George, David (B)

1742-1810
Baptist
Sierra Leone

Multiple versions are available: (A)

Early Life

David George was a significant figure in the religious history of his people. He was born in Essex County, Virginia, in about 1742, of parents John and Judith, who were brought out of Africa in bonds. He had four brothers and four sisters all born into slavery like himself. In an autobiographical piece published in a contemporary journal, he said he remembered as a slave boy fetching water and carding cotton, and then going into the field to farm Indian corn and tobacco until he was nineteen. He recalled many instances of violence against his family. His brother tried to run away and received five hundred lashes when caught. “They washed his [raw] back with salt and water, and whipped it in, as well as rubbed it in with a rag; and then directly sent him to work in pulling off the suckers on tobacco. I also have been whipped many a time on my naked skin, and sometimes till the blood has run down over my waistband; but the greatest grief I then had was to see them whip my mother, and to hear her, on her knees, begging for mercy.”[1] His master’s cruelty drove George to run away, and eventually he passed into the ownership of George Galphin at Silver Bluff, South Carolina.[2] He described his life there as that of a spiritual profligate: “I used to drink, but not steal; did not fear hell, was without knowledge [of good and evil]…lived a bad life, and had no serious thoughts about my soul,” until one day Cyrus, a black preacher, confronted him with the Gospel. His conscience awakened, and he went through a “dark night of the soul,” about which he testified thus (with his emphasis):

I saw myself a mass of sin. I could not read and had no scriptures. I did not think of Adam and Eve’s sin, but I was sin. I felt my own plague; and I was so overcome that I could not wait upon my master. I told him I was ill….I felt myself at the disposal of Sovereign mercy. At last in prayer to God I began to think that he would deliver me, but I did not know how. Soon after I saw that I could not be saved by any of my own doings, but that it must be by God’s mercy- that my sins had crucified Christ; and now the Lord took away my distress…Soon after I heard brother George Liele preach…When it was ended, I went to him and told him I was so; That I was weary and heavy laden; and that the grace of God had given me rest. Indeed his whole discourse seemed for me…I was appointed to the office of an Elder and received instruction from Brother Palmer how to conduct myself…Then I got a spelling book and began to read…I used to go to the little children to teach me a,b,c. They would give a lesson, which I tried to learn, and then I would go to them again, and ask them if I was right? The reading so ran in my mind, that I think I learned in my sleep as really as when I was awake; and now I can read the Bible, so that what I have in my heart, I can see again in the Scripture. [3]

George was eventually baptized by Brother Palmer, presumed to be the Reverend Wait Palmer, a Connecticut New Light preacher in the mold of Samuel Hopkins.[4] George lived in Savannah, Georgia, until the British took the town and his master fled. George eventually made his way to Charleston, where he lived for two years.[5] When the British decided to evacuate Charleston, he was given the opportunity to leave for Nova Scotia, which he took.[6] After twenty-two days of passage, he arrived in Halifax in 1782 just before Christmas. After six months of enforced idleness, he was allowed to move to Shelburne, where his wish to minister to the blacks of the town was opposed by the whites living there. “I began to sing the first night, in the woods, at a camp, for there were no houses then built…The Black people came far and near, it was so new to them.”[7]

Earlier George had been active in religious pioneering, working side by side with George Liele, a black Baptist pastor who went out as a missionary to Jamaica and the Bahamas. George had become a regular pastor of the Silver Bluff Church, constituted in about 1775. He was also instrumental in setting up another branch of the Baptist church in Savannah in 1777. A man already softened by religious itinerancy and ad hoc opportunity, he extended his activities to Nova Scotia [8] (where Liele kept in touch with him).[9]

Life in Canada

It turned out that Canada was to prove no less testing. No sooner had he set foot in Nova Scotia than George set in motion plans to build a meeting house.[10] He preached his first sermon at a spot cleared for the purpose before the building was finished, so eager was he to get to the point, as it were. “I was so overjoyed,” he confessed, “with having an opportunity once more of preaching the Word of God that after I had given out the hymn I could not speak for tears.” To his disappointment and further surprise, he found obstacles to his religious work when the town of Shelburne reacted negatively to news that he had baptized whites. A gang of forty to fifty strapping fellows, disbanded soldiers, marched menacingly to George’s house and overturned it, threatening worse fate for the meetinghouse should he persist. Uncowed, David George would stand amid the ruins and at the appointed time hold forth on the Word, “till they came one night and stood before the pulpit and swore how they would treat me if I preached again.”[11]

