Black Patriotism and Black Death in the Aftermath of the American Revolution

Pulling Down the Statue of King George III, N.Y.C. – Johannes Adam Simon Oertel, 1859 (Wikimedia Commons)

On June 15, 1776, Lucretia Pritchett petitioned the Virginia Convention seeking reparations for the deceased enslaved man over whom she claimed ownership, Minny. Minny, like many enslaved Virginian men, was an experienced waterman. According to Pritchett’s petition to Virginia’s legislature, Minny “voluntarily entered himself onboard a vessel commanded by Mr. Hugh Walker.” To construct Minny as a revolutionary patriot, his service was valorized because he was said to have “bravely and successfully exerted himself against the enemy, until he was unfortunately killed.”1 Resulting from Pritchett’s choice to seek damages for her dead human property, the “unfortunate” nature of Minny’s death was ultimately to her benefit, which is why she attempted to gain compensation for her enslaved pilot to further enrich her estate after the death of her husband Joseph Pritchett. To do so, Minny’s death needed to be valorized through a cloak of patriotism. Effectively, Pritchett needed to perform patriotism for the deceased enslaved man. Pritchett sought recompense because the estate was “deprived of a valuable slave.”2 Lucretia constructed the supposed patriotism of Minny in a way to her own benefit, and as a result of Minny being “lost by means of meritorious act, in defense of the country,” she wanted to be paid for the patriotism of this enslaved man.

Thirteen days later on June 28th, 1776, she received exactly that when the legislature compensated her with 100 dollars because Minny “behaved with uncommon bravery in an engagement with a piratical tender, and was killed by the enemy.”3 The enemy in this case were the British. The assessment of which group of African Americans were enemy combatants versus compatriots reveals the roles military necessity and pragmatism played during the war. Virginia’s legislature consumed the enslaved military labor of Minny, and provided recompense to his enslaver because she lost the value of her enslaved laborer. Without the words of Minny, we cannot truly assess or know how he felt about being used by Patriot military forces. His thoughts would be enlightening as well because of the conditions Black freedom were under after November 7, 1775.

Had Minny “chosen” to side with the British the year before, after Royal Governor Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation declared “all indented servants, Negroes, or others, (appertaining to Rebels,) free, that are able and willing to bear arms, they joining His Majesty’ s Troops,” he could have faced the wrath of white Patriots like Virginia Convention President Edmund Pendleton. In response to the proclamation, on December 14 Pendleton declared “that all negro or other slaves, conspiring to rebel or make insurrection, shall suffer death, and be excluded all benefit of Clergy.” If Minny truly chose to offer his expertise as a pilot to the Patriots, he certainly understood the danger he put himself into. But as an enslaved person though, he wasn’t necessarily safer in the long term. Minny’s story also has implications for how and what we consider agency, as Marisa J. Fuentes evokes, because Minny’s actions are archived because of how they could benefit those in power over him, like Lucretia Pritchett. Ultimately, Minny’s supposed patriotism was profitable for Lucretia and good for slaveholding business.

Black patriotism was also written in the memoirs of those soldiering alongside enslaved Black fighters. Commodore James Barron, in his older age, wrote in the mid-nineteenth century of an enslaved Virginian pilot who named himself “Captain” Mark Starlins. Starlins fought valiantly on the side of Virginia’s Navy throughout the American Revolution and in particular on the schooner Patriot. Barron said the African-born pilot was “a very singular and meritorious character in the person of an African, who had been brought over to this country when he was young, and soon evinced a remarkable attachment to it.” Barron’s assertions about not only the character of Starlins, but his potential feelings of belonging on the Patriot side are dubious. Barron’s conveyance of patriotic sentiment upon Starlins’s actions are questionable, especially in the ways those in power, like Barron, mobilized them to make the deaths of enslaved people like Starlins heroic. Since the power dynamics were considerably different — and we do not know why Starlins was in the war to begin with — one wonders when and under what circumstances did Starlins convey such feelings to Barron or another party that he felt affection for the Patriots. This is the major limitation of using this primary source to assert the patriotic ideals of enslaved people during the American Revolution. For most, we do not have their direct voices, which is why when we use the memories of those like Barron, we must be highly suspicious about their motives and points of view.

