Home: Our Story: Prejudice: Shelburne Riot
By the summer of 1784 racial tensions were building. Many white soldiers were discovering that it was almost impossible to find work. Almost nobody had received farm lots, and settlements like Port Roseway were filled with large numbers of unemployed soldiers with nothing to do and no prospect of finding work.
The people of Shelburne were under the impression that they would be have their land surveyed and secured much sooner than actually was the case. People who had been told that Port Roseway was fertile, easily cleared land were bitterly disappointed. Benjamin Marston, the chief surveyor, wrote in his diary about the mood in the town just before the riot. He knew people were unhappy and that something was about to happen.
The blacks of Shelburne had trouble finding work, and they accepted low wages so they would be hired. This upset many of the disbanded soldiers who were living in Shelburne who felt that black workers were driving them out of the labour market.
David George was the leading Baptist minister among the blacks. He had a large following and was preaching in Shelburne in what was called Blacktown. People weren't too concerned about what sort of message George preached to his own colour, but when he began baptizing whites the settlers were furious. In one instance, a white woman was about to be baptized when a mob arrived, and tried to drag her away. Authorities intervened, and decided that by the guarantees of freedom of religion she could be baptized in whatever manner she chose. The mob left the scene taunting George with threats.
The next day they returned armed with muskets and ship's tackle. By fixing rope onto the poles of the houses they pulled George's home over, and then set about doing the same to the homes of his followers. Some wanted to burn down the more solidly constructed meeting house, but were discouraged by the riot's leader. By this time, the mob had swelled to hundreds of people. They set out through the black quarter of town pulling down all the houses, beating people and driving them out of town. Most fled to Birchtown empty-handed, everything they owned having been stolen or destroyed.
The mob did not stop there, however. They sought out Marston, planning to hang him for the slow delivery of their land. Marston was warned by his friends and escaped to Halifax. David George had fled to a nearby swamp, but was eventually discovered. They came in a mob and beat him senseless. After this he gave up and fled to Birchtown with the rest of the town's blacks.
By this time, Birchtown must have been chaos. Prior to the riot, almost half of the free blacks of the area had settled in Shelburne, where work was easier to find. So when Shelburne's blacks were chased out, Birchtown's population was doubled. Several hundred refugees camped out all over the small lots that had been granted to other families. Almost all of the surrounding land had already been granted to whites for farm and church land, so the town was unable to expand.
Still, the rioters were unsatisfied. Many continued their attacks on the blacks, beating lone travelers and traveling to Birchtown to pull down buildings and assault the unwary. The attacks only stopped when troops arrived from Halifax the next month to restore order.
Governor Parr was dismayed by the complete breakdown of the rule of law, which reflected poorly on his administration. He needed a scapegoat. Marston, who had been accused of taking bribes, was a likely candidate. The Governor promptly fired him. The business of surveying and land dispersion was taken over by the Associates, the council of leaders that had initially developed Port Roseway. Of course, this meant that the blacks would be completely left out of the land distribution. Aid was never offered to the blacks who had lost their land and homes. Parr's concern was not to assist the victims, but merely to placate the rioters.
And so, the riot sank into history, a reminder to blacks that they could not expect to be treated as equal citizens regardless what certificate they carried.