This book came about principally because of my ignorance of Black Loyalists. I left Canada at the age of 12 and did not return until after university, not that I have any confidence that Black history would have figured in the school curriculum in Ontario and Saskatchewan at that time.
After building a cottage on Eight Island Lake in Guysborough County in 1990, I learned of a nearby Black community of Lincolnville, named for Abraham Lincoln and of a further Black community at Sunnyville, closer to Guysborough town. The logical conclusion, I believed, was that the Blacks who had settled the area came on the Underground Railway. The matter intrigued me enough that I began, casually, to research it. I subsequently learned that this was only part of the story. A previous wave of Blacks had settled in the Maritimes after the War of 1812. Before that, the Black Loyalists, freed Blacks and those who came to Guysborough as slaves, or “permanently indentured domestic servants” came from St. Augustine, Florida to which they had retreated along with other Loyalists and British military, at the end of the Revolutionary War. After Britain returned Florida to Spain in the Treaty of Paris in 1783, they were forced to leave. They came to Nova Scotia. Embarrassed at my unfamiliarity with the story, I dug deeper, becoming more enthralled with each new discovery.
People familiar with the northern part of Nova Scotia will know that a large proportion of the Scots immigrants were Roman Catholic. The discrimination they faced in earlier times including a prohibition on owning land, having schools or holding political office underlines the attitudes of exclusion that existed at the time, heaped upon people who had been virtually banished from their former homes.
This combination of dislocated Loyalists and Scots forms the basis of Guysborough society in the book. The further I got into the research, the more amazed I was at such a fascinating story and the greater the respect I felt for our collective ancestors. How much easier it might have been just to give up in the face of all the trials they underwent. Because of this, I determined to see if I could turn the material into a story that others might find of interest.
Except for actual people, I have drawn names such as Cato, Dismal, Phoebe and Tuesday from lists of those used for Blacks at the time the story takes place. But one name represents a real person. The irony of a slave called Liberty was simply too delicious to ignore. The record shows that a slave named Liberty was sold before settlers came to Guysborough, and the sale registered at Guysborough in 1784. Such prior sale of slaves was a relatively common occurrence among immigrating Loyalists.
As much as was possible from the material I found, I have recounted actual events - the fire at the first Guysborough; the school for Black children established at Little Tracadie by the Anglican Church in the 1780s ; the hijacking of the provisions ship and resulting starvation of 1789; the fierce storm at the second (and present-day) Guysborough in October, 1811. Some of the material I found presented conflict. In such cases I chose the version that best supported the fictional narrative.
Readers may well be taken aback to see that I have used the word “nigger” in the text. I did so for a reason: to show what kind of people use racial (or religious, or gender) slurs. In the early chapters it is young, sheltered, innocent Cora Lee who has no idea that such terminology could be hurtful. She is quickly corrected by her father, is chagrinned, and never again speaks the word. In the later chapters, the term is used by brutish, ignorant louts and mean-spirited village gossips to label Cato whom - by now - the reader has come to know as a gentle, educated, hard-working young man.
The language applied to persons of colour has mutated over the 200 years between the opening chapters and the conclusion of my book. What was originally “Negro”, began to transition to “Black” in the context of slaves who - in response to the Dunmore and Clinton proclamations - fought for the British, left the southern states for Canada and became known as Black Loyalists. The use of “Black” continued to be used in North America and was reinforced by the “Black is Beautiful” movement in the United States in the 1960s. From that, it has evolved in the United States into African-American, while in Canada “Black” is still the predominant term.
Unfortunately - and to our collective shame - the pejorative term “nigger” still rears its ugly head in both countries. It is my firm belief that the use of such racial slurs must be exposed and stomped on at every possible turn, hence my choice to put it in the mouths of the innocently hurtful, and the deliberately offensive.
I have exercised writer’s privilege (read: “played fast and loose”) with geography. My former cottage is some 50 kilometers by road from Guysborough, and not as close as is indicated for purposes of the story, nor is Little Tracadie close enough to Guysborough that travel for Cato and Phoebe to attend Brownspriggs’ school would have been easy.