When the sailing ship anchored in the sheltered estuary of the Sierra Leone River, Thomas Peters and his fellow passengers had finally arrived in what they were told was the promised land. After years of exile, they were part of a pioneering social experiment — the founding of a new colony of freed slaves in Africa. They had seized their liberty by fighting alongside the British during the American Revolution, and now, seven years after those hostilities had ended, they were about to claim their just reward. Or so they thought.
Little is known about Peters’ early life. Scholars believe he was born in 1738 to a Yoruba-speaking family in what’s now southeastern Nigeria, kidnapped by slavers around age 22 and shipped to Louisiana, then a French possession. The earliest documentation of his life shows Peters’ master selling him in 1770, after three attempts to escape, to William Campbell, who owned a plantation and flour mill along the Cape Fear River, in Wilmington, North Carolina.
Peters found himself in a town full of revolutionary zeal, a place flush with pamphlets decrying British tyranny and oppression — sentiments that must have struck Peters and other slaves as hypocritical, at the very least. Soon after the “shot heard round the world” was fired in Lexington in 1775, the British took advantage of this schism and proclaimed that slaves who fought for the crown in suppressing the American rebellion would be rewarded with their freedom.
The following spring, when the Redcoats arrived outside Wilmington, Peters emancipated himself. He joined the Black Pioneers, an unarmed company that provided logistical support for the British Army. Wounded twice in battle, Peters rose to the rank of sergeant. In 1779, a runaway slave named Sally from Charleston, South Carolina, showed up in a British camp, where she met Peters. They had a daughter, Clairy, and a son, John.