The Colonial Marines (fl. 1814-1816) were runaway Black American slaves who fought for Britain against the US in the War of 1812. They helped to burn down Washington, DC and were later settled in Trinidad with their families as free men with their own land. They are still there, called Merikins.
They are little known in the US. They were even removed from the third verse of “The Star-Spangled Banner”, a song written by Francis Scott Key about the Battle of Baltimore, which they fought in. Francis Scott Key himself had fought them earlier, on their way to Washington, and lost.
The War of 1812:
- Ontario almost became a US state.
- New England almost became a separate nation.
- Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin almost became a Native American buffer state.
- Georgia and the Carolinas almost became Black American republics.
- The US almost ended at the Mississippi River.
It ended in a draw, allowing the US to spread west (but not north) across the continent, behind the protection of the British navy.
Black Americans fought on both sides of the war, even on both sides of the Battle of New Orleans.
In 1813 Britain let it be known that any slave who made it to a British ship would be free. Thousands of Blacks rowed out to the British ships that stood just off the coast. Most came from the coast of Maryland, Virginia and Georgia, some from Florida and Louisiana.
Most refugees were sent at first to Bermuda, where many worked in the dockyards. Others worked as guides and seamen for the British navy.
Those who wanted to fight became the Colonial Marines. They were given British training, weapons, uniforms and pay, but were:
“infinitely more dreaded by the Americans than the British troops.”
That is because White Americans feared a slave uprising. The Haitian Revolution was still fresh in everyone’s mind.
As it turns out, Britain chose not to cause a slave uprising, fearing it would spread to its slave colonies in the Caribbean – but it did not let the US know that! Britain was careful to arm only those Blacks under its own command.
The Colonial Marines were mainly used for hit-and-run attacks along the coast of slave states.
After the war, the US wanted its “property” back, the runaway slaves. Britain gave back only five or so. The other 4,000 to 6,000 it settled mainly in Trinidad and Nova Scotia (Canada). Nova Scotia (and Sierra Leone) is where Britain had settled Black Americans who fought for it in the American Revolution.
Britain wanted to fold the Colonial Marines into its West Indian Regiment. The Marines opposed that, so it sent them and their families to live as independent farmers near what is now Princes Town, Trinidad. Each company settled in its own village (New Grant, Hardbargain, Indian Walk, Fifth Company, Sixth Company), with each soldier getting 16 acres (6.5 ha) of land.
They were free – five decades ahead of the US and two decades ahead of the British Empire.
Thanks to Mary Burrell for suggesting this post.
– Abagond, 2016.
- The Star-Spangled Banner
- The Book of Negroes
- Garifuna – also relocated by the British
- David Fagen – fought the US in the Philippine American War
- Haiti: a brief history
- John Brown
- William Wilberforce