Annapolis Heritage Society | Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia

Annapolis County slave owners’ petition in 1808

For 25 years following the arrival of the Loyalists in 1783 and the advent of a sizeable black population in Nova Scotia, free Black Loyalists lived alongside the black slaves of prominent American exiles. From the outset, this disparity undermined efforts to maintain a system of slavery. Annapolis County slave-owners, hard-pressed to retain their “property”, were forced to litigate to collect money earned by errant slaves working for other people. In an effort to clarify the status of slavery in Nova Scotia, this document was presented in the legislative assembly of the colony on behalf of the petitioners by Hon. Thomas Ritchie, member for Annapolis. An ensuing bill to regulate “negro servitude” passed second reading but never became law. The practice of slavery was unenforceable in Nova Scotia after that date (1808) and soon ended altogether.

To the Honorable the Representatives for His Majestys Province of Nova Scotia in General Assembly convened,
The Petition of the Subscribers, proprietors of Negro servants, brought from His Majestys late Colonies now called the United States of America Most humbly sheweth,
That, prior to the late American Revolution, Your petitioners were inhabitants of His Majestys late revolted Colonies;
That, when His Majestys authority began to be opposed in those Colonies, your petitioners adhered to their allegiance, and recieved the Royal assurance of full protection to their persons and security to their properties;
That, at that period, throughout all His Majestys Colonies (without any exception) a property in Negroes was maintained and acknowledged if not encouraged; And your petitioners know not of any public act since that time, whereby such sort of property has been declared untenable~ On the contrary, the Royal Proclamation and the Acts of Parliament admitting and encouraging persons of your petitioners political principles to remove out of the United States into this Province, expressly authorize them to bring their Negro Slaves.
Your petitioners are far from pretending to advocate Slavery as a System. With the creation of that System they had nothing to do. The introduction of Negro Slaves into His Majestys Colonies was at a time long before your petitioners were born. It was authorized by the controlling authority of Parliament, in which authority the Colonists had not by representation any share~ But, when your petitioners came to the age of discretion, they found that His Majestys Colonial Subjects possessed the rights of holding a property in Negroes upon the same ground that they possessed the right of holding any other species of property, and concieved that right to be as strongly guarded by law as any other of their rights or privileges whatsoever.
But, unfortunately for your petitioners, owing to certain doubts now entertained by The Kings Courts of Law in this Province, such property is rendered wholly untenable by your petitioners, whose Negro Servants are daily leaving their service and setting Your petitioners at defiance~
For, if it be no longer incumbent upon the Negro who claims his liberty within a colony, to produce the Certificate of his emancipation; or to shew that he was born of free parents- or, at the least, to prove that at some former period of his life he exercised the rights of a free person, it is in vain that his possessor attempts to litigate with him.
Negroes, universally thro the Colonies, passed like other chattels; Sometimes by Bills of Sale, at other times by mere tradition- As in the case of other chattels, possession was a proof of property till the contrary was shewn. And your petitioners are prepared to prove their property in the Negroes they possess against all adverse claimants. But, as Negroes are transitory, Your petitioners are not (nor from the nature of the thing is it possible they should be) prepared with a legal course of testimony, for deducing such Negroes Pedigrees from an African slave ancestor~ Much less (as Colonists) are they prepared, or (as they humbly conceive) in reason called upon, to maintain the legality of a System which the Parliament of Great Britain has authorized, and the Parliament of The United Kingdoms doth still allow.
Leaving all subtle reasoning to better heads, Your petitioners rely, and must rely, in this, as in many other cases, upon the long established usage in His Majestys Colonies, and must humbly hope for the same rule and measure of justice here, as might, in their case, be hoped for by His Majestys free colonial subjects of any other of his transmarine dominions.
Perhaps however, the peculiar circumstances of this Province, or perhaps the true interests of Humanity, may require, in this Colony, the abolition of that particular species of property claimed by your petitioners (these however are problems that your petitioners presume not to solve). But if so, it seems but reasonable and just, that your petitioners, and others under like circumstances with them, should bear only their proportional parts of the loss or expense attending such abolition.
Upon the whole therefore, Your petitioners confiding in the chaste manly and deliberate wisdom of this House; and fully relying upon the justice integrity and honor of this Assembly Most humbly pray, That their case may be taken under Your Consideration, and that either such regulations may be made as in your wisdom shall be deemed expedient for securing Your petitioners property in their Negro Servants; or, that, if such property is to be sacraficed to the public good, Your petitioners may, from that public, recieve their equitable compensation.
And your petitioners as in duty bound will ever pray,
Decem 3rd AD 1807
County of Annapolis
Rec’d 9th January 1808

The petition also included the following list of slaveowners with their number of slaves:

Owners of Negro Servants viz.: Men, Women, Children

Owner Men Women Children
John Taylor 2 2 2
James Moody 2 1 5
Margaret Moody 1
Simeon Jones 1 1
Isaac Hatfield 2 2 1
Henry Rutherford 1 1 2
And’w Snodgrass 1
Fred’k Williams 2 1 3
Isaac Bonnett 2
F. L. Bohme 2 1
John Burket sen. 1 1
Charity Cornwell 3
Edward Thorne 1 1
John Vroom 1 2
Eliz’th James 1
Nicholas Jones 1 3
John Polhemus 3 2 5
Wm. Winniett 2 1 1
Elijah Purdy 1 2
Bithiah Purdy 1
Samuel Heloson 1 1
Belony Heloson 1 1
Samuel Dowset 1
Harry Dowset 1
Frederick Devoue 1 1
Eben Cutler 1 1
Tho. Cornwell 1 2