The Corps of Colonial Marines:
Black freedom fighters of the War of 1812

John McNish Weiss
notes on documentary sources
papers and publications
This article gives an account of work in progress, a project first referenced in the author's "The Corps of Colonial Marines 1814-16: a summary", published in Immigrants and Minorities, 15/1, April 1996. The text here, incorporating recent research, is developed from an unpublished paper delivered in Trinidad in January 2001 at the St Augustine campus of the University of the West Indies: "Origins of the 'Merikens', African American settlers of Trinidad's Company Villages". The most recent presentation of the subject as a whole is a paper given at the 5th IMEHA International Congress of Maritime History, University of Greenwich, in June 2008: "Taking their freedom by way of the Royal Navy in the War of 1812". In July 2012, at the London conference 'The War of 1812: Myth and Memory, History and Historiography', a paper was presented on a topic that contributes to the larger story, "Cochrane and his Proclamation: liberator or scaremonger?", on the role, variously seen, of Sir Alexander Cochrane's proclamation of 2 April 1814, inviting American emigration.
1 Introduction In 1815 and 1816 Trinidad welcomed over seven hundred free Black American settlers, migrants of the War of 1812, the second and last armed conflict between the United States and Great Britain. The majority found their new homes in the south of the island around the Mission of Savanna Grande, now Princes Town, mostly within the area known since then as The Company Villages. Local history sometimes asserts that they came out of the War for American Independence, at which time most were not yet born, or that they were part of the West India Regiments, whose settlement in Trinidad at a different time and a different place remains to be fully researched. But the sea soldiers that were the founders of the Company Villages community were part of a great African American emigration, unparalleled and almost ignored, the most significant departure from slavery between the Haitian revolution of the 1790s and British colonial abolition in the 1830s. The Merikens of the Company Villages had been the Corps of Colonial Marines, who saw fighting service with the British in the War of 1812, garrisoned after the war at the new Royal Naval Dockyard at Bermuda for fourteen months and disbanded in Trinidad in 1816 to form a new free Black yeomanry.
2 The Colonial Marines in historical context
This body of young African Americans threw off their slavery, took up arms against their ex-masters as a disciplined military unit, and settled in Trinidad as free and independent farmers, virtually hidden exemplars of African American pursuit of freedom a full half-century before American emancipation. Recruited by the British first in Maryland and Virginia and later in Georgia, they were a fighting unit much praised for valour and discipline by their British commanders and admired with consternation by some American observers. They showed a spirited resolve in their dealings with authority, both before disbandment and later in Trinidad, where their community was characterized by hardworking independence. In British colonial history their settlement in Trinidad is notable as the subject of central government direction against local planters’s opposition. In British military history, the small but respectful references to the Corps in Royal Marine chronicles can now be supplemented by a comprehensive account of their service and organisation. In American slavery history, their armed service against their ex-masters can now be better valued for their example of Black opposition and resistance to slavery. In British slavery history, they and their fellow refugees represent a significant experiment in emancipation, two decades ahead of the imperial event.
White fears of Black revolt
During the War of 1812, Black aspirations and White fears gave the British a special weapon in fighting the Americans. Concerned southern slaveholders, recollecting Black success in Haiti and viewing the final 1804 massacre there as instigated by the British, might have agreed with advice received in London that with British aid the states of Georgia and the Carolinas could turn over into Black republics. Events in Haiti and, closer to home, the success of well-disciplined Black maroons against American military incursions into Florida, demonstrated Black capacity to defeat White forces and, taken with the menacing declarations of rebel leaders, served to emphasize British potential for starting a Black conflagration that could dismember the United States. The British took care not to allay this widespread fear. Highly secret orders to the commanders in the field explicitly forbade them to incite revolt while retaining excitement of White American fear as powerful ammunition in the British armoury. Echoing the trial evidence of Black conspirators were refugees who requested weapons to revenge themselves on their masters, but when the British did come to arm them it was as a disciplined, trained body under officer command: only with military control would the British contemplate such a step. The men they armed were trained as an organized unit of sea-soldiers, locally knowledgeable and precisely suitable for the hit-and-run amphibious assaults up and down the Atlantic coast demanded by the government in London: these men became the Corps of Colonial Marines.
Freedom and escape
African American thoughts of freedom over the previous century had not relied only on open revolt. Many had sought liberty in the northerly states or in maroon groups in local swamps, in the surrounding woods in outlaw conditions or in well-estalished maroon communities in Spanish Florida. An old underlying expectation that the British would one day come to free them was awakened on news in 1813 of the British arrival in Chesapeake Bay on the Atlantic coast, which now offered escape overseas. By instruction from London, all were free on reaching British posts and ships. All, save a few, settled free in British colonies. A small number returned, willingly or not, and a few score gained access to Britain. The greater part of the refugee body met hostility and unsatisfactory conditions in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, but most of those who settled in Trinidad between 1815 and 1821 found themselves well established on rich soil in what was, by comparison with Nova Scotia, a land flowing with milk and honey. Over five hundred of these Trinidad settlers achieved that conclusion as Colonial Marines and their families.
