When Anthony "Prime" Guerra’s 10-year-old son made a speech to his Grade 4 class about black men fighting in the War of 1812, his teacher told him he didn’t have the right information about this monumental event in Canadian history.
Guerra later sent two books—the only two books he found on the subject—to his son’s teacher as proof. He has attempted to unearth more on the topic of black loyalists. Loyalists like Richard Pierpoint, who petitioned to begin a “Coloured Corps” and fought for what would become Canada.
Contrary to what that teacher thought, groups of black men fought on the side of the British in what is now Ontario and the Maritimes, a part of history that Guerra hopes to bring forward.
“It is all of our story, because they fought for our land right now that we own. So in the wider sense it is a Canadian story,” he said.
To do his part in paying tribute to them, Guerra, who's taught dance in Ontario since he immigrated from Trinidad in 1996, is producing a show at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre called Black Corps: War of 1812
The show, which runs June 14 to 16, features his son, who will read from his class speech, and a performance by Guerra’s Afro-Caribbean dance group in honour of the war’s Bicentennial Anniversary.
Many of the black soldiers arrived in Canada following the American Revolution, when slaves joined the loyalist forces upon the promise of freedom. Some were also “donated" to serve the British cause by their loyalists owners. When they arrived in Upper Canada they were given land grants for their service.
“When the 1812 conflict arose they volunteered to fight,” said Natasha Henry, education director at the Harriet Tubman Institute.
“And obviously one of the main reasons was again to procure their freedom so that it would hopefully stave off American expansion northward.”
Now, as the bicentennial approaches, historians like Henry are urging Canadians to see a side of the war they perhaps hadn’t heard of before.
“What is obvious is that a lot of this is not being taught in classrooms in Ontario; and it could be that a lot of the information is not easily accessible to educators in some respects,” says Henry.
The project was launched in May with a workshop at Brock University. The aim was to bring together enthusiasts, researchers, genealogists and historians who have collected research on black participation in the war of 1812.
The “Coloured Corps” consisted of more than 30 black volunteers and was based in the Niagara region throughout the war. They fought at Queenston Heights in October of 1812 and at the siege of fort George in May 1813.
One of the books Guerra found on the subject was by author Steve Pitt, who wrote To Stand and Fight Together, titled after a line in Pierpoint’s petition to Sir Isaac Brock. Pitt always had a keen interest in history and one day in the mid-1980s he stumbled upon this particular subject while looking at an 1812 monument in Toronto.
“On it were listed regiments that fought in the War of 1812,” Pit said. “Right on the grass line—where you could see the lawn mowers has been trimming away—it said ‘And our Indian allies and the Coloured Corps of Upper Canada.’”
Pitt, a member of the 48th Highlanders and no stranger to military history had never heard of these men. He continued to investigate the Coloured Corps; he spent the next 10 years in research for his book.
“As a soldier to another soldier, I felt I had a duty to bring these guys forward and just get their name out,” Pitt said.
Consider, for example, the story of Richard Pierpoint, as he came to be known. He is perhaps the most famous of the black loyalists.
Born in West Africa in the mid-1740’s, he was captured in his teenage years and brought to New England as a slave. After being bought by a British officer named Pierpoint he was given his name.
Pierpoint was one of the men who joined the loyalist battalion Butler’s Rangers during the American Revolutionary War, and after the conclusion of the war, he arrived in Upper Canada a free man.
In 1794 he signed a Petition of Free Negroes asking that the free black men who served on the side of the British be given land grants beside each other.
To cultivate the tough rocky and tree-filled land, however, these men would have needed help. But these men had no families because there were virtually no free black women in Upper Canada at the time. Without military service, the women would not have had the opportunity to buy their freedom.
“And if a free black man married a black woman," says Pitt, "all his children would belong to a slave owner.”
Pierpoint’s petition was rejected, and he was forced to sell his land and work as a labourer until 1812, when he then sent another petition. When the Americans declared war on Great Britain in 1812, Pierpoint’s second petition to the Upper Canadian government asked that he be permitted to start a corps of coloured men “to stand and fight together.”
He was initially turned down, but when many white men failed to volunteer his petition was finally accepted.
Pierpoint, known from his time as a loyalist in the American Revolution as Captain Dick, was not allowed to command the troop because he was black and common. So Robert Runchey was given command of the corps and Pierpoint volunteered to serve as a private in the regiment.
After the group disbanded in 1815, the men were granted 100 acres of land—but again, mostly old forest growth.
Pierpoint, then already an elderly man in his seventies, petitioned a third time to the government. This time in exchange for the land he wanted to be sent back to Africa. He was denied.
Pierpoint was eventually buried on his own land near St. Catharine’s, Ont.