By KATIE INGRAM
In 1796, the British colonies, including Halifax, were preparing for a Napoleonic War against France. At the same time, a group of people known as the Trelawny Maroons from Jamaica were being deported to Nova Scotia.
Some of these people would, for small period of time, call Preston home.
After the British seized Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655, former Spanish slaves fled into the mountains to avoid being enslaved once again. This group of people became known as the Maroons, a Spanish word for runaway.
According to John N. Grant’s Book The Maroons in Nova Scotia, “The Maroons were warriors” and “fiercely proud of their freedom and their quasi-independent relationship with the government of British Jamaica.”
However, this relationship wasn’t always positive, as there were a number of wars between the Maroons and the British. In 1795 Alexander Lindsay, Earl of Balcarres became Governor of Jamaica, a decision that led to a final war between the two groups.
“They thought that the Maroons and their revolt might team up with some of the slave rebellions in other colonies,” says Keith Mercer, Cultural Resource Manager at Parks Canada. “British authorities down there were heavily outnumbered and they were scared.”
According to Grant’s book, the Maroons and British eventually agreed to a truce on the condition the Maroons wouldn’t be deported if they surrendered. However due to a treaty ratification from Lindsay, the Maroons only had four days to do so.
“Four days was, however, far too short of a time to notify all the Maroon units scattered throughout the hills that they should come in,” says Grant’s book.
Lindsay determined that since some of the Maroons didn’t show up, they had violated the treaty. Despite objections from others, he gave the order to deport around 600 men, women and children from their home.
The Maroons arrived in Halifax in July 1766.
Since Britain was at war, John Wentworth, Governor of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward, who was in charge of British North America forces turned this arrival into opportunity.
“This was the biggest war for its time in terms of national survival,” says Mercer. “It mostly happened in Europe, but of course the colonies were impacted too; Halifax was building up its defences.”
Since most able-bodied men were enlisting, Halifax needed men to construct a new citadel and other defences.
This is where the Maroons came in.
According to sources, Prince Edward met the Maroons on the docks to see if they would agree to do this work as paid labourers.
This agreement is confirmed through a letter Wentworth sent to the Duke of Portland stating that around 140 men were going to help with “the harvests and other civil occupations, which are now distressed for want of hands.”
Payment for the Maroons services was also provided by outside sources, according to one of Wentworth’s letters from June 1797. In it he states that he was “directed to draw bills on the Right Honourable the Lord’s Commissioners of his Majesty’s Treasury – totally and entirely independent of this province, which will not be encumbered for any cost or charge for these people.”
It is believed that while at the Citadel, the Maroons and their families lived in tents and barracks. They helped built the North West Bastion, which is unofficially called the Maroon Bastion. It would have been located near the clock tower, but was destroyed when the third fort was dismantled.
“We’re not sure if they built it to completion or how much work they did, but it seems they did most of the work,” says Mercer. “The name, the Maroon Bastion, isn’t seen in any official documents, so the sense is at the time it would have been called that in honour or in respect of their work.”
Sources say the Maroons also helped build other structures, like roads and Government House and were encouraged to enlist in the navy.
Being from a warmer country, the Maroons weren’t prepared for the harsh Nova Scotian winters and their lodgings at the Citadel wouldn’t offer any additional comfort. According to Grant’s book there were deserted farms in Preston that were “vacated by Black Loyalists who had fled “Nova Scarcity” for Sierra Leone in 1792 and by White loyalists who had similarly decided to test their fate elsewhere.”
Many of the Maroons moved to Preston, which was then called “Maroon Town” where a church, school and other key institutions were built.
This move and settlement had its share of problems.
Along with trying to adapt to Nova Scotian weather, the Maroons were told to give up their faith and religion. According to a letter from when they first arrived, Wentworth sought to “civilize” the Maroons by “instructing all of them in the Christian religion.” They were also, according to the Canadian Encyclopedia “expected to become peaceful farmers.”
This didn’t sit well with the Maroons.
“They were a very different people,” says Mercer. “They didn’t want to be constrained.”
Following a harsh winter in 1797, some of the Maroons who lived in Preston felt they couldn’t survive in Nova Scotia. They began petitioning the British government to see if they could go elsewhere. On the other end, there was a second group who settled in Boydville, located near Windsor, who were able to adapt more easily to the Nova Scotian climate.
Either way, there was a large group of Maroons who wanted to leave the province, but their efforts were met with hostility.
According to the Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia in the spring of 1799 Wentworth had dispatched sliders to withhold “supplies from the most refractory so as to maintain order.” At the same time, the government fund for the Maroons was almost gone.
By July 1799, it decided that most of the Maroons, both in Preston and Boydville, would be moved from Nova Scotia to Sierra Leon.
On Aug. 8, 1800, 500 Maroons left Nova Scotia on the HMS Asia.
Those who remained still have a presence today through the family names of Downey, Colley and Johnston, among others.