This excerpt is extracted from Memoirs of the Life of Boston King, A Black Preacher written by Boston King.
King was born enslaved near Charleston, South Carolina, around 1760. Through the age of 16, King was a house servant. He later became an apprentice in Charleston. As the American Revolutionary War broke out in 1775, Virginia Governor Lord Dunmore promised freedom to enslaved people who escaped to join the British army. Throughout the war, enslaved people followed this example and fled for British lines. In 1780, when British troops captured Charleston, King fled to the British army and gained freedom. King was just a servant to British officers at first, and later he joined the British army. During this time, he carried an express that saved 250 British soldiers at Nelson’s Ferry. He then worked for the British warship and captured a rebel ship in the Chesapeake Bay. King married a woman named Violet in 1780.
Later, the U.S. Navy captured and re-enslaved King, but he successfully escaped. In about 1783, the fighting between the U.S. and Britain had nearly ended, but the Americans wanted the British to return their property, including enslaved people who had fled to the British army for freedom. However, British Governor Sir Guy Carleton declared that free slaves were no longer American property. In 1783, along with many other Loyalists, King left New York and arrived in Nova Scotia.
In 1785, King became a leader in the Methodist Church, and in 1791, he and his wife decided to move to Sierra Leone, West Africa to spread knowledge of Christianity. In 1794, King was sent to Kingswood School in England where he improved his religious qualifications and started to write this memoir. He returned to Sierra Leone in 1796 and died there in 1802.
King’s memoir draws together several main themes of the American Revolutionary War: slavery, revolution, war, and liberty. His story reminds us that liberty was not just a simple matter of escaping. It was something that many people craved, and it needed to be maintained and protected. When we discuss the American Revolution, we should not only know powerful and influential leaders. We should also remember the millions of ordinary individuals from all backgrounds who fought for their own freedom.
I was born in the Province of South Carolina, 28 miles from Charles-Town. My father was stolen away from Africa when he was young…
When 16 years old, I was bound apprentice to a trade. After being in the shop about two years, I had the charge of my master’s tools, which being very good, were often used by the men, if I happened to be out of the way: When this was the case, or any of them were lost, or misplaced, my master beat me severely, striking me upon the head, or any other part without mercy…
A servant of my masters, took the horse from me to go a little journey, and stayed two or three days longer than he expected the severest punishment, because the gentleman to whom the horse belonged was a very bad man, and knew not how to shew mercy. To escape his cruelty, I determined to go to Charles-Town, and throw myself into the hands of the English. They received me readily, and I began to feel the happiness of liberty, of which I knew nothing before, altho’ I was much grieved at first, to be obliged to leave my friends, and reside among strangers. In this situation I was seized with the smallpox, and suffered great hardships; for all the Blacks affected with that disease, were ordered to be carried a mile from the camp, lest the solders should be infected, and disabled from marching. This was a grievous circumstance to me and many others… but Providence sent a man, who belonged to the York volunteers whom I was acquainted with, brought me such things as I stood in need of; and I began to recover…
[I] resolved to go to the English army… As soon as [our commander] knew that I had brought an express from Nelson’s-ferry, he received me with great kindness, and expressed his approbation of my courage and conduct in this dangerous business…
Soon after I went to Charles-Town, and entered on board a man of war… As we were going to Chesepeak bay, we were at the taking or a rich prize. [After King gradually recovered from another illness, he went out in a pilot boat] On the 9th day we were taken by an American whale-boat, my mind was sorely distressed at the thought of being again reduced to slavery, and separated from my wife and family…
As I was at prayer on Sunday evening, I thought the Lord heard me, and would mercifully deliver me. Therefore putting my confidence in him, about one o’clock in the morning I went down to the river side, and found the guards were either asleep or in the tavern. I instantly entered into the river, but when I was a little distance from the opposite shore, I heard the sentinels disputing among themselves: One said, “I am sure I saw a man cross the river.” Another replied, “There is no such thing.” It seems they were afraid to fire at me, or make an alarm, lest they should be punished for their negligence… When I came to the river, opposite Staten Island, I found a boat; and altho’ it was very near a whale-boat, yet I ventured into it, and cutting the rope, got safe over. The commanding officer, when informed of my case, gave me a passport, and proceeded to New-York.
