It was in 1792 when nearly 1,200 black loyalists left Nova Scotia and sailed to West Africa in search of a better life.
The British had promised to give them freedom, land and jobs in Nova Scotia in exchange for their support during the American Revolution.
However, these promises were not kept. The black loyalists were free but given small, barren lands and menial jobs, while white settlers got better opportunities.
By the 1790s, the Black Loyalists had given up hope of fair treatment in Nova Scotia.
It was then that the Sierra Leone Company began recruiting a new colony in the West African country. Within a few days, 79 families had registered.
According to Nova Scotia’s Black Loyalist Heritage Center, a group of 1,196 Black Loyalists “have decided that an uncertain future is better than certain misery”.
The group, which consists mainly of ministers, teachers, soldiers, craftsmen and their families, sets sail on board 15 ships for Sierra Leone.
A new art installation at the Canadian Museum of Immigration in Halifax explores its history and how people felt about the Exodus almost 230 years later.
Main street NS15:49Nazi art installation shows letters to black loyalists who emigrated to Sierra Leone
“It’s the greatest story that, from my point of view, has not been told,” said Kathrin Winkler, who coordinated the installation, across from CBC Radio’s Main Street on Thursday.
Winkler said the installation, titled Message in a Bottle: 15 Ships to Sierra Leone, is a letter-writing project designed to create personal connections between today’s Nova Scotians and the seafarers who departed centuries later.
She said it gives people a chance to hear the story while thinking about why the black loyalists left.
“It really is the story of a community of resilience and a community of failure, and that was a bureaucratic failure,” said Winkler.
Gail Teixeira, an art educator from Nova Scotia, can be seen with some of the bottles in the installation. The bottles represent the 15 ships that set sail for Sierra Leone with the Black Loyalists on board. (Submitted by Kathrin Winkler)
To date, she has received 92 letters from politicians, community members, educators, and students across Canada.
Karen Hudson, the principal of Auburn Drive High School in Cole Harbor, had her students write letters to the sailors.
She also wrote a letter. Her ancestors lived in Preston at the time of the Exodus.
“I wanted people to know that there was a story out there that wasn’t talked about,” Hudson told Mainstreet on Thursday. “There’s a story of injustice. Things have been left out.”
Karen Hudson is the director of Auburn Drive High in Cole Harbor, NS. She wrote a letter to the seafarers who emigrated to Sierra Leone. (Robert Kurz / CBC)
In her letter, Hudson said she understood why the Black Loyalists left Nova Scotia, but she also assured the reader that those who stayed persevered.
“If you saw us now as we live, you would be impressed, although we still encounter racism and other injustices. We are all free. The tenacity of our elders is impressive,” the letter said.
She goes on by describing what life is like for black people in Nova Scotia today.
“No matter where we live, there is a sense of community and personal prosperity among people, even if setbacks or obstacles are put in our way. In 2021, we are still not as far as one might think, we have just been “appointed to our first black in several management areas,” it says.
Kathrin Winkler, who organized the art installation, said she had received 92 letters so far. They come from politicians, community members, educators, and students from across Canada. (Submitted by Kathrin Winkler)
“We recently reached some important milestones in history with the appointment of our first black female lieutenant governor and our first black MLA. I’m looking forward to a time when these things are no longer worth reporting when they can only be taken for granted. I hope it doesn’t take another 50 years. “
Hudson said this requires the support of all politicians and community leaders.
“This is an opportunity for politicians to say, ‘These are some of the mistakes, but let’s try to change these mistakes. Let’s not make them acceptable anymore. Let’s change that.'”
A copy of Hudson’s full letter and others will be on display at the museum through Saturday as part of the Nocturne: Art at Night festival. The original letters are placed in 15 bottles – which represent the 15 ships to Sierra Leone – at the installation.
Students from Nelson Whynder Elementary School in North Preston created some of the artwork on display at the museum. Dallaz Downey is holding one of the 15 ships that were handcrafted for installation. (Submitted by Kathrin Winkler)
Winkler said once the installation is complete, the letters will be put into a book and the public will be able to submit them further.
She hopes to collect 1,196 letters – one for each passenger.
For more stories about the experiences of black Canadians – from racism against blacks to success stories within the black community – see Being Black in Canada, a CBC project that black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.