Revisiting B. E. Griffiths: Former Slave, Queen’s Ranger, and “Son of Africa”


April 23, 2019
by Stephen Brumwell Also by this Author


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In a recent article, Todd Braisted reconstructed the remarkable story of a black Loyalist soldier, “Trumpeter Barney” of the Queen’s Rangers.[1] Through meticulous archival work, Braisted established that Barney, a runaway slave who joined the British at the siege of Charleston, South Carolina, in 1780, was the same man as Barnard E. Griffiths, who was examined in London at the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, on August 5, 1789, to establish whether he qualified for an army pension.[2]

That identification rested upon a range of evidence, but especially telling was a fulsome testimonial on behalf of Griffiths that the former lieutenant-colonel of the Queen’s Rangers, John Graves Simcoe, wrote to Britain’s Secretary-at-War, Sir George Yonge, on March 20, 1789.[3] Simcoe’s letter highlighted the exploits of “B. E. Griffiths” during the fierce skirmish at Spencer’s Ordinary, Virginia, on June 26, 1781. By comparing it with the detailed account of the same episode that Simcoe published in his 1787 Journal of the Operations of the Queen’s Rangers, which praised the vigilance and courage of “Trumpeter Barney”, Braisted was able to conclude that Barney was Griffiths.[4]

As a commendation written by an officer on behalf of a black Loyalist fighter, Simcoe’s letter is a unique survival. Intriguingly, the historical Simcoe’s unequivocal support for a former slave was echoed by a story-line in the popular AMC television series TURN: Washington’s Spies. There, a heavily-fictionalised Simcoe (played with villainous relish by Samuel Roukin) not only grants freedom to a black Queen’s Ranger, Jordan (Aldis Hodge), but promotes him to his second-in-command.

A nineteenth-century portrait of John Graves Simcoe, Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, 1791-96. (Government of Ontario Art Collection)

Of course, TURN is primarily entertainment, not intended as a faithful account of events. But by depicting Simcoe as sympathetic to the plight of slaves, it undoubtedly reflects historical reality. In 1790, during his brief stint as Member of Parliament for the Cornish “rotten borough” of St. Mawes, Simcoe spoke in the House of Commons against Britain’s involvement in the slave trade. Three years later, as lieutenant-governor of the province of Upper Canada, he was responsible for introducing a bill banning the importation of slaves into that territory, thereby effectively ensuring that slavery would have no future there.[5]

Simcoe’s marked antipathy towards the enslavement of Africans helps to explain his intervention on behalf of his former trumpeter in 1789. It also provides context for a postscript to Braisted’s article which reveals how the teenaged Barney’s personal fight for freedom during the American Revolutionary War paved the way for his subsequent involvement in the wider struggle to liberate many thousands of others, by campaigning to end slavery itself.

As his 1789 testimonial explained, when the Queen’s Rangers were captured with the forces of Lord Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown in October 1781, Simcoe had gone to great lengths to ensure that his trumpeter wouldn’t risk being reclaimed as “property” by the victorious Rebels. In his published Journal, Simcoe recounted how the sloop HMS Bonnetta, which the surrender terms left at the disposal of Cornwallis, was used to smuggle out “as many of the Rangers, and of other corps, [who were] deserters from the enemy, as she could possibly hold.” Although Bonnetta’s ship’s muster for that voyage is not among those now held in the United Kingdom National Archives, given the acute danger he faced, it’s highly likely that Barney went aboard with Simcoe. The Bonnetta arrived in New York on November 1, 1781; some two weeks later, when the convalescent Simcoe sailed on leave to England aboard the packet Swallow, Barney may have gone too.[6]

Little is known of Barney’s life between late 1781 and February 1789, when Simcoe wrote a certificate concerning him and another black Queen’s Ranger, Andrew Ellis, for consideration by the Loyalist Claims Commission. This confirms that while Ellis—like many other black Loyalists—had emigrated to Britain’s Canadian territory of Nova Scotia, Barney was living in London.[7]

In the capital, Barney became part of an established black community which had increased dramatically owing to an influx of Loyalists refugees at the close of the Revolutionary War. Young Barney would have mingled with other freed slaves, including men who are known to have slipped out of Yorktown on the Bonnetta. One of them, “Wat,” or Walter Harris, informed the Loyalist Claims Commission that he’d been a house slave of Mrs. Mary Boyd of Westover, Virginia. Taken on as a guide by the renegade Brig. Gen. Benedict Arnold in 1781, Harris subsequently accompanied Cornwallis to Yorktown. He’d spent about a year in New York before sailing to England.[8]

