What with the noise, the heat, and the danger of being forced back into slavery, sometimes it’s good to get out of the city. Such, at least, was the assessment of Harry Washington, who, in July of 1783, made his way to the salty, sunbaked docks along New York’s East River and boarded the British ship L’Abondance, bound for Nova Scotia. A clerk dutifully noted his departure in the “Book of Negroes,” a handwritten ledger listing the three thousand runaway slaves and free blacks who evacuated New York with the British that summer: “Harry Washington, 43, fine fellow. Formerly the property of General Washington; left him 7 years ago.”
Born on the Gambia River around 1740, not far from where he would one day die, Harry Washington was sold into slavery sometime before 1763. Twelve years later, in November, 1775, he was grooming his master’s horses in the stables at Mount Vernon when the royal governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, offered freedom to any slaves who would join His Majesty’s troops in suppressing the American rebellion. That December, George Washington, commanding the Continental Army in Cambridge, received a report that Dunmore’s proclamation had stirred the passions of his own slaves. “There is not a man of them but would leave us if they believed they could make their escape,” a cousin of Washington’s wrote from Mount Vernon, adding bitterly, “Liberty is sweet.”
from a review of two new books on the history of slavery at The New Yorker.