Loyalist and Layabouts

Fall 2008 CSANews Issue 68  |  Posted date : Sep 19, 2008.Back to list

Author Stephen Kimber doesn't claim to be a historian, instead, he insists that by training he's a journalist; by inclination, a storyteller. Loyalists and Layabouts is a powerful new source for those interested in the shaping of our country and the United States.

Narrative nonfiction is a genre reporting truth so that it reads like fiction.  The book starts out with a dramatis personae – a list of nonfictional personalities who speak through their diaries, letters and memoirs.  Kimber inserts their quotes so seamlessly that you feel as if you intimately know these folks, from their battles with gout to their spiritual struggles.

Published to commemorate the 225th anniversary of Loyalist landings in Canada, the subtitle describes what's to follow: "The Rapid Rise and Faster Fall of Shelburne, Nova Scotia – 1783-1792.  After the British concession, Commander-in-chief Guy Carleton was sent to the U.S. to evacuate the troops and "restore peace and grant pardon to the revolted provinces in America."

But where did this leave "the thousands of American Loyalists, white and black, trapped between vengeful former owners and neighbours…and a mother country who didn't seem to want to think of them at all."

Where should they go?  The options were as limited as their resources.  England was totally foreign to them, by several generations in some cases; the West Indies was occupied by alien races and plagued with disease; Canada at the time was far away, cold and French.  This left Halifax and Nova Scotia.  In clandestine tavern meetings, it was decided that rather than Halifax, they should establish a settlement in a new unoccupied territory which they could make their own. Finally, a deep harbour was chosen at Port Roseway, on the southern shore of the province fewer than 200 miles down the coast from Halifax (no roads of course) and it was to be renamed Shelburne.

The trouble was that when the first 3,000 refugees arrived at their destination, there was no destination, just "a spit of rocky shoreline bordered by impenetrable forest and icy water."  No one had been sent ahead to survey the town site or mark the lots.  Benjamin Marston and the other surveyors arrived just days before the 30 vessels anchored at the harbour.

It's hard to believe that within a few months, these "better folk" who were "not natural pioneers" – and party animals to boot (Layabouts) – had established the fourth-largest city in North America.  They dreamed of building a more sophisticated New York.

The black ex-slaves and servants did most of the heavy lifting but, though they were given Certificates of Freedom first by Sir Guy Carleton (challenged by George Washington) and later by General Samuel Birch, this freedom did not mean automatic respect, justice or equality in the new settlement.  They mostly settled in nearby Birchtown.  Five of the personalities profiled in Loyalists and Layabouts are free blacks and former slaves.  Their stories are particularly compelling.

Amidst the triumph of such phenomenal growth were also the seeds of the eventual fate that would turn Shelburne from metropolis to ghost town within a decade.  Though Shelburne was in a good situation for trade and fishing, the land was not rich enough for self-sustaining farming.  The demographics were all wrong – too many men, not enough single young women; too many jewellers and watchmakers and not enough carpenters.  Shelburne, totally isolated and plagued by fire and drought, was finally not able to exist when British largesse was cut off.

What emerges from Stephen Kimber's Loyalists and Layabouts is much more than the story of one Loyalist settlement.  It reveals the chaotic, lengthy mess that the American Revolution actually was, and the desperate position of those who chose to remain loyal to The Crown.  A special part of our history.

Willa McLean is a freelance writer who lives in Kitchener.