The Pioneer who Moved Antislavery to Africa
Thomas Peters was an escaped slave who fought on the side of the British during the American Revolutionary War to win his freedom. He played a leading role in facilitating the return of his fellow freed slaves to Africa. After the war, the activities of Peters inspired a ferment for liberation and stirred up a new hope by rejuvenating the idea of taking anti-slavery to Africa.
Peters had fled in 1776 from his master and joined the British, lured by the promise of freedom. Twice wounded in battle, he survived the war and then went with his wife to settle in Nova Scotia. Arriving in London in 1791, he bore the grievances of Nova Scotian blacks who felt cheated on the promises made them by the British. Peters became an instant London celebrity and was warmly received by Granville Sharp and his fellow reformers.  “His eloquence, his passion, his spirit, made him the rage of the newspaper world, and the latest fashionable craze, and the nearest object of philanthropy.” 
Thomas Peters was born in the 1740s in Nigeria as an Egba Yoruba. He was kidnapped in 1760 and sold to a French slave ship, the Henri Quatre. Peters arrived in French Louisiana, and soon after his French master sold him to an Englishman. By 1770, he had been sold again, this time to William Campbell, a Scots-man in Wilmington, North Carolina, the seat of New Hanover County, where Peters learned his trade as a millwright. The war approached Wilmington early in 1776, and it was evacuated in February of that year. In order to effect his freedom, Peters joined the British side of the war and enlisted in the regiment of the Black Pioneers. He was present at a British bombardment of Charleston in the summer of 1776, and was with the British when they moved north to take Philadelphia at the end of 1777. At the end of the war, he and other blacks were taken to New York City in preparation for their shipment to Nova Scotia.
Life in Canada and the London Petition
In Canada, where freedom proved no less elusive, Peters reasoned that he and his people “would have to look beyond the governor and his surveyors to complete their escape from slavery and to achieve the independence they sought.” Peters organized a petition  among the blacks of St. John, New Brunswick, and Digby, Nova Scotia, and carried it personally to London for the secretary of state for foreign affairs, William W. Granville. The petition described the harsh conditions of blacks in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, asking for an urgent plan to remedy the situation. The position of the blacks in Canada, which had been described three years earlier (in 1788) as desperate, with most of them “without Clothing” and numbers of them “destitute of the necessities of Life” and facing “the most keen Distress” with the winter cold , had only grown worse and more alarming. The choice was between finding arable land in Canada, which was unlikely, or else emigrating elsewhere for the purpose. The petition brought immediate action, with the secretary of state initiating inquiries in Canada and asking that either the blacks be provided with useful land or else enabled to emigrate to Sierra Leone. The directors of the newly formed Sierra Leone Company accepted Peters’ petition and “concurred in applying to His Majesty’s Ministers for a passage for [the blacks] at the expense of government, and having obtained a favourable answer to their application, they immediately availed themselves at the services of Lieut. Clarkson, who very handsomely offered to go to Nova Scotia, in order to make the necessary proposals, and to superintend the collecting and bringing over such free blacks to Sierra Leone, as might be willing to emigrate.” The British government, what John Quincy Adams termed “our old Grandam Britain,” it was agreed, would bear the cost of such emigration.
Migration to Sierra Leone
Encouraged, Peters returned to Nova Scotia with plans to organize the blacks for transportation to Sierra Leone, against a good deal of opposition from both blacks and whites, it turned out. The blacks were afraid of undertaking the hazards of a journey to a continent whence they or their forebears had been taken and sold into slavery, while the whites feared that emigration would deplete a source of cheap black labor. But nothing could stop the venture now. In August 1791 proceedings were set in motion to screen potential Nova Scotian black emigrants to Sierra Leone. John Clarkson, the younger brother of Thomas Clarkson, was chosen as agent for this task, and Peters became his indefatigable assistant.
Peters himself took personal responsibility in rounding up candidates for the enterprise. Finally, on 15 January 1792 the freedom armada of sixteen ships spread sail. The whole enterprise had cost nearly £9,600, and carried 1996 individuals.
Arrival and Life in Sierra Leone
Two months later the party landed, haggard and buffeted by disease and weather. Sixty-five had died at sea and another hundred were too ill to disembark. But there was no mistaking the symbolic significance of the feat just accomplished. Here is one description of the landing scene in which Thomas Peters played a leading role:
Their pastors  led them ashore, singing a hymn of praise…. Like the Children of Israel which were come out again out of the captivity they rejoiced before the Lord, who brought them from bondage to the land of their forefathers. When all had arrived, the whole colony assembled in worship, to proclaim to the…. continent whence they or their forbears had been carried in chains-
“The day of Jubilee is come;
Return ye ransomed sinners home.”
Peters was ill with fever at a time of landfall, but he rejoiced openly at their safe arrival and the prospects that lay before them. He recovered early enough for his compatriots to elect  him their speaker-general. He soon fell out of favor with his people, however, and was found hatching a plot to overthrow authority. Warned in advance, Clarkson called a public meeting of the settlers and before them threatened Peters as a mutineer. Peters was then accused of embezzling money owed to two orphans. In the subsequent trial before a jury, Peters was found guilty, made to give up the money, and censored severely. He made to mend his ways, attended the nightly prayer meetings punctiliously, and testified regularly. Clarkson, disinclined to ignore an early warning, also showed up, determined to neutralize whatever remained of Peters’ influence. Disheartened by Clarkson’s growing stature among the settlers, Peters made a final desperate gamble: he challenged the people at a public meeting to decide between him and Clarkson and was devastated when no one moved in his direction. “Isolated, threatened, sick at heart, Peters fell ill with the prevailing fever, and in the night of the 25th-26th of June  he died.” His cloudy ending, however, did little to diminish his achievements as a pioneer and symbol of freedom.