Such a fate did overtake him when one Sunday an angry mob stormed the meetinghouse, whipped David George, and ran him out of town, where he sought refuge in outlying swamps. Under cover of darkness, George crept back into town to gather his family and to move to Birchtown, stalked by white opposition and black restiveness. The hostilities followed him there, where the blacks now joined the opposition. He was forced down the river back to Shelburne, which he reached even though “the boat was frozen, [and] we took whip-saws and cut away the ice.” His formed meetinghouse in Shelburne had meanwhile been converted into a tavern (said the tavern keeper, “The old Negro wanted to make a heaven of this place, but I’ll make a hell of it”), but it seems adversity refined the man. Under his unflagging leadership, the faithful gathered for worship and prayer, their numbers rising through the One who gives the increase. His exploits brought him to the attention of the British authorities in Canada; the governor’s private secretary, Jonathan Odell, issued him a preacher’s license, and David George personally invited the governor himself to come and witness a baptism.

It was on such a preaching tour that George suffered an accident, when his ship was blown off course and George, having no adequate clothing, suffered severe frostbite in both legs up to his knees.[12] He had to be carried ashore when he returned to Shelburne. His travels were severely curtailed thereafter, though in preaching he continued to enjoy undiminished powers. One of George’s parishioners testified to the preacher’s eloquence, saying that when George began praying he was so astir with the spirit that “many tears like Brooks” ran “down his cheeks desiring me to call upon that worthy name that was like Ointment pour’d down upon the Assembly- My Soul as upon the mount Zion, and I saw whosoever worked Righteousness accepted by him.”[13]

The Sierra Leone Migration

By 1791, many Nova Scotian blacks had begun to entertain the idea of migrating to a new home overseas. Thomas Peters, an escaped slave who lived in Nova Scotia following the Revolutionary War, was a key figure in creating this longed-for colony in the African continent. Citing harsh living conditions and unfair land distribution in his Canadian home, Peters journeyed to London in an attempt to petition for his cause and gain the necessary funding. Following months of negotiations, Peters’ petition proved successful, gaining complete financial support from Great Britain. With the assistance of British naval officer John Clarkson, Peters quickly rushed back to Nova Scotia and began recruiting members to accompany him on the colonization of what is now known as Sierra Leone.

By the time George was introduced to the Sierra Leone settlement idea, he had been living in fear of his life, or else of a rapid slide into economic servitude. Emigration to Sierra Leone as an explicit religious experiment he would have found attractive on grounds of principle alone, but when it coincided with arguments of personal safety, it was irresistible. George had been presiding at a religious meeting when John Clarkson found him. Clarkson admitted: “I never remembered to have heard the Psalms sung so charmingly in my life before”; according to Clarkson, seeing George in action convinced him that no business or person of rank was capable of deterring “him from offering up his praises to his Creator.”[14] Clarkson made him, along with Thomas Peters and John Ball, supervisors of the evacuation and expedition. George signed up his own family of six, and forty-nine of his flock also joined him.[15] Together, they would follow Clarkson, “an unlikely white Pied Piper across the sea to the coasts of Africa,” as one historian put it.[16]

A few more details may be added here concerning the state of the colonies prior to departure. Clarkson had undertaken a rapid survey of the conditions of blacks in Nova Scotia soon after arriving in the province. Appalled by what he saw, he turned from a neutral agent into an ardent propagandist. He promised himself “not to sport with the (Negroes’) destiny,” which he saw in a religious light.[17] When news reached Nova Scotia that the Sierra Leone Company was having difficulties with the chiefs, in particular with King Jimmy, calling into doubt the wisdom of setting out with a fresh batch of settlers, Clarkson, who was dining at Government House, bluntly denied the reports and cut short the governor with a lecture on duty. “The conversation dropped by the Governor’s pushing about a bottle.”[18] Thus, singlehandedly, and by means deliberate and dubious, Clarkson moved to overcome official as well as popular opposition to the settlement scheme, and in that his greatest allies were the black religious pioneers.

