sloop Cruizer was tacking up the Cape Fear River to bombard the town. A month later, four British ships arrived from Boston, including several troop transports under Sir Henry Clinton. For the next two months, the British controlled the river, plundered the countryside, and set off a wave of slave desertions. Seizing the moment, Peters and his family made their escape. Captain George Martin, an officer under Sir Henry Clinton, organized the escaped slaves from the Cape Fear region into the company of Black Pioneers, as Peters testified seven years later at the end of the war. Now, in the spring of 1776, the days of an uncertain freedom began for Peters’s family.

Regardless of the horrible death toll at the hands of smallpox, Dunmore’s Proclamation reverberated throughout the colonies and became a major factor in convincing white colonists that reconciliation with the mother country was impossible. Dunmore’s Proclamation, wrote South Carolina’s Edward Rutledge, was more effectual in working “an eternal separation between Great Britain and the Colonies … than any other expedient.”

Among African Americans, Dunmore remained the “African Hero,” as Richard Henry Lee, destined to be one of Washington’s generals, derisively put it. Indeed, Dunmore did seem like a biblical Moses to slaves. As far north as Philadelphia, where the Second Continental Congress was sitting, news of the “African Hero” galvanized blacks. Encountering a white “gentlewoman” on the street, a black Philadelphian insulted her. When she reprimanded him, he shot back, “Stay you d[amne]d white bitch ’till Lord Dunmore and his black regiment come, and then we will see who is to take the wall.” “Hell itself,” wrote one Philadelphian, “could not have vomited anything more black than his design of emancipating our slaves… . The flame runs like wild fire through the slaves.”

* * * * *

November 7, 1775

Proclamation of Lord Dunmore Offering Freedom to the Slaves Belonging to the Rebels in Virginia, November 7, 1775

“As I have ever entertained hopes that an accommodation might have taken place between Great Britain and this colony, without being compelled by my duty to do this most disagreeable, but now absolutely necessary duty, rendered so by a body of men, unlawfully assembled, firing on his majesty’s tenders, and the formation of an army, and an army now on its march to attack his majesty’s troops, and destroy the well disposed subjects of this colony. To defeat such treasonable purposes, and that all such traitors, and their abettors may be brought to justice, and that the peace and good order of this colony may be again restored, which the ordinary course of the civil law us unable to effect, I have thought fit to issue this my proclamation, hereby declaring that until the aforesaid good purposes can be obtained, I do, in virtue of the power and authority to me given, by his majesty, determine to execute martial law, and cause the same to be executed throughout this colony; and to the end that peace and good order may the sooner be restored, I do require every person capable of bearing arms to resort to his majesty’s standard, or be looked upon as traitors to his majesty’s crown and government, and thereby become liable to the penalty the law inflicts upon such offences; such as forfeiture of life, confiscation of lands, etc., etc. And I do hereby further declare all indented 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, for the more speedily reducing his colony to a proper sense of their duty to his majesty’s crown and dignity. I do further order and require all his majesty’s liege subjects, to retain their quit-rents or other taxes due, or that may become due in their own custody, till such time may again be restored to this at present most unhappy country, or demanded of them for their former salutary purposes, by officers properly authorized to receive the same.

“Given under my hand on board the ship William, off Norfolk, the 7th day of November in the 16th year of his majesty’s reign.

"DUNMORE,

"God save the KING."

13 Comments »

  1. Interesting and quite in keeping with a revolutionary not being able to dictate the terms of a revolution, something you’ve been harping on against the moralizers and romantics ever since I’ve come here.

    Just don’t drink the formula and turn into that schmuck Aaron Aarons (who, I’m sure, will come here to gloat at some point).

    Comment by Todd — January 10, 2013 @ 5:26 pm

  2. I didn’t know this history. Really interesting! Thanks. (Always amazed at the white leftists who don’t understand how fundamental white supremacy is to every moment of this country’s history).

    Comment by ish — January 10, 2013 @ 5:31 pm

  3. No wonder they can’t see that Libya is a bourgeois democratic revolution — they don’t even know what it means.

    Comment by Binh — January 10, 2013 @ 7:25 pm

  4. ‘Another, not quite as long in the tooth as the first, was even more dismissive:

    I put this in the same category of article as “10 things you won’t learn about space from Star Wars.”’

