It’s Friday! It’s the end of the work week and the start of the weekend. Continuing with the theme of the week, I will highlight the accomplishments of Thomas Peters.
Thomas Peters (also known as Thomas Potters) (June 25, 1738 in Nigeria - 1792 in Freetown, Sierra Leone) was one of the Black Loyalist Founding Fathers of Sierra Leone. Peters, along with David George, Moses Wilkinson, Cato Perkins, and Joseph Leonard, were influential blacks who recruited African settlers in Nova Scotia for colonization of Sierra Leone. Peters himself was a former African-American slave who fled North Carolina with the British during the American Revolutionary War and later ended up as a leader in Freetown. Thomas Peters has been called the first African-American hero. Peters, like Elijah Johnson and Joseph Jenkins Roberts of Liberia, is considered the African-American founding father of a nation.
Thomas Peters was born in Nigeria, and was an ethnic Yoruba of the Egba people clan. In 1760, a twenty-two-year-old Thomas Peters was captured by slave traders and sold as a slave to Colonial America on a French ship, the Henri Quatre. Upon arrival in North America, Peters was sold to a French owner in French Louisiana. Peters tried to escape three times before being sold to an Englishman or Scotsman in one of the Southern Colonies and it is Campbell, an immigrant Scotsman, who had settled on the Cape Fear River in Wilmington, North Carolina.
In 1776, Peters fled his owner’s flour mill near Wilmington at the start of the American Revolutionary War and joined the Black Pioneers, a Black Loyalist unit made up of runaway African-American slaves. The British had previously promised freedom 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; therefore many were legally qualified to remain as American slaves. Peters rose to the rank of sergeant in the regiment and he was twice wounded in battle. During this time Thomas was married to Sally Peters, a slave from South Carolina and he had a son called John (born in 1781) and a daughter Clairy (born in 1771). There is a possibility that Sally and Peters were once slaves together in South Carolina and that they reunited during the war.
After the war Peters and other former African-American slaves were taken by the British to Nova Scotia with Loyalists, where they stayed from 1783 to 1791. Initially after being evacuated from New York, Thomas Peters’ Loyalist ship had been blown off course and the crew temporarily settled in Bermuda. 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 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. Peters gathered the signatures and marks of African-American settlers in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick before getting funds to travel to London (with the risk of being re-enslaved) and convince the Government to settle the blacks in Nova Scotia elsewhere. In 1791, Peters went to London, where he helped convince the Royal government (with the help of Granville Sharp) to allow them to settle a new colony in Sierra Leone that was to be Freetown, Sierra Leone. Peters was well received during his trip to London, and he was introduced to some notable people there by his former commander, General Henry Clinton, who was politically out of favor. 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 returned to Nova Scotia triumphant in the quest he set out to do. Eventually Thomas Peters, David George, Moses Wilkinson, and Joseph Leonard, Cato Perkins, William Ash, John Ball, and Isiah Limerick were able to convince blacks in their various communities of Birchtown, Halifax, Shelbourne, and Annapolis Royal to consider the Sierra Leone offer. Peters and another Annapolis Royal black called David Edmons (Edmonds) petitioned John Clarkson for beef in order to celebrate their last Christmas in America in 1791. David Edmonds would eventually become a successful Nova Scotian settler in Sierra Leone and a friend of Paul Cuffe.
After convincing about 1,100 of the 3,500 American blacks to return to Africa, in 1792 they arrived at St. George 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). 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. Soon after Peters died of malaria in Freetown during the first rainy season in 1792. Peters died leaving a wife and seven children. A number of Krios can claim descent from Thomas Peters and he is considered by most to be a “George Washington” figure of Freetown, Sierra Leone. Legend has given Thomas Peters a noble birth in West Africa, whence he was supposedly kidnapped as a young man and brought as a slave to the American colonies. The earliest documentary evidence places him in 1776 as the 38-year-old slave of William Campbell in Wilmington, North Carolina. In that year, encouraged by the proclamation issued by Governor Lord Dunmore of Virginia in 1775 promising freedom to rebel-owned slaves who joined the loyalist forces, Peters fled Campbell’s plantation and enlisted in the Black Pioneers in New York. In 1779, in response to a new invitation to rebel-owned slaves to place themselves under British protection whether they wished to bear arms for the crown or not, a 26-year-old woman named Sally from Charleston, South Carolina, appeared in a British camp, and she too joined the Black Pioneers. In that service she met Peters, who by 1779 had been promoted sergeant, and they were married.
His descendants are members of the Creole ethnic group that lives predominantly in Freetown, Sierra Leone. During 1999 Peters was honored by the Sierra Leone government by being included in a movie celebrating the country’s national heroes. In 2001 it was suggested that Percival Street (specifically Settler Town, Sierra Leone, where Peter’s Nova Scotians settled) in Freetown was to be renamed in his honor, but this has yet to be done.
Peters was portrayed by Leo Wringer in the BBC television series Rough Crossings (2007).
A statue of Thomas Peters was erected in Freetown in 2011 by the Krio Descendants Union A Tribute to Thomas Peters