From their earliest forced arrival in colonial North America, enslaved Africans had rebelled. Crispus Attucks, a 47-year-old sailor and fugitive enslaved man, became the first casualty in the Boston Massacre, and his act of defiance marked the beginning of the march towards revolution. By April 1775, Massachusetts militiamen clashed with British troops, launching the Revolutionary War.
The conflict touched everyone—white, Black, enslaved, or free. With much of colonial society built on human bondage, some felt that there was a paradox at the heart of the American Revolution. Abigail Adams, a white Patriot, wrote: “It allways appeard a most iniquitious Scheme to me—fight ourselves for what we are daily robbing and plundering from those who have as good a right to freedom as we have.” For Africans, the Revolution was a battle for freedom from slavery.
Africans, at 20% of the colonial population, could tip the scales of war and therefore could not be ignored. The British and Colonial armies, initially reluctant, sought the advantage of recruiting able-bodied enslaved African men to support their cause. Africans aligned with whichever side offered the better promise of freedom. Black Patriot Boyrereau Brinch remembered: “Thus was I, a slave for five years, fighting for liberty.”
In every human Breast, God has implanted a Principle, which we call Love of Freedom, it is impatient of Oppression, and pants for Deliverance.
Phillis Wheatley, 1774
Africans, both enslaved and free, fought on both sides of the Revolution as Patriots and Loyalists. They served in local militias, in the armies, and at sea. At first, both armies were wary of giving guns to free or enslaved Black men. But as the demand for soldiers grew, the British offered enslaved men their freedom in return for service. The Continental Army soon followed. Freedom by any means was the order of the day.
The Revolutionary War was waged for independence from Britain in the name of equal rights for men, while nearly one-fifth of the colonial population was enslaved. This contradiction, inherent from the beginning of the nation, inspired a strong response from Africans. For them, the Revolution was primarily about another kind of independence—freedom from slavery. Though slavery continued, enslaved people seized the opportunity to support the efforts of colonists or the British, based on whomever they believed would guarantee them freedom.
For Africans in the colonies, the American Revolution represented a paradox and an opportunity. Both Patriots and Loyalists recruited enslaved men, yet both continued to condone slavery. Some slave owners even sent enslaved men to fight in their place. But the war also gave Black soldiers a chance to escape to freedom. Enslaved Africans fought for their liberty, and their zeal helped to shape the Revolutionary era, inspiring uprisings across the Atlantic world, including the Haitian Revolution.
During the Revolutionary War, Prince Simbo served in the 7th Regiment, Connecticut Line of the Continental Army and carried gunpowder in a cow horn. It is engraved with the words, "Prince Simbo his horn made at Glastenbury November 17th 1777." This document lists supplies for Prince Simbo and ten other Black Patriot soldiers. In February 1778, Simbo enlisted in the Continental Army and was placed in Captain Hill's company, then in winter quarters at Valley Forge.
Wounded in battle, he fought on bravely, and when he mustered out he was freed. In 1787 his hometown of Glastonbury, Connecticut, voted to give him land for a house on what is now Chestnut Hill Road. Prince Simbo and other Black men risked their lives for liberty in the broadest sense—for their country, themselves, and all African Americans.
All the negroes, men, women, and children . . . quitted the plantations and followed the army.
Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton, 1781