When I arrived at New York, my friends rejoiced to see me once more restored to liberty, and joined me in praising the Lord for his mercy and goodness… About which time, [in 1783] the horrors and devastation of war happily terminated, and peace was restored between America and Great Britain, which issued universal joy among all parties, except us, who had escaped from slavery, and taken refuge in the English army; for a report prevailed at New-York, that all slaves, in number 2,000, were to be delivered up to their masters, although some of them had been three or four years among the English. This dreadful rumour filled us all with inexpressible anguish and terror, especially when we saw our masters coming from Virginia, North-Carolina, and other parts, and seizing upon their slaves in the streets of New-York, or even dragging them out of their beds….
The English had compassion upon us in the day of distress, and issued out a Proclamation, importing, That all slaves should be free, who had taken refuge in the British lines, and claimed the function and privileges of the Proclamations respecting the security and protection of Negroes. In consequence of this, each of us received a certificate from the commanding officer at New-York, which dispelled all our fears, and filled us with joy and gratitude. Soon after, ships were fitted out, and furnished with every necessary for conveying us to Nova Scotia… [In Nova Scotia, Boston King followed his baptism in the Methodist Church in 1785, becoming a leader and a preacher in black settlements. In 1791, Boston King and his wife Violet King decided to join the Black Nova Scotians to move to the new colony for free Black people in Sierra Leone.]
I continued to labour among the people at Prestent with great satisfaction, and the Society increased both in number and love, till the beginning of the year 1792, when an opportunity was afforded us of removing from Nova Scotia to Sierra Leone… I told [Mr. Clarkson], that it was not for the sake of the advantages I hope to reap in Africa, which induced me to undertake the voyage, but from a desire that had long possessed my mind, of contributing to the best of my poor ability, in spreading the knowledge of Christianity in that country.
- In the original memoir, King wrote out names of some people who had helped him before, but he didn’t point out his enslavers’ names. Why do you think he didn’t name them? Note that he still described one of his enslavers as “a very bad man, and knew not how to shew mercy.”
- What was King’s attitude towards the British, initially and later? Do you think King cared about the political issues of the Revolutionary War?
Hanley, Ryan. “Boston King and the Black Loyalists of the American Revolution.” Resources for Schools, University of Oxford. Accessed April 14, 2021. https://www.history.ox.ac.uk/files/teaching-resource-boston-king-and-black-loyalists-american-revolution.
King, Boston. “Memoirs of the Life of Boston King, A Black Preacher.” The Methodist Magazine, March-June, 1798.
Lockard, Joe. “Teaching Guide to Boston King’s Memoirs of the Life of Boston King, a Black Preacher (1798).” Academia.edu. Department of English, Arizona State University , 2006. https://www.academia.edu/3856746/Teaching_Guide_to_Boston_Kings_Memoirs_of_the_Life_of_Boston_King_a_Black_Preacher_1798_.
Mealing, Stanley R. “Guy Carleton, 1st Baron Dorchester.” Guy Carleton, 1st Baron Dorchester | The Canadian Encyclopedia, January 14, 2008. Accessed April 14, 2021. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/guy-carleton-1st-baron-dorchester.
Smith, Adam Christian. “Boston King (c. 1760-1802).” BlackPast, October 28, 2019. Accessed April 14, 2021. https://www.blackpast.org/global-african-history/boston-king-c-1760-1802/.
 John Clarkson (1764-1828): a well-known white abolitionist. He and his brother Thomas Clarkson recruited Black resettlement volunteers and escorted them to Sierra Leone.