A Tribute to Thomas Peters
“Black Moses” and Founding Father of Freetown
by Melbourne Garber
If any African can be considered to be both the embodiment of Moses and Joshua and still be one of the most unrecognized civil rights fighters of the slave trade, that person is Thomas Peters. The history of this great man detailed below is based on historical research and articles by Gary B. Nash and the Krio Descendants Yunion 2011 Calendar.
Thomas Peters was born in 1738 in the Egba branch of the Yuroba tribe in Nigeria. By 1760 when he was 22 and had already been married twice and in all probability a father, he was kidnapped and put on a ship bound 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) and settled with folks who apparently were slaves who had mutinied on the boat the “Clara S. Williams”. Unfortunately for him, he was kidnapped 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 by and by 1770 had been sold to William Campbell, an immigrant Scotsman who had settled in Wilmington, North Carolina on the Cape Fear River.
As war clouds gathered in the American colonies in the summer of 1775, the British offered “encouragements” to Negroes to escape from their slave masters and fight with them. In March 1776, Peters’ opportunity arrived and he redefined himself as a man instead of a piece of property and made good his escape. He fought with the British as a member of the Black Pioneers, was wounded twice and made sergeant, which was the highest rank a Negro 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.
After the war, Thomas Peters and his family and some 3000 other Afro-Americans that had fought with the British were relocated to New York. It was apparent that they could not stay there as the victorious Americans particularly hated these Afro-Americans who had fought with the “enemy” and it was still a slave country from north to south 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. They finally arrived in Nova Scotia the following spring and the dream of life, liberty and happiness quickly turned into a nightmare. The white Nova Scotians were no more willing than the Americans to accept free blacks as fellow citizens and equals.
After six years of subsistence living, represented by over 200 black families, Peters composed a petition to the Secretary of State in London and carried it personally across the Atlantic. In London he located members of the Black Poor community and through them came in contact with abolitionists Granville Sharp, Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce. Peters 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 Sierra Leone.
Peters returned to Halifax in 1791 with the prospect of a resettlement to Africa. Along with other stalwarts in the black community like David George, Moses Wilkinson, John Ball and Cato Perkins, Peters was able to convince a lot of the blacks in different communities 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.
In the end 1,196 black Canadians, many of whom were African born, 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.
Legend has it that Thomas Peters, sick from shipboard fever, led his shipmates ashore in Sierra Leone singing. “The day of jubilee is come; return ye ransomed sinners home.” In less than four months Thomas Peters was dead, rumored to have succumbed to malaria and was buried in Freetown. Thomas Peters lived for fifty-four years and spent thirty-two of those struggling incessantly 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 call home – Sierra Leone, there has not been the recognition and gratitude from not just Krios but Sierra Leoneans for such an inspirational and important man. The erection of a statue in his honor is a fitting beginning to redress this significant slight.