After a passage of seven weeks “in which we had very stormy weather,” they made landfall in Freetown in March 1792, with the high mountain, at some distance from Freetown, its peak blending with the clouds, appeared like a shifting mass to them. The settlers lost no time showing why they came, with George again stirring with the abounding energy of the entrepreneur. As he later wrote, “I preached the first Lord’s Day (it was a blessed time) under a sail, and so I did for several weeks after. We then erected a hovel for a meeting-house, which is made of posts put into the ground, and poles over our heads, which are covered with grass.”[19] George represented the general sense among the settlers of following ancient Israelite precedent, and they went ashore to the center of Freetown, singing,

Awake and sing the song Of Moses and the Lamb; Wake every heart and tongue, To praise the Saviour’s name.

An inventory of the skills and trade represented by the settlers shows perhaps the exaggerated faith in the limited means at their disposal, but it reveals, nevertheless, the bold outlines of the experiment to found a new society on African soil. The lists classify 12 as “qualified for particular trades,” trades that fell into thirty-odd categories, including sawyers, carpenters, coopers, shoemakers, smiths, butchers, bricklayers, cooks, fishermen, tailors, weavers, and one each of a brewer, sail maker, and pressing the limits of inclusiveness, chimney sweep. The roll included 127 described as “labourers acquainted with all tropical production,”[20] but 41 listed as “porters at wharfs and general labourers.”[21]

There were 385 men and 825 women and children, a number that includes children born to the settlers since the embarkation from Nova Scotia. Up to April 1792, 55 men (roughly 14 percent) and 57 women and children (7 percent) had died. The first rainy season brought wide-spread illness, with about 800 blacks laid up at one time and with Europeans far more vulnerable to the tropical fever. In the first few months, the mortality rate was quite high according to official reports. One such report announced that “of the 1190 free blacks embarked at Halifax in January, 1792, the following is a return of the deaths up to the 2d of September, 1792, which in the men and women have been principally old and inform, and many of those who died on shore were landed in a diseased state. On their passage 35 men, 18 women, 7 boys and 5 girls: total 65. Since their arrival, 28 men, 28 women, 21 boys, and 22 girls: total 99. General total 164.”[22]

Of a different order but of equally lamentable gravity were the reports that some of the Nova Scotians left the colony to form alliances with neighboring chiefs and to engage in the slave trade. Zachary Macaulay, governor in August 1797, noted faintheartedly that “the Settlers were gradually contracting a more friendly disposition to the Slave Trade. At this moment,” he testified, “there are two in the Rio Nunez, and three in the Rio Pongo, who are actually engaged in it; to say nothing of the number who, without carrying on a Slave Trade on their own account, are employed in the service of Slave-traders, and thus are aiding and abetting in carrying it on.”[23]

In June of 1794, an insurrection broke out among the settlers, but it was put down without bloodshed, and six of the ringleaders were arrested and sent to England for trial. Then in September 1794, renegade French Jacobins attacked the settlement, causing widespread destruction to property. For protection, the government proposed what it called a Scheme of Premiums to encourage the settlers to move up into the mountains, where conditions for agriculture were also believed to be better. There were few takers. In September 1800, a new and most serious insurrection by the settlers threatened to overwhelm the colony. It was suppressed by the strategic landing of a large number of Maroons [24] with a military escort. Two of the insurgents were killed, thirty-five taken prisoner, of whom three were executed and thirty-two banished. A number of insurgents also abandoned the colony and melted into the native population beyond.[25]

These are not the sort of events it takes to build a new Jerusalem, though if the settlement survived the drama and trauma of its early trials it would be entitled to a claim no less confident. As it was, the settlers had enough mettle to wish to defy the odds. History, in terms of proven practice or the advantages of personal circumstance, was not on their side, and many were the naysayers. With their sense of commitment, however, the settlers would invest themselves in the cause they felt worth promoting, whatever the risks and however precarious the future.

Leadership in Sierra Leone

George, who quite naturally exchanged the role of preacher for that of political pioneer, gathered the concerns of the settlers and made representation before the authorities, who had rather specific ideas about what was in the best interest of the settlers. Zachary Macaulay, who had succeeded to the governorship of the colony in 1794, had little rapport with George, which may have colored his journal entries. In any case, George appeared as a defender of settler interest, and especially of what George called their “religious rights.” The officials for their part were inclined to impute motives of republican conspiracy to settler restlessness, so fresh in their minds was the recent revolt of the American colonies against the Crown. “America” in colonial circles represented new world insubordination, and accordingly, care was taken to scotch any ideas of republican sympathy. But such care did little to diminish the social power of a redeemed, emancipated, and industrious black community now permanently ensconced on the continent of its origin.