    As a visitor to the list archives, I rather took that to mean who’d expect to learn any more about the reality of slavery from Tarantino, than one would about space travel from Lucas. (How *do* those X-wings traverse outer space? Oh, right, there’s this bubbly thing introduced in the seprequel.)

    But then arguably as a distant foreign (European) onlooker I find these heated debates about what to me seem to be little more than pieces of entertainment pretty bewildering.

    Sincerely & best in every other way.

    Comment by whatever — January 11, 2013 @ 2:40 am

  5. Amazing a white supremacist America could find 200,000+ white Union soldiers to die in the Civil War.

    That more than any slave insurrection is the reason slavery ended in this country.

    Amazing people of all politics skate around that fact.

    Comment by purple — January 11, 2013 @ 7:40 am

  6. I’m sure any of those “veteran Marxists” could also tell you that Dunmore’s actions were fueled by what is known as opportunism. He was already out on the boat, filled with desires for revenge and destroying the colony that booted him out.

    Means to an end my friend.

    Abolition and arming the slaves came on the other side of the equation too. From Wiki:

    “During the Revolutionary War, [Alexander] Hamilton took the lead in proposals to arm slaves, free them, and compensate their masters. In 1779, Hamilton worked closely with his friend John Laurens of South Carolina to propose that such a unit be formed, under Laurens’ command. Hamilton proposed to the Continental Congress to create up to four battalions of slaves for combat duty, and free them. … Hamilton argued that blacks’ natural faculties were as good as those of free whites, and he warned that the British would arm the slaves if the patriots did not.”

    It seems to me that is very much worth mentioning, unless one bases their politics on some kind of crude anti-Americanism rather than Marxism.

    Comment by Clark — January 12, 2013 @ 5:19 am

  7. I doubt that there was much difference between Dunmore and Lincoln. For that matter, Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee advocated emancipation in 1865 when Southern defeat was imminent. They hoped that slaves would fight for the secession if they became free. In all of these instances, slaves were a means to an end.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 12, 2013 @ 12:40 pm

  8. Of course. They [slaves] were private property, and we know what capitalism does with that. So I don’t really understand the point of all this. To point out that the representatives of capital weren’t morally opposed to slavery? Some were and some weren’t. Doesn’t really matter. Historical circumstances propelled them.

    John Brown was on a mission from god to abolish slavery or die trying. He did the latter.

    Grant fought hard for the Union then watched on as reconstruction was abandoned and the old slave holders crept back into positions of power in the south.

    Lenin dedicated his life to the fight for communism then led a revolution which (in a roundabout way, over several decades) led to capitalism.

    Men make history, but not in conditions of their own choosing, remember?

    Comment by Clark — January 12, 2013 @ 1:11 pm

  9. Thank you, Clark, for demonstrating my point about moralizers and romantics.

    “Men make history, but not in conditions of their own choosing, remember?”

    Not to mention a fine example of irony.

    Comment by Todd — January 13, 2013 @ 6:06 am

  10. Some interesting added details, but the basic argument has been made before by Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Edward S. Herman and some others. The difference is that these authors sought to invoke it not as a justification for US intervention in Syria but as a way of highlighting some of the hypocrisies which are used to justify such interventions. Certainly anyone who is willing to defend US intervention in Syria should have an easy time accepting the argument that it would have been more progressive for the British Empire to win against the rebels in the North American colonies. But that said, Marx & Engels were correct to see the world historic importance of the overthrow of feudalism by the new capitalist class, a process which did include the American Civil War.

    Comment by PatrickSMcNally — January 14, 2013 @ 1:18 am

  11. [...] Lord Dunmore and the Ethiopian Regiment [...]

    Pingback by John Murray: the Fourth Lord Dunmore | Harry Schenawolf.com — February 3, 2013 @ 3:42 am

  12. [...] Lord Dunmore and the Ethiopian Regiment [...]

    Pingback by Interview with Lord Dunmore, Part 1: Patriotism or Greed? | Harry Schenawolf.com — February 4, 2013 @ 4:15 pm

  13. [...] Lord Dunmore and the Ethiopian Regiment [...]

    Pingback by Interview with Lord Dunmore, Part 2: Wealth and Slavery | Harry Schenawolf.com — February 7, 2013 @ 4:44 pm


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