According to Walker, “On hearing Thomas Peters’ story he [Granville Sharp] took up their cause. He gave his support to the petition, arranged for its presentation to Secretary of State Henry Dundas, and introduced Peters to an influential group of merchants, bankers, and politicians. Walker, The Black Loyalists: The Search for a Promised Land in Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone, 1783-1870 (Toronto: Longman Group Limited and Dalhousie University Press, 1976), 96.
Captain F. W. Butt-Thompson, Sierra Leone in History and Tradition (London: H. F. and G. Witherby, 1926), 93-94.
Gary B. Nash, “Thomas Peters: Millwright and Deliverer,” in David G. Sweet and Gary B. Nash, eds., Struggle and Survival in Colonial America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), 69-85.
Walker, Black Loyalists, 32. Cited in Nash, “Thomas Peters,” 78.
Recalling Peters’s arrival to Canada, Walker remembers that “[Peters] had assumed a leadership position among the Digby-area blacks, organizing their first petition for lands in August 1784 and taking charge of the distribution of provisions later that year.” Walker, The Black Loyalists, 94.
In addition to meeting William W. Granville, Wilson states that “In London, he [also] made his way to General Sir Henry Clinton, his old chief, and through Clinton met Sharp, Wilberforce, and the Clarksons.” Wilson, John Clarkson and the African Adventure (London: The Macmillan Press LTD, 1980), 54.
Walker, Black Loyalists, 53.
Report of the Sierra Leone Company (London 1794), 5 Cited also in Kuczynski, Demographic Survey, vol. 1, 54-55.
Apart from the verbal abuses, Wilson shares that “Peters had even been physically attacked by a white man at Digby, but he had responded with great dignity, refusing to prosecute as the man was drunk.” Wilson, John Clarkson, 69.
These feelings of disarray that were induced by the project were exploited by local figures. According to Wilson, “The official inquiries into Peter’s charges were cursory, especially in New Brunswick where Governor Carleton simply retorted that Peters spoke for none of the blacks in his province, who were uniformly well paid and satisfied.” Wilson, John Clarkson, 69.
In the words of Wilson: “Thomas Peters had sailed ahead of Clarkson to bring news of his London triumph to the blacks who had sent him on his risky pilgrimage. At St. John, New Brunswick, and at Annapolis in Nova Scotia, Peters would assemble the families who meant to go to Sierra Leone and bring them to Halifax where Clarkson would fit out the ships to carry them to the West Coast of Africa.” Wilson, John Clarkson, 57.
Wilson, John Clarkson, 72.
Peter’s voyage facilitated the emergence of Christianity within Sierra Leone. As a result, Wilson details that “Whole congregations of the Baptist, Methodist, and Countess of Huntingdon persuasion chose to go.” Wilson, John Clarkson, 72.
Fyfe, A History of Sierra Leone, (London: Oxford University Press, 1962), 41.
As stated by Wilson, “132 of the settlers, including the respectable David George and others whom Clarkson knew would not support a coup against him, signed a statement naming Peters as their spokesman.” Wilson, John Clarkson, 94.
In order to understand Peter’s position within the government, we must first understand its structure. Wilson explains that “The first thing to be said of the government of which Clarkson was, nominally, head, was that it provided no office for Thomas Peters, or any other black. On the usual assumption of European imperialism, the blacks would labour and the whites would rule. The company regulations, liberal for the time, did, however, authorize blacks to serve on juries and act as peace officers.” Wilson, John Clarkson, 84.
Peters’s actions deeply affected his image within the community. According to Walker, “His defence, that the money he took was owing to him by the deceased settler, was not accepted by the all-black jury, and he was sentenced to receive a public reprimand and to restore the property to the widow.” Walker, The Black Loyalists, 151.
Wilson states that “James Strand perceived that Peters’s pride was injured when Clarkson replaced him in the hearts of the blacks.” Wilson, John Clarkson, 95.
Fyfe, History, 41.
Wilson describes the events following Peters’ death: “Although coffins had been banned to conserve lumber, Clarkson granted the necessary pine boards for him and saw that his widow had linen for his shroud and candles and drink for his wake. Workmen were given the day off to attend the funeral of the now legendary man. No other black leader was ever to pose a similar threat to early white rule.” Wilson, John Clarkson, 97.
Sanneh, Lamin. Abolitionists Abroad: American Blacks and the Making of Modern West Africa. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.
Butt-Thompson, F. W. Sierra Leone in History and Tradition. London: H. F. and G. Witherby, 1926.
Fyfe, C. A History of Sierra Leone. London: Oxford University Press, 1962.
Kuczynski, R. R. Demographic Survey, vol. 1. London: Oxford University Press, 1948-49.
Nash, G. B. “Thomas Peters: Millwright and Deliverer,” in David G. Sweet and Gary B. Nash, eds., Struggle and Survival in Colonial America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981.
Report of the Sierra Leone Company. London, 1794.
Walker, J. W. The Black Loyalists: The Search for a Promised Land in Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone, 1783-1870. Toronto: Longman Group Limited and Dalhousie University Press, 1976.
Wilson, E. G. John Clarkson and the African Adventure. London: The Macmillan Press Ltd., 1980.
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.