By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
Under the heading, “Harper Government Boosts Tourism by Investing in War of 1812 Commemorations in Ontario”, dated March 19, 2012, the Canadian government sent out a press release that read in part: “The War of 1812 represents an essential yet lesser-known chapter in Canadian history, and we are proud to bring the events, personalities, and significance of this conflict to Canadians through dynamic programming.
“The Government of Canada has provided total funding of $2,132,946 through Canadian Heritage’s War of 1812 Commemoration Fund and Canadian Studies Program. The War of 1812 Commemoration Fund supports community-based projects to foster greater awareness and understanding among Canadians of the importance of this moment in our history.”
After reading such interesting and historic information, I decided to investigate the names of the organizations that will receive some of that $2,132,946 to “foster greater awareness and understanding among Canadians of the importance of this moment in our history”.
Not surprisingly, there was not a single African Canadian organization listed as a beneficiary of the government’s generosity in providing funds in its effort to educate Canadians about our glorious war history. As quiet as it is kept, there was a significant African Canadian contribution to the British victory/success in the War of 1812. There are also “events and personalities” that should be recognized to “foster greater awareness and understanding among Canadians” of the importance of the contributions of African Canadians to the culture and history of this Great White North where we all dwell.
There are many Canadians, as well as recent immigrants, who have no idea that Africans have been living in Canada at least since the 1600s. The education system does not make it a priority to teach our children about any history other than White history.
While the Canadian government is commemorating the War of 1812, there seems to be a lack of recognition that some of the “personalities” of that war include Richard Pierpoint who was the force behind the recruitment and organizing of the Coloured Corps. It is documented that the Coloured Corps saw action in several of the battles fought between Britain and America during the three-year war from 1812 to 1815. They are credited and recognized with a plaque for fighting at Queenston Heights in October 1812 and at the siege of Fort George in May 1813.
The plaque, which is located at Niagara-on-the-Lake, does not mention that the members of the Coloured Corps built Fort Mississauga while under attack from American military forces and since the Corps was active from 1812 to 1815, they would have seen action in more than two instances.
Richard Pierpoint, who was born in Senegal in 1744, was kidnapped and enslaved when he was 16 years old in 1760. He was taken to America where he was sold to a British military officer. He was given the name Richard Pierpoint at some time during his enslavement and there is no record of his African name. When the Americans were at war with the British from 1776 to 1783 (American War of Independence), Pierpoint, like many other enslaved Africans, took the opportunity offered to enslaved Africans of enlisting in the British forces and gaining their freedom.
Those Africans who were enslaved by British families did not gain their freedom at the end of that war. They arrived in Canada as the property of the British families who were their enslavers in America. Those who escaped American masters to fight on the side of the British were given their freedom and entered Canada as free people and members of the United Empire Loyalists.
Pierpoint was fortunate that even though he escaped from a British officer, he gained passage to Canada as a member of the United Empire Loyalists.
Pierpoint was a pioneer member of Butler’s Rangers (1777-1784), a British provincial regiment composed of Loyalists (men loyal to the British crown) in the American War of Independence under the command of John Butler. By 1780, Pierpoint was stationed with Butler’s Rangers in the Niagara region of Quebec. On July 20, 1784, his name appeared among those of disbanded Rangers on a list of people who intended to settle in that area. African members of the United Empire Loyalists, in theory, were entitled to the same proportion of land as the White loyalists. But that was in theory; the reality was very different.
In 1788, Pierpoint was granted 200 acres of land on Twelve Mile Creek, in what later became Grantham Township. By and large the land granted to the Africans was not land that they could productively farm. In addition, many of the African men had no families with them (they were forced to leave their families behind) and therefore did not have help to farm any piece of land they might have been granted unlike the White men who brought their families to Canada with them.
On June 29, 1794, Pierpoint was one of 19 signatories to a petition of “Free Negroes” to Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe requesting permission to allow them “a Tract of Country” to settle on, separate from the White settlers. The group consisted of veterans of the “late War”, and “others who were born free with a few who have come into Canada since the peace”. Landless and socially isolated for the most part, they were “desirous of settling adjacent to each other in order that they may be enabled to give assistance (in work) to those amongst them who may most want it”.
On July 8, 1794, the petitioners received the unwelcome news that a decision had been made by a committee of the Executive Council that permission was not granted. The minute-book of the committee suggests the petition’s emphasis on land separate from Whites as the most likely explanation for the refusal, which was highly hypocritical since the men obviously needed the support of each other if they were to enjoy any success at farming the land grudgingly doled out to them. It would have made sense for these men to be given land together so that they could support each other.
These African men eventually became a cheap source of labour for the White farmers. Between 1806 and the War of 1812, Pierpoint resided in Grantham Township, earning his living as a labourer. When America declared war on Britain in 1812 Pierpoint “proposed to raise a Corps of Men of Colour on the Niagara Frontier” to fight alongside the British during the war. Major-General Sir Isaac Brock turned down his offer at first.
By late August 1812, permission was granted to recruit a Coloured Corps but instead of Pierpoint, with his experience being put in command, that position was given to a local White officer, Captain Robert Runchey. Characterized as a “black sheep” and a “worthless, troublesome malcontent”, Runchey fulfilled his reputation for poor leadership by segregating “his nigros” from other militiamen, and in some cases hired them out to officers as domestic servants.
The then 68-year-old Pierpoint, who should have been a leader of the group, instead volunteered immediately, serving as a private from September 1, 1812 to March 24, 1815. A company of about 40 men from the Niagara and York districts mustered under White officers. Pierpoint served as a private in the Corps and served on active duty throughout the conflict, including the Battle of Queenston Heights on October 13, 1812 when the corps was mentioned in dispatches as having played a key role in that British victory.
The Coloured Corps saw action not only at the battle of Queenston Heights on October 13, 1812 but was involved in heavy fighting during the siege of Fort George (Niagara-on-the-Lake) on May 27, 1813. The corps remained with Brigadier-General John Vincent’s army on the retreat west to the head of Burlington Bay (Hamilton Harbour) and then followed it east again after the battle of Stoney Creek on June 6, 1813.
For the remainder of the war, the members of the Coloured Corps were used for labour or garrison duty, stationed either at Fort Mississauga (Niagara-on-the-Lake) or Fort George and then seeing action at Lundy’s Lane on July 25, 1814.
When the corps was disbanded in 1815, Pierpoint, who was in his 70s, returned to the life of a labourer in the Grantham area.
During this promotion of the bicentennial of the War of 1812, where the federal government is placing even more emphasis on military history by designating a number of sites, events and groups as historic, there has not been any mention of Richard Pierpoint and the Coloured Corps of Upper Canada. The Coloured Corps of Upper Canada served with distinction at the Battle of Queenston Heights, the siege of Fort George and the Battle of Lundy’s Lane as well as other engagements during the War of 1812.
On July 21, 1821, Pierpoint, then a resident of Niagara (Niagara-on-the-Lake), petitioned Lieutenant Governor Sir Peregrine Maitland for aid since he was finding it “difficult to obtain a livelihood by his labor” and was “above all things desirous to return to his native country”.
His wish to return to the West African country he had left in the hold of a slave ship more than 60 years earlier was not granted.
Pierpoint and the members of the Coloured Corps deserve to be recognized during this federal government recognition of the bicentennial of the War of 1812.