David George continued to demonstrate the fact by pressing on the religious and political fronts at the same time [26], arguing that his people’s status before God as carrying no stigma had its earthly counterpart in liberty without prejudice. On George’s visit to London in 1793, the colony chaplain, Melville Horne, sent a letter of introduction with him to John Newton, as well as to other well-known philanthropists. Newton (1725-1807), a hymn wright, perhaps most famous for “Amazing Grace,” had been a slave dealer on the West African coast until he underwent a dramatic conversion experience.[27] On his London trip, George carried a petition on settler grievances [28] and made contact with what Horne’s letter described as “Christians of all denominations,” as well as with the Baptists, trying to stir up interest for the cause in West Africa. When he returned to Sierra Leone, he wrote to his English friends words of encouragement garnished with exhortation. “I want to know,” he persisted, “how religion flourishes in London.” In the same letter, he sounded a theme that might be considered the hallmark of faith in the personal enterprise the settlers brought with them to West Africa. “I am very glad to tell you,” he confided, “that the work of God revives here among our people, and I hope it will begin among the NATIVES OF AFRICA.” In his view, the work of God revived the work of social rehabilitation and moral reform, with blacks at the helm, and God’s spirit thus permeated the entire outlook of these settlers. Brought low by enslavement, broken by removal, and then stripped of any chance of personal recovery by the vagaries of multiple ownership, the settlers saw in the whole enterprise something of a second chance, which, if it worked out, would create a useful precedent for the rest of Africa.

David George remained in Freetown for the rest of his life, preaching the Lord’s word and scorning efforts against the ruling Sierra Leone Company. He died in 1810 at the age of 67.

Lamin Sanneh


Notes:

  1. “An Account of the Life of Mr. David George, from Sierra Leone in Africa, Given by Himself in a Conversation with Brother Rippon of London, and Brother Pearce of Birmingham,” in The Annual Baptist Register for 1790, 1791, 1792, and Part of 1793, ed. John Rippon, 473.

  2. For a discussion of George at Silver Bluff, see also Walter H. Brooks, “The Priority of the Silver Bluff Church and Its Promoters,” Journal of Negro History, 7 (1922), 172-196.

  3. George, “Account of the Life,” 475-476.

  4. See also, Albert J. Raboteau, Slave Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 109.

  5. Simon Schama, Rough Crossings (New York: HarperCollins Publisher, 2006), 108.

  6. According to George himself, “When the English were going to evacuate Charlestown, they advised me to go to Halifax in Nova Scotia, and gave the few Black people and it may be as many as two hundred (200) white people, their passage for nothing. We, were twenty-two (22) days on the passage, and used very ill on board. When we came off Halifax, I got leave to go ashore.” George, “Account of the Life,” 477.

  7. George Liele, “An Account of Several Baptist Churches, Consisting Chiefly of Negro Slaves: Particularly of One at Kingston, in Jamaica, and Another Savannah in Georgia,” in The Annual Baptist Register for 1790, 1791, 1792, and Part of 1793, ed. John Rippon, 332-337.

  8. Time and time again, George proved to be a man of his religion within his communities. According to Winks, “In 1790 David George exhorted his Nova Scotian brethren to pray and to learn: God, and their own knowledge, would help them, for the white man would not.” Robin Winks, The Blacks in Canada (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1972), 362.

  9. George Liele, “An Account,” 332-337.

  10. George recalled that “I now formed the church with us six, and administered the Lord’s supper before it was finished. They went on with the building, and appointed a time every other week to hear experiences. A few months after I baptized nine more, and the congregation was much increased. The worldly Blacks, as well as the members of the Church, assisted in cutting timber in the woods, and in getting shingles, and we used to give a few coppers to buy nails. We were increasing all the winter, and baptized almost every month.” George, “Account of the Life,” 479.

  11. George, “Account of the Life,” 480.

  12. As Schama explains, “When they finally docked at Shelburne he tried to walk, but collapsed and lay on the ground until someone from the church was sent for and he could be carried home. ‘Afterwards, when I could walk a little, I wanted to speak of the Lord’s goodness, and the brethren made a wooden sledge and drew me to Meeting.’” Schama, Rough Crossings, 243

  13. Cited in Anthony Kirk-Greene, “David George: The Nova Scotian Experience,” Sierra Leone Studies, n.s., 14 (December 1960), 106.

