These records give brief tantalising details of the mostly Black settlers who emigrated from England to the colony of Sierra Leone in the spring of 1787. Records give the following:
• First name(s)
• Last name
• Usually a basic description – e.g. whether adult or child, black or white, married or single
• Vessel sailed on
• Dates of sailing and arrival
The Sierra Leone resettlement scheme of 1787 was designed to address two perceived problems.
Firstly, the British state was concerned by the numbers, or at least the visibility, of Black poor on the streets of London. Many of these individuals are thought to have been Black American Loyalists who had come to the motherland from the United States and Canada; others may have been freed slaves or former mariners. They were supported, somewhat reluctantly, by an early state benefits system, usually known as the Relief of the Black Poor.
Secondly, the British government held the view that the colony of Sierra Leone on the West Coast of Africa needed peopling by people other than its indigenous population. The idea was that the Black Loyalists and others could colonise Sierra Leone and establish useful industry and trading links.
There was some initial enthusiasm among the target audience for the scheme. However, it was beset both by delays and increasing anxiety among the would-be settlers about the possibility of their being enslaved in Sierra Leone by French or other slave ships working the West Coast of Africa. There were also logistical and funding problems. There were seemingly interminable delays – during which some settlers died, others married, and children were born – before the parties left England for Africa. Three ships were involved – the Atlantic, the Belisarius and the Vernon. They eventually left the Solent in February 1787, but harboured at Plymouth in Devon for a while before finally setting off for Africa on 9th April 1787. They arrived at Frenchman's Bay in Sierra Leone one month later, on 10th May 1787.
The passenger lists for the vessels are curious and fascinating. They contain inconsistencies and spelling errors but, even so, they are very valuable documents in helping to understand the attitudes of at least some of the English working classes at that time. The passenger lists group the colonists under a number of descriptions – the most common grouping is single black men. However, among the other categories there are also no fewer than 18 black women married to white men, 63 white women married to black men, and five white women wanting to be married, one would assume to black men. This suggests that among at least some sections of the white working-class at the time there was an absence of prejudice.
The Sierra Leone venture was not a great success. There were deaths during the month-long voyage. Upon arrival, the new colonists were expected to fend for themselves without much in the way of official support. There were deaths due to disease, there was some hostility from the indigenous peoples and, as had been feared, some were taken into slavery.