Nova Scotia

Art installation marks exodus of Black Loyalists with letters from present-day Nova Scotians

Nova Scotians are writing letters to the Black Loyalists who left centuries ago.

The installation is called Message in a Bottle: 15 Ships to Sierra Leone

The letters and some artwork from students are on display at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in Halifax. They will be on display until Saturday. (Submitted by Kathrin Winkler)

It was 1792 when nearly 1,200 Black Loyalists left Nova Scotia and set sail for West Africa in search of a better life.

The British had promised to give them freedom, land and jobs in Nova Scotia in exchange for their support during the American Revolution.

However, those promises weren't fulfilled. The Black Loyalists were free, but they were given small, infertile lands and menial jobs, while white settlers were given better opportunities.

By the 1790s, the Black Loyalists had given up hope for fair treatment in Nova Scotia.

That's when the Sierra Leone Company began recruiting for a new colony in the west African country. Within days, 79 families had signed up.

According to Nova Scotia's Black Loyalist Heritage Centre, a group of 1,196 Black Loyalists "decided that an uncertain future was better than certain misery."

The group, made up mostly of ministers, teachers, soldiers, craftsmen and their families, set sail for Sierra Leone aboard 15 ships.

A new art installation at the Canadian Museum of Immigration in Halifax explores their history and how people feel about the exodus nearly 230 years later.

"It is the greatest story untold from my view," Kathrin Winkler, who co-ordinated the installation, told CBC Radio's Mainstreet on Thursday.

Winkler said the installation, called Message in a Bottle: 15 Ships to Sierra Leone, is a letter-writing project meant to create personal connections between present-day Nova Scotians and the seafarers who left — centuries later.

She said it gives people the opportunity to learn the history, while also reflecting on why the Black Loyalists left.

"It's really a story of a community of resilience and a community of failure, and that was a bureaucratic failure," Winkler said.

Gail Teixeira, a Nova Scotia art educator, is seen with some of the bottles at the installation. The bottles represent the 15 ships that set sail for Sierra Leone with the Black Loyalists aboard. (Submitted by Kathrin Winkler)

So far, she has received 92 letters from politicians, community members, educators and students across Canada.

Karen Hudson, the principal at Auburn Drive High School in Cole Harbour, had her students to write letters to the seafarers. 

She also wrote a letter. Her ancestors lived in Preston at the time of the exodus.

"I wanted people to know that there's a history out there that has not been talked about," Hudson told Mainstreet on Thursday. "There's a history of unfairness that exists. Things have been left out."

Karen Hudson is the principal of Auburn Drive High in Cole Harbour, N.S. She wrote a letter to the seafarers who immigrated to Sierra Leone. (Robert Short/CBC)

In her letter, Hudson said she understands why the Black Loyalists left Nova Scotia, but she also reassures the reader that those who remained persevered.

"To see us now the way we are living, you'd be impressed, even though we still encounter racism and other inequities. We are all free. The tenacity of our elders is formidable," the letter reads.

She continues by describing what life is like for Black people in Nova Scotia today.

"Regardless of where we live, there is a sense of community and personal wealth among the people even when there is push back or obstacles in our way. Even in 2021, we are still not as far along as you would think, having only just named our first Black people in multiple areas of leadership," it reads.

Kathrin Winkler, who organized the art installation, said she has received 92 letters so far. They have come from politicians, community members, educators and students across Canada. (Submitted by Kathrin Winkler)

"We have recently achieved some important milestones in history with the appointment of our first Black female lieutenant-governor and our first Black MLA. I look forward to a time when these things are no longer newsworthy; when they are just a matter of course. I hope that it will not take another 50 years."

Hudson said that will require support from all politicians and community leaders.

"This is an opportunity for the politicians to say, 'These are some of the wrongs, but let's try to change those wrongs. Let's not make them acceptable anymore. Let's change that.'"

A copy of Hudson's full letter, and others, will be on display at the museum until Saturday as part of the festival Nocturne: Art at Night. The original letters are being placed in 15 bottles — representing the 15 ships to Sierra Leone — at the installation.

Students at Nelson Whynder Elementary School in North Preston created some of the artwork that is on display at the museum. Dallaz Downey is seen holding one of the 15 ships handcrafted for the installation. (Submitted by Kathrin Winkler)

Winkler said once the installation is finished, the letters will be included in a book and the public can continuing submitting them.

She hopes to collect 1,196 letters — one for each passenger.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.