Barron continues speaking of the service Barron provided when he says Starlins “was brought up as a pilot, and proved a skillful one, and a devoted patriot” who “sometimes allowed his patriotism to get the better of his judgement.” Barron does not provide evidence of any instances of Starlins’s patriotism getting the best of him, but the Revolution got the best service out of Starlins it could, without any exchange of freedom for his service. Starlins in the end “lived and died a slave soon after the peace, and just before a law was passed that gave freedom to all those devoted men of colour who had so zealously volunteered their services in the patriotic cause.” Starlins’s death prior to freedom underscores why even when African Americans perform the role of a patriot, they still may not reap what their service sowed. Because they could not speak anymore, instead, whites could extend their exploitative methods in death. In her recent book, The Price for Their Pound of Flesh, Daina Ramey Berry describes how enslavers, even in death, commodified the bodies of their deceased enslaved laborers. Berry defines ghost values as “the price tag affixed to deceased enslaved bodies in postmortem legal contestation.”4 Although Berry’s term is tied to the the domestic cadaver trade, ghost value is applicable to the contestation Pritchett had with Virginia over how much she would receive for Minny — someone who, to her, was a dead body needing to be commodified. Furthermore, the post-revolutionary experiences of enslaved Patriots also undermined Barron’s assertion that a law was to come to free enslaved Patriots like Starlins.

A View in American in 1778 – Matthew Darly, 1778 (Library of Congress)

On November 14, 1789, Caesar Tarrant, an enslaved Virginian pilot, was manumitted by the Virginia General Assembly. Tarrant’s manumission was among the wave of manumission petitions offered on the heels of the American Revolution due to “a combination of Revolutionary idealism and Christian piety.” Caesar Tarrant’s manumission was different though. Although he received his freedom in 1789, Tarrant was manumitted by Virginia’s General Assembly with reparations due to his enslaver Mary Tarrant. Historian Stephanie Jones-Rogers connects how antebellum white women’s “fundamental relationship to slavery” was “a relation of property, a relation that was, above all, economic at its foundation.” Mary’s reparations claim for her manumitted “property” in Caesar Tarrant in late 1789 was a revolutionary era antecedent of white women’s economic power within the enslavement regime. Although Mary was a widower because of her husband Carter’s death earlier in the 1780s, Mary still gained an important financial windfall due to the General Assembly of Virginia’s decision to “appoint a proper person to contract with the said Mary Tarrant for the purchase of the said Caesar, and if they should agree, the person so appointed by the executive shall deliver to the said Mary Tarrant a certificate expressing such purchase and the sum.”

For a number of years, Caesar Tarrant put his life on the line on behalf of Virginia and the Patriot cause as an enslaved pilot in Virginia’s Navy. Yet, it took a number of years for Tarrant to receive the freedom his heroic actions should have earned him. The decisive Battle of Yorktown was in 1781; the peace Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783 and was ratified by Congress in 1784. Chattel slavery was a ruthless institution which daily devoured the lives of those in bondage. Tarrant could have easily died before ever sniffing the freedom that his heroism allowed many whites to feel in the newly established United States of America. His enslaver reaped the economic benefit of the institution of slavery for almost a decade after the war’s conclusion, and received compensation from the state legislature for Caesar’s freedom. Yes, Caesar did ultimately receive his freedom, but his example shows the limits of Black patriotism because of the influence of racial capitalism. Yes, as journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones says in her piece “America Wasn’t a Democracy, Until Black Americans Made It One,” many persons of African-descent were sacrificed in the American Revolution (and virtually every war afterwards) “for a new nation in which his own people would not enjoy the liberties laid out in the Declaration (of Independence) for another century.” Black pain was white gain; even in freedom, enslavers still profited.

In effect, for many enslaved Africans and African Americans during the era, gaining freedom was dependent upon putting their lives at risk to reach the military, well before they gained the opportunity to serve militarily. Ironically, for those who did fight in the Revolution on the American side, they contributed to what Gerald Horne dubbed the “counter-revolution of slavery” because the eventual United States, according to Horne, was moving in a direction toward slavery’s expansion and wanted to protect the institution, and Britain was moving more in the direction of amelioration and abolition. When contemporary politicians and their supporters question the tenets of Black and Brown citizenship by telling sitting members of Congress to go back to where they come from, they betray the multivalent history of Black service to not only the founding of the United States, but the continuation of the nation they profess to love and adore. Yet, in a way, that is not a betrayal as much as the continuance of a long tradition of consuming the labor of Black and Brown people yet withholding the benefits due to them for their service. The United States of America has to choose which tradition it wants to honor, and fast.

  1.  “Saturday June 15, 1776,” The Proceedings of the Convention of Delegates for the Counties and Corporations in the Colony of Virginia (Ritchie, Trueheart & DuVal, (reprint) printers, 1816), 165.
  2.  Ibid.
  3.  Ibid, “Friday, June 28, 1776,” 183.
  4. Daina Ramey Berry, The Price for their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation (Boston: Beacon Press, 2017), 7.
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Adam McNeil

Adam McNeil is History PhD student at Rutgers University-New Brunswick focusing on 17th and 18th Century Black Women’s History and slavery. Secondarily, he focuses on Black Appalachian histories of slavery and freedom.