Savagery in Shelburne: North America’s First Race Riot

On 26 July 1784 a gang of men armed with hooks and chains seized from ships showed up at the home of David George, a Black preacher. They beat him and drove him into a swamp (George did survive the horrific incident) before demolishing his and 20 other homes. So began the first recorded race riot in North American history — not in the newly-formed United States, as some might suppose, but in Shelburne, Nova Scotia.

Shelburne County had sprung up virtually overnight with the flood of Loyalist refugees that arrived in the spring of 1783, after the American Revolution. Black Loyalists were among the first arrivals in the area, settling in Shelburne and nearby Birchtown. Many were enslaved persons who had fought alongside the British in exchange for their freedom. Like so many others, they had come north at the end of the war in search of a new life in British North America.

The Black Loyalists soon discovered that freedom was a far cry from equality, and it didn’t take long before racial animosity began to rise. Though it never developed the plantation economy of the American south, Nova Scotia was a slave-owning society. Many white Loyalists had brought their own slaves to the colony and felt threatened by the Black Loyalists. Birchtown became a place of refuge for escaped slaves in the province, and with free Blacks mingling with the enslaved it grew difficult to maintain the fiction that racial exploitation was simply “natural.”

Racial tensions reached a breaking point in Shelburne on 26 July 1784 when white settlers accused free Blacks of stealing jobs by accepting intolerably low wages. The violence that erupted at the home of David George continued in Shelburne for at least 10 days. Many fled to Birchtown, where they continued to face attacks for at least a month. 1

The Loyalist immigration is considered one of the foundational events in Canadian history. It is said that the wave of refugees helped to establish a distinct society on the northern half of the continent. Today, 230 years later, the Shelburne riots remind us that Loyalism was a multi-racial and socially diverse phenomenon. As the incident suggests, the very presence of a free black community challenged the racial prejudices that other Loyalists had brought with them from the Thirteen Colonies. The result was a devastating, racially based attack on an already vulnerable community.

The violence that erupted that day was a culmination of racial tensions, one suggestive of a larger, deeply rooted history of discrimination. As important as it is for Canadians to remember the incident, we must also recall that Black Loyalists and their descendants persisted in Canada despite such conditions, continually challenging the racist attitudes they encountered. The spirit of Birchtown would later reemerge in such individuals as Viola Desmond and Rocky Jones. It exists today in such communities as Lincolnville, Hammonds Plains, and North Preston. What racial equality exists in Canada was hard won, and often at great cost.

Image: Shelburne, Nova Scotia, 2011. Flickr/cc/ingoism.

  1. Some went as far as Sierra Leone.