Week 6: James Mackay, ‘”Refuge to our Slaves”: Sites of Sanctuary for Refugees from Slavery in Revolutionary America’

Join us on Wednesday 20th November at 5pm for the third OxEARS of Michaelmas Term, where James Mackay will be joining us to present part of his doctoral research. We will meet in seminar room 1 at the Rothermere American Institute on South Parks Road, and head to the pub for a drink and dinner afterwards. All are welcome!


‘My dissertation traces the movement, both voluntary and involuntary, of enslaved and freed people in the American Revolution. This paper is envisaged as part of my first chapter. I focus here on places of refuge for enslaved people in Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia between 1775-1776. I seek to explore how enslaved and freed people envisioned the presence and purpose of British forces and how the freedom-seeking people influenced British policy toward refugees. My project endeavours to recover the diversity of the experiences of refugees from slavery as they declared their independence. In Virginia, I explore enslaved people’s flight to freedom both before and after Lord Dunmore’s proclamation in November 1775. I assess the extent to which the proclamation changed the pattern of flight and how enslaved people’s actions prior to the proclamation motivated Dunmore. I build on scholarship that has looked at how enslaved people interpreted the proclamation and imbued it with an altogether different meaning from its author’s original intent. The flight of women, men, and children made Dunmore’s ‘‘Floating Town’’ and Gwynn’s Island on the Chesapeake sites of sanctuary. Although Virginia was the only colony where a British governor issued a formal document of emancipation through enlistment, enslaved people’s flight meant the result for enslavers in the Carolinas and Georgia was not dissimilar. Enslaved people drew upon their previous experiences of navigating terrain and waterways to similarly turn Fort Johnston on the banks of the Cape Fear, Sullivan’s Island at the mouth of Charlestown harbour and Tybee Island off Savannah into places of refuge. By drawing upon the pioneering scholarship on enslaved people in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Civil War and employing the methodologies used in work on slavery in the Atlantic world, I seek to make visible the black refugee experience.’


James Mackay is a second-year PhD candidate in History at the University of Edinburgh, researching refugees from slavery in revolutionary America. He holds a BA in History and Spanish from Oxford and an MSc in American History from Edinburgh. His work has been supported by fellowships from the University of South Carolina and the North Caroliniana Society. For 2019/20, he been awarded research fellowships at Colonial Williamsburg and the International Center for Jefferson Studies.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s