The slightly more than century-long (1753-1867) rise and decline of Portsmouth, during which both white and black populations waxed and waned, reminds us that slavery and racism – as legal and demographic facts, as cultural and discursive categories – were never static in coastal North Carolina. However stable some of their structures and features were in particular sectors for various periods of time (canal building, naval stores production, slave watermen), one has to comprehend them as they change from decade to decade, period to period. The balance of this chapter is devoted to chronicling those changes, within both the state at large and the coastal region.
The racial situation in North Carolina – including the coastal counties – during the Revolution and the decade following was tense and perilous. It was generally understood that the south’s large slave population rendered it vulnerable to race-based civil disturbance as the Revolution approached. There were persistent fears that slaves would revolt, align themselves with pirates, or instigate a war.24
Already in 1774, the North Carolina Provincial Congress barred further importation of slaves, the first of several pieces of legislation passed between 1774 and the 1808 that restricted importation of slaves into North Carolina.25 Wilmington’s Committee of Safety twice ordered West Indian slaves to be deported, and by June 1775 had disarmed all blacks – an action Gov. Martin refused to extend statewide because of the potential need for troops. Even after black Continental troops distinguished themselves at the Battle of Bunker Hill in June 1775, southern states continued to resist arming blacks, and fears of slave revolt spread over the South. As it turned out, blacks fought on both sides during the war, and took steps to gain their freedom. Those actions, historians have observed, “shook southern society to its foundations.”26
Leaders among the slaves themselves were well aware of the window of opportunity that seemed to be opening. Slaves in Pitt County planned to revolt in July 1775, but the plot (which had originated in Beaufort County) was discovered. More than forty blacks were jailed; five were whipped and had their ears cropped.
The situation in Virginia was even worse, where blacks, encouraged by colonial Gov. Dunmore, who had 2,000 troops (half of them black) under his command in Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment. North Carolina continental troops engaged them in the Battle of Great Bridge near Norfolk in December 1775, ending the threat of a slave insurrection in northeastern North Carolina. Slaves continued to defect to the British in large numbers nevertheless. Those defecting in the Cape Fear area were organized into the Black Pioneers company, and Admiralty muster rolls in 1776 contained the names of many black defectors. In May, the state’s Fourth Provincial Congress debated how to stop the flood of blacks into British ranks.
“Wherever the British marched,” historians have observed, “slaves followed.” Instigating a slave rebellion became official British policy, and in June 1779, Sir Henry Clinton, who commanded the British army in America, promised in his Phillipsburg Declaration that any deserting black would have “complete security” behind British lines. He later recommended that emancipated slaves be given lands taken from rebellious Americans.
Cornwallis’s invasion of the Carolinas in 1780-1781 led to mass defections by slaves, whom Cornwallis used to support, maintain and feed his army – taking food and other needed supplies from sequestered plantations.
The situation with regard to slaves after the war was over was confusing at best. County courts continued to be in control of manumission. Southern whites blamed religious dissenters (Quakers were a major target) and “outside agitators” for the troubles with blacks. After great insurrections took place in the Caribbean in the early1790s, a 1795 law specifically forbade importation of any more slaves above fifteen years of age from the West Indies, for fear that the insurrectionary sentiment would spread.
Such fears were not unfounded. Black bateaumen on Virginia rivers "had been implicated among the main conspirators in both Gabriel's Rebellion in 1800 and even more so in the Easter Plot of 1802," Cecelski explains, and through their travel on the rivers they spread insurrectionary plans through southeastern Virginia and into northeastern North Carolina. African American watermen, “posed a constant danger to the power of slaveholders. They covertly linked slaves throughout the Albemarle Sound vicinity," sending messages up and down the rivers, spreading "political news and democratic ideologies from as far away as New England, France, and Haiti into local slave communities." Slave fishermen on the Albemarle Sound played a central role "in building a regional African American culture and in holding together the antislavery movements that percolated through the Albemarle.” New Bern and Beaufort became "the central points for black political organization in North Carolina"27 As we have seen in the discussion of trade through Ocracoke Inlet, slaves on the water in this period would have had ample opportunity for contact with sailors (white and black) coming and going to the West Indies – a major destination for the ships of John Gray Blount (see Chapter 2).
A black preacher in Pasquotank County was accused of fomenting revolt when his collusion with black guerilla Tom Copper was discovered. Copper himself led a half-dozen blacks in a daring raid on the Elizabeth City jail to liberate slaves being held there. Another slave plot was discovered in Bertie County on 2 June 1802; more than forty blacks were either hanged, deported, or were whipped and had their ears cropped. Fears spread throughout the state. More than 100 slaves were jailed in Martin County, and two were hanged.