The War of 1812
The core of the author’s project is a study of those events of the war and its aftermath that touched enslaved Americans seeking freedom, provided opportunity to attack the slaveholding society, and offered a framework for a future life. Only a few general histories of the War of 1812 attend to these matters at all closely while, until very recently, accounts of Black American armed service have ignored the Colonial Marines or presented a story at odds with the record. In dealing with events of the war, Frank Cassell, in his article of 1972 dealing with the Chesapeake, and Mary Bullard, in her book of 1983 dealing with the Georgia coast, were the first to focus on the refugees and the Colonial Marines but the current study appears to have been the first to consider the whole geographical scope of this flight from American slavery. With bicentennial commemoration in prospect, the story of these refugees is now receiving increased attention, and two recent books in particular set the story of the Colonial Marines in a more general context of Black American service, Gerald Horne's Negro Comrades of the Crown and Gene Allen Smith's The Slaves' Gamble.
1813: First refugees in the Chesapeake
The Black population of the southern states first met the British in March 1813, nine months after the start of the war in June 1812 when Americans invaded Canada. The British squadron entered the Chesapeake with instructions not only to blockade ports and damage the American navy, but especially to draw American energy away from Canada by means of a campaign of amphibious harassment. Almost immediately, Black refugees made their way to the British warships, not only men willing to act as guides and pilots but whole families seeking safe haven and freedom. Commanders had orders to offer protection to people who gave help and to enlist them in the Black regiments or else send them to British colonies. Increasing numbers fled to the British, and men, women and children rowed out perilously into the Chesapeake Bay by canoe to reach the squadron. Deputations of slaveholders were allowed on board British ships to try to persuade their runaways to return but without success - as one slaveholder wrote, ‘on being enquired of whether they were willing to return they declined, some of them very impertinently’. Charles Ball, in his account of his life in and out of slavery, records how he ‘went amongst them, and talked to them a long time, on the subject of returning home; but found that their heads were full of notions of liberty and happiness in some of the West India islands’. Detachments of emigrants were soon sent away out of American waters, first to the Bermuda dockyard and from July to Nova Scotia, where an existing Black population dated mostly from the War of Independence, those of the Black Loyalists who had not gone to Sierra Leone. In this new conflict between Britain and the United States, matters of moral high ground were bantered between the contestants, and when reports reached London that the friendly reception given to refugee families by Royal Navy officers was winning Black confidence, new and unprecedented government policy was immediately formulated: a newly appointed commander-in-chief, Vice-Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane, was ordered to give special support to family emigration.
1814: Recruitment in the Chesapeake
When Cochrane took over the command in the Bermuda headquarters in April 1814, he issued a proclamation in implementation of these orders, indicating a welcome for ‘all those who may be disposed to emigrate from the United States’ at British post and ships. He had sent advance instructions to his second in command, Rear-Admiral George Cockburn, to recruit a body of Colonial Marines from refugees, on the model he had previously employed six years earlier in Guadeloupe, and to find a suitable place in the Chesapeake as a base for British forces and as a safe haven for those who made their escape from American slavery. Cockburn already had a group of refugees who had stayed with the fleet as volunteers, and these formed the core of the new body of men he recruited and trained. Within six weeks they were ready, and on 18 May 1814 they enlisted as Colonial Marines. Among the volunteers who had already joined Cockburn on 23 January were four who had been heard planning their escape with one saying determinedly ‘I shall go when and where I please’. This spirited group helped lead the new corps as the first sergeants. (Two and a half years later they were to lead the Company Villages community itself, as senior NCOs appointed to be the village headmen.) Cockburn selected Tangier Island as his base, in the middle of the Chesapeake, a small archipelago barely rising out the water, easily defensible and with a supply of fresh water. The island was widely famous for great revivalist meetings attended by many thousands from around the Bay: Cockburn could assume that intending refugees over a large area would know the place well. London’s instructions were that recruits for military service were to be enlisted in the existing Black corps, the West India Regiments, but the volunteers rejected this commitment to a life in what they saw as slave regiments. Cockburn’s initial doubts as to their potential soon changed to praise for their determination and steadfastness. Over the first few months of the Corps news of their activities spread and numbers grew, and they saw active service as guides, scouts and skirmishers. Their first uniformed engagement at Pungoteake at the end of May 1814 brought their first fatal casualty, followed by two more deaths in the August attack on Washington: inspiration rather than disheartenment was reported to be the result. The Colonials’ exemplary discipline during the burning of the city was praised by officers who had feared a loss of control over White rank and file in that action. They gave notable service again as a light company in the assault on Baltimore, in which four more were lost. In these actions they may have faced Joshua Barney’s flotillamen, many of them Black sailors, described by some as the only serious fighting force on the American side. In July the Chesapeake force was enlarged with ships and men brought from Europe after Napoleon’s defeat. The tired veterans of European battle suffered illness from both the Atlantic crossing and local conditions, and in September the depleted 2nd and 3rd Royal Marine battalions were reshaped, the enthusiastic Colonial Corps being joined by seasoned but exhausted Royal Marines to make a new 3rd Battalion of Royal and Colonial Marines, three Black companies and three White, garrisoned on Tangier Island.
