By Dan Lee
The British warships that arrived along the Alexandria waterfront in 1814 affected the lives of ordinary residents, though not so dramatically as the federal occupation of the Port City during the Civil War.
For most Alexandrians, the British occupation was like a bad dream, but really didn’t have any lingering repercussions. We know, however, from the American State Papers that for at least three Alexandrians, the British occupation offered freedom.
A year before the British occupied Alexandria, the invaders began training escaped slaves on Tangier Island. Under the orders of Rear Adm. George Cockburn, the British forces offered freedom to any enslaved men who left their masters to fight under the Union Jack, and promised a home and land to the volunteers and their families. British commanders initially wanted to integrate these new recruits into their existing black units, known as the West Indies Regiments, but a majority of the new recruits refused to commit to a career of fighting for the British Empire, holding their commanders to the promise of land ownership in a British colony.
We don’t know where these formerly enslaved people ended up, but there are four main possibilities. The first is that they joined communities of former enslaved people in Trinidad, which was a British colony at the time. A second possibility is that they ended up in Barbados after the ship they were sailing to England on was captured by an American privateer. Many of those who initially landed in Barbados eventually settled in Trinidad.
A third possibility is that they were among 64 former slaves dropped off by the HMS Seahorse in Portsmouth, England in 1815. Or perhaps they joined a different colony of former enslaved people in Nova Scotia, a common port for British warships heading back to England.
Many of the former slaves chose to settle in Trinidad. In fact, the British government set up communities and gave land to men who served in the Colonial Marine Corps under British officers during the War of 1812. About 780 formerly enslaved people moved to Trinidad between 1815 and 1816, establishing a community known as “The Merikins” that is still recognized today.
The British considered this an advantageous solution to their labor shortage problem. The prior agricultural experience of the freed slaves was seen as an ideal match. The newly propertied landowners grew a variety of crops and are often credited with introducing rice as a staple crop to Trinidad.
It is easy to think of the War of 1812 as a stalemate, with no significant territory won by either the United States or Great Britain. But the three or more people who left both their masters and Alexandria serve as excellent reminders to historians today that different groups and individuals have different definitions of winning in a war.
You can learn more about the War of 1812 on an evening cruise of the Potomac on June 14. The trip will highlight historically significant sites along the river. The boat departs the Potomac Riverboat Company’s dock near 205 The Strand at 7 p.m. and returns at 10 p.m. Tickets are $75 per person with additional sponsorship levels available. The price includes a buffet dinner and open bar during the three-hour cruise. To purchase tickets, visit shop.alexandriava.gov or call 703-746-4242.
- The writer is a research historian with the Office of Historic Alexandria.