  14. Kirk-Greene, “David George,” 110-111.

  15. As Winks details, “David George helped organize the Birchtown Negroes into companies.” Winks, The Blacks in Canada, 71.

  16. Winks, The Blacks in Canada, 60.

  17. Winks, The Blacks in Canada, 67.

  18. Winks, The Blacks in Canada, 68.

  19. George, “Account of the Life,” 483.

  20. R. R. Kuczynski, Demographic Survey of the British Colonial Empire, 3 vols. (London: Oxford University Press for the Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1948-1953, repr. Fairfield, N.J.: Augustus M. Kelley, 1977), vol. 1, 67.

  21. Kirk-Greene, “David George,” 115.

  22. Cited in Kuczynski, Demographic Survey, vol. 1, 69. However, about a year later there was a dramatic improvement, at any rate enough to lead the company’s attending physician, Dr. Winterbottom, to assure the directors in October 1793 that the settlers “appear now to be so well accustomed to the climate that there is little reason to apprehend any great mortality among them.”

  23. Kuczynski, Demographic Survey, vol. 1, 73, n. 4.

  24. Maroons were descendants of slaves who fled to the mountains of Jamaica after the armies of Oliver Cromwell took the island and drove off the Spaniards in 1655. See Richard Price, ed., Maroon Societies: Rebel Slave Communities in the Americas, 3d ed. (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1996).

  25. Kuczynski, Demographic Survey, vol. 1, 73.

  26. According to Winks, George continued to advocate their religion even throughout political turmoil: “The preachers, especially George, counselled resignation and more prayer.” Winks, The Blacks in Canada, 75.

  27. John Newton, Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade (London, 1788). Excerpted as “A Reformed Slave Trader’s Regrets,” in David Northrup, ed., The Atlantic Slave Trade (Lexington, Mass: D.C. Heath, 1994), 80-89. For a theological study of Newton, see D. Bruce Hindmarsh, John Newton and the English Evangelical Tradition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996). Newton was not an antislavery activist: he merely regretted his personal role in the cruelties of the trade.

  28. Schama provides the following explanation for the petition that David George carried to London: “[The] petition addressed Henry Thornton, Thomas Clarkson, and the rest of the directors, asking them to return their governor [John Clarkson] to them and setting out in their own words just what he had meant, what he had done, and what he had given.” Schama, Rough Crossings, 361.

Source:

Sanneh, L. Abolitionists Abroad: American Blacks and the Making of Modern West Africa. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.

Additional Sources:

Brooks, W. H. “The Priority of the Silver Bluff Church and Its Promoters,” Journal of Negro History, 7. New York: University of Chicago Press, 1922.

George, D. “An Account of the Life of Mr. David George, from Sierra Leone in Africa, Given by Himself in a Conversation with Brother Rippon of London, and Brother Pearce of Birmingham,” The Annual Baptist Register for 1790, 1791, 1792, and Part of 1793, ed. John Rippon.

Hindmarsh, D. B. John Newton and the English Evangelical Tradition. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.

Kirk-Greene, A. “David George: The Nova Scotian Experience,” Sierra Leone Studies, December 1960.

Kuczynski, R. R. Demographic Survey of the British Colonial Empire, vol 1. London: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Liele, G. “An Account of Several Baptist Churches, Consisting Chiefly of Negro Slaves: Particularly of One at Kingston, in Jamaica, and Another Savannah in Georgia,” The Annual Baptist Register for 1790, 1791, 1792, and Part of 1793, ed. John Rippon.

Northrup, D. The Atlantic Slave Trade. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath, 1994.

Price, R. Maroon Societies: Rebel Slave Communities in the Americas. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1996.

Raboteau, A. J. Slave Religion. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Schama, Simon. Rough Crossings. New York: HarperCollins Publisher, 2006.

Winks, R. The Blacks in Canada. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1972.


This biography, uploaded in 2019, was excerpted, adapted, and enlarged from Lamin Sanneh, Abolitionists Abroad: American Blacks and the Making of Modern West Africa (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009) by Mylene Oyarzabal, a student researcher in the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) at Boston University, under the supervision of Dr. Michèle Sigg, DACB Associate Director.