At the end of 1814, with the burning of Washington and the attack on Baltimore and other expeditions around the Chesapeake behind them, Cockburn’s force moved out of the Bay and southwards to coordinate with a new venture in the Gulf of Mexico, where a small force had been engaged since earlier in the year. A further invasion army had been brought from Europe to attack New Orleans and take possession of Louisiana, partly to secure British use of the Mississippi and partly to put a limit on American expansion. Cockburn’s force had originally been intended to occupy Cumberland Island off the Georgia coast in November as a beachhead for cross-country supplies to the Gulf of Mexico and as a base for further diversionary harassment, but orders were delayed until December and extraordinarily bad weather prolonged the journey, with many deaths in the Colonial Marines and their families through illness. The battle of New Orleans was already over when they finally established themselves on Cumberland Island in mid-January 1815, expecting further action. Like Tangier Island, it lay in waterways well known to the neighbouring Blacks, who acted as guides and pilots as in the Chesapeake and who came in their hundreds, taking refuge with foraging parties on land or crossing to the island and the ships anchored there. Expeditions up the St Mary’s River, the border with Spanish Florida, brought refugees from both sides of the river, and a British officer who had been living in Georgia on half- pay recruited a company from an area he knew well. In addition, many refugeed from nearby coastal estates in neutral Florida, in the ownership of British, American and Spanish planters, quite outside the emancipating provisions of the British government's instructions. In the Gulf of Mexico, an expedition up the Apalachicola River, intended to gather Indian support for the British and to recruit Blacks from the maroon communities of Florida and the backlands of Georgia, produced an independent company of over three hundred Colonial Marines, paid off at the end of hostilities and mostly remaining in the vicinity of the Negro Fort after the war with only four deciding to enlist with the main body. Cochrane’s own intention in the campaign for Louisiana was not to offer liberty to slaves there, since the continued prosperity of the region should it come into British possession under his governorship depended absolutely on maintaining the body of slave labour. Nevertheless, in the retreat from New Orleans around two hundred emigrants came away with the British, none recruited into the Colonial Marines but some taken to Trinidad in 1815.
War’s end
Despite early American news of the Peace Treaty, signed in Ghent on 24 December 1814, cessation of hostilities had to wait for the exchange of ratifications, finalized on 17 February 1815, and official notification from the British minister in Washington. Colonial Marine enlistment continued to 1 March and the British withdrew from Cumberland Island two weeks later and from the Gulf of Mexico in the middle of April. While the British were still anchored at Cumberland Island, Americans made demands for the return of ex-slaves under what they saw to be the provisions of the Treaty’s 1st Article, which took over a decade of discussions, negotiations, arbitrations and conventions to settle. Cockburn rejected the demands, quoting Blackstone's legal commentaries that a slave arriving on British soil became free and that British ships at war were equivalent to British soil in this respect, while Cochrane (and later Sir James Cockburn, governor of Bermuda and elder brother to George Cockburn) insisted, in response to American approaches, that it was a matter to be decided at government level. Nevertheless, Cockburn’s meticulous reading of the treaty itself led him to except certain refugees whom he ordered to be returned, instructions that the Americans said his officers obstructed. Five newly enlisted men were handed back, together with volunteers who, possibly, had been trained but not enlisted. For later historians of the Royal Marines the return to slavery of men who had worn His Majesty’s uniform was an indelible stain on the British character.
Fourteen months on Bermuda
Ongoing recruitment in the Chesapeake and then in Georgia had provided three further Black companies. When the British companies left for home in April 1815, the six Black companies became the 3rd Battalion Colonial Marines, garrisoned in Bermuda on Ireland Island with a British Staff Company brought from Canada to accompany them as a token of White supervision. They did garrison duty and worked as artisans and labourers in the building of the new Royal Naval Dockyard. Cochrane recommended they be established on the island to man the garrison as a reserve force in case of further American conflict, describing them as ‘infinitely more dreaded’ than English troops. When transfer to the West India Regiments was proposed and the men again rejected the idea, the Duke of York, as commander-in-chief of the British army, offered them a regiment of their own without any new success. Their persistent intransigence finally led the British government to offer to place them in Trinidad as independent farmers. On accepting the offer they left Bermuda on 15 July 1816.
The Corps disbanded in Trinidad
The project deals with the disposal of the Corps in Trinidad in the context of the island’s historical development, with attention to European contention for empire, new patterns of British Colonial administration, and British anti-slavery agitation. The connection between Trinidad and these global issues has been amply investigated in the past, but the role of the American settlers of 1815 and 1816 was little known before the work of Keith Laurence, in his article of 1963, and Donald Wood, in his book of 1968. Under Spanish rule, Trinidad had been neglected until an invitation to settle given to French planters in 1783. The British occupied Trinidad in 1797 and assumed possession as a colony in 1803 under the Treaty of Amiens of the previous year. Still underdeveloped, Trinidad’s need for new labour was seen differently by the British government and the new British planters. The latter desired to develop their sugar plantations which required new slave importation, and while volatile sugar prices suggested a need for crop diversification, the planters had no interest in the farming of other crops which otherwise had to be imported. Failed attempts to bring in European and Chinese peasant labour led the Colonial Office and the Governor of Trinidad to the idea of installing a new free class of Black yeoman farmers. The War of 1812 gave an opportunity to obtain acculturated and Europeanized African Americans, though confusion over the intended destination of the emigrants restricted the initial settlement in 1815 to only two hundred. In 1816 the Colonial Marines’ refusal to join the army brought the main opportunity for carrying out the project, and in succeeding years men of various West India Regiments were similarly settled in the north-east of Trinidad on reduction of those forces.
Settlement Following the Colonial Marines’ arrival in Trinidad waters on 15 August 1816, they and their families were disembarked in two parties at Naparima (now San Fernando) on the 17th and 18th and formally disbanded near the Mission of Savanna Grande (now Princes Town) on 20 August. They were organised in villages in their military companies, each under the local supervision of an ex-sergeant, sworn in as an alguacil or constable, and under the general control of the Commandant of the Quarter. The project deals with the context and detail of their arrival and settlement, and of the three small groups of American immigrants of the previous year, drawing on early publications and on material from British archives. Each household in the Colonial Marines’ settlements was to have five quarrés or sixteen acres, following the previous Spanish rule for persons of colour, and as much more as they could cultivate. The mode of occupation was a bone of contention for many years and was only settled thirty years later with the confirmation of absolute title for those remaining settlers who claimed it. A review of the circumstances in which the land was allocated deals with the inherited Spanish land system and the opposition voiced by planters to these American settlers being given the best land. An identification of the extent and layout of the land allocations is proposed, and its problems and limitations discussed. The behaviour and character of the settlers were the subject of comment in the reports of the governor and the superintendent, as well as technical matters of numbers, accommodation, illness, rations and clothing, and from these and other useful documents the study attempts to draw a picture of the people as a community at the outset of their life in Trinidad. Although not reported during the life of the Corps itself, the religious life they brought from America, three-quarters Baptist, one quarter Methodist, dominates many later accounts of the community, attested by subsequent commentators, in some cases quoting the men themselves. A report of 1824 notes that the community included around twenty Muslims, presumably among the small proportion of the settlers born in Africa within the hundred of the Colonial Marines who were from Georgia: they would have been the first in Trinidad recorded as Muslims, though they seem to have left no trace comparable with later Muslim immigrants from Africa and the Indian sub-continent. On the subject of the Baptist faith within the community the study reviews material on the African-American Baptist church they would have known in America and the subsequent development and schisms of the Baptist churches in the Company Villages, together with accounts by missionaries and Anglican ministers of their visits to the settlements during the early years.
Today’s memories
The community founded by the American Settlers, the Merikens, maintains and celebrates its identity and memory today, embracing newcomers of later years, Hindu and Muslim, Indian and Chinese, in an ecumenical spirit, with many groups holding annual gatherings - the most extensive, the Amphy and Bashana Jackson fraternity, celebrating their ancestors who came away from the Chesapeake in 1814, and a number of single family groups, notably the McNish tribe descended from Polydore McNish, born in Africa around 1780, and his American-born wife Nancy, who quit their slavery in Camden County in Georgia in 1815. A growing interest among young people in the community has led to new research using both oral tradition and archival record.
John McNish Weiss © 2013
Not to be reproduced in whole or in part without permission, but feel free to provide a link on your website.
rev April 2013

notes on documentary and published sources
papers and publications
article: 'Averse to Any Controul': paper for Bermuda Dockyard & the War of 1812


visits stats