Another black Loyalist, Thomas Johnston, must have known Barney even before that cramped voyage aboard the Bonnetta. In his petition to the Loyalist Commissioners, Johnston said he too was born in Charleston, South Carolina, although to free parents. By a remarkable coincidence, Johnston was a servant in the family of John Izard; according to Simcoe’s certificate of February 1789, Barney maintained that both he and Andrew Ellis had likewise “belonged to Mr Izard.” While on his “Master’s business” Johnston had been pressed into service by the British Army. Enrolled as a guide to Col. Banastre Tarleton’s British Legion, he was instrumental in the surprise of Lt. Col. William Washington’s dragoons at Monck’s Corner in April 1780. A marked man when Yorktown fell, Johnston escaped retribution when he was “privately sent on board the Bonetta sloop to New York, by Lord Cornwallis’s directions.”[9]

As Johnston testified in July 1786, he had come to England “at the peace, and since subsisted poorly.” His hard experience reflected reality for many of London’s black Loyalists, whose arrival had coincided with a post-war economic slump and a glut of labour resulting from the rapid demobilisation of Britain’s army and navy. Growing concern about the plight of the “Black Poor”—and the social problems to which they were believed to contribute—lay behind an initiative to ship them off to establish a settlement in Sierra Leone, West Africa.[10]

Although not closely involved with the Sierra Leone scheme, in 1786 the leading anti-slavery campaigner Granville Sharp had issued a pamphlet suggesting “Temporary Regulations” for the proposed settlement. An undated letter to Sharp, which is associated with this period, was signed by twelve ex-slaves who wished to express their sincere gratitude for his championship of the abolitionist cause. They included “Bernard Elliott.” Was this Barney, AKA Barnard (or Bernard) Elliott Griffiths?[11]

Here, it is appropriate to pause and consider when, and why, the man formerly known simply as “Barney” might have assumed the name under which he appeared before the Chelsea commissioners in August 1789. Throughout the era of slavery in the British Empire and its former American colonies, slaves were often given fanciful Christian names inspired by ancient Rome—a society that was itself built upon unfree labour. For example, “Nero,” “Caesar,” “Pompey,” and “Scipio” all feature in the manuscript “Book of Negroes” compiled at British headquarters in New York city in 1783. This lists 3000 men, women, and children who’d sought sanctuary with the Crown and were inspected between April 26 and November 30 before embarking for Nova Scotia. The same document also highlights another common practice, by which slaves were allotted their owner’s family name. For example, “Prince Wigfall,” aged twenty-five, was “formerly slave to Mr Wigfall” of Charleston, and, in a scenario that mirrors Barney’s own experience, “left him at ye siege of that place.”[12]

In his article, Todd Braisted considered the possibility that Barney might have been one of four former slaves of Lt. Col. Barnard Elliott of the South Carolina artillery, enlisted by the Queen’s Rangers in 1780. This scenario is certainly suggestive of a patriarchal link with “Bernard Elliott.” But as Braisted pointed out, when Simcoe wrote his certificate in February 1789, he reported Barney’s statement that both he and Andrew Ellis had been the property of John Izard.

There’s another possible explanation for the name change. Once free, it was common for former slaves to shed the names previously imposed upon them, and adopt others that better expressed their new-found identity. Among the leaders of London’s “Black Poor” in the 1780s was Granville Sharp’s protégé, Abraham Elliot Griffiths. As a fellow member of London’s close-knit black population, it’s hard to conceive that Barney would not have been aware of such a conspicuous and respected figure. It’s possible that he took his surname. In 1787, when the poorly-planned expedition to Sierra Leone finally sailed, Abraham Elliot Griffiths went with it; so did Barney’s old shipmates from the Bonnetta, Walter Harris and Thomas Johnston. There’s no evidence that Barney (however he now styled himself) sailed too.[13]

Portrait of Olaudah Equiano facing the title page of his “Interesting Narrative.” (Wikipedia Commons)

While “Bernard Elliott” is not among them, four of the signatures on the undated letter to Sharp mentioned above also appear on a lengthier “Address of Thanks” dated December 15, 1787, and sent to him by the “Sons of Africa.” This was the title adopted by a London-based group of black activists who became vocal in the movement that eventually convinced Parliament to abolish the slave trade within the British Empire in 1807. Key members included Ottobah Cugoano, a servant and friend of the prominent society artist Richard Cosway and author of the anti-slavery tract Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wretched Traffic, and Gustavus Vassa, better known by his African name of Olaudah Equiano. His lively autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, became an influential best-seller, and a powerful indictment of slavery. Subscribers to the first edition, published in March 1789, included not only “Richard Cosway Esq.,” but also “Colonel Simcoe.”[14]

In the same month that Equiano’s book emerged, Simcoe wrote his detailed testimonial on behalf of “B. E. Griffiths.” Sir George Yonge promptly forwarded it to the Commissioners of Chelsea Hospital, along with a covering letter of his own. This revealed that the case of the black veteran had come to the sympathetic attention of a man who never ceased to lament the loss of Britain’s prized American colonies, King George III. Sir George wrote:

I have the honor to send you enclosed a Letter from Lieut Col John Graves Simcoe, who commanded a Corps of Provincials . . . during the late War in North America stating the Services & Gallant behaviour of B. E. Griffiths, a negroe Man, who joined the said Corps at the siege of Charles Town, and to acq[uain]t you that H. M. having been moved on behalf of this Man, has been graciously pleased to permit that he shall be examined by you, & be placed on the Out Pension of Chelsea Hospital at the usual allowance, if found a proper object, notwithstanding he may not be entitled to this indulgence by the Rules of the Board, not having been regularly recommended for that Bounty.[15]

To qualify for the “Royal Bounty of Chelsea,” soldiers disabled by wounds or long service, or who’d served for a minimum of twenty years, needed to present a formal recommendation from their commanding officer, written at the time of their discharge from the Army. Griffiths had been badly wounded at Spencer’s Ordinary, but as he was not “recommended” when he left the Queen’s Rangers, Simcoe’s letter sought to make amends.

Although Chelsea Hospital could accommodate about 500 especially-deserving veterans, the vast majority of men who “passed the board” had to fare for themselves on the “out-pension” of five pence per day.[16] In Griffiths’ case, however, there was an alternative: on the same day that Sir George wrote to the Chelsea commissioners, he also sent a shorter note to Capt. Robert McCreal of the Invalids, to acquaint him that he had “authorised the Chelsea Board to examine B. E. Griffiths, late of Lieut-Colo. Commandt. Simcoe’s Corps of Provincials for the purpose of getting him the Out Pension, or being sent to Garrison Duty as the Board may think fit.”[17]

When the twenty-six-year-old Griffiths came before them the Chelsea Commissioners clearly considered that he was hale enough to serve in the Invalids— companies of veterans deemed unfit for field duty, but still capable of manning static strongpoints. His entry on the Hospital’s register includes the annotation “D of G”—the abbreviation for “Duty of Garrison.”[18]

Previously based on the Channel Island of Guernsey, since March 12, 1789 McCrea had captained one of the two invalid companies at Chester, the fortified town on England’s border with Wales where the Roman army had established a legionary fortress some 1700 years before.[19] According to the muster roll for McCrea’s company dated at Chester on September 8, 1789, private “Barnard E. Griffith” was “appointed” on May 25, 1789—back-dated from his Chelsea appearance. But the next muster, for May 29, 1790, shows “Bernd Elliott Griffiths” on “furlough [by his] Captains Leave.” On September 5, he was still on furlough with McCrea’s permission. The muster for May 1, 1791 records that Griffiths was “discharged” on December 24, 1790.[20]

From this evidence, if Griffiths even joined the Invalids, his time with them was brief. But if Griffiths wasn’t patrolling the ancient ramparts of Chester, where was he? The answer reinforces the impression already clear from Todd Braisted’s article that he was a singularly determined young man, and helps to explain why Simcoe took such a strong interest in his fate.

On April 25, 1789, The Diary; or Woodfall’s Register published a letter from the Sons of Africa, thanking William Dickson, formerly private secretary to the governor of Barbados, for his book Letters on Slavery, which exposed “the horrid cruelties practised on the poor sable people in the West Indies, to the disgrace of Christianity.” The nine signatories included Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano, and, last of all, “Bernard Elliot Griffiths.” This, surely, was the man previously known as “Trumpeter Barney.”[21]

Unlike the celebrated Equiano, Griffiths left no coherent “Interesting Narrative” of his experiences, and as yet, nothing more is known about him after Christmas Eve 1790. But from the evidence that can be pieced together, his journey from slavery to freedom was scarcely less extraordinary.


[1]Todd W. Braisted, “Bernard E. Griffiths: Trumpeter Barney of the Queen’s Rangers, Chelsea Pensioner—and Freed Slave,” Journal of the American Revolution, February 21, 2019.

[2]WO 116/9, The National Archives (TNA).

[3]WO 121/6/420 (filed under Board of August 5, 1789), TNA.

[4]John Graves Simcoe, A Journal of the Operations of the Queen’s Rangers (Exeter: privately published, 1787), 160-165.

[5]Robin W. Winks, The Blacks in Canada: A History (Montreal and New Haven: McGill-Queen’s University Press and Yale University Press, 1971), 96-99.

[6]Simcoe, Journal, 180. See also William H. W. Sabine, ed., Historical Memoirs from 26 August 1778 to 12 November 1783 of William Smith (New York: New York Times and Arno Press, 1971), 462-463. I am very grateful to Todd Braisted for sharing information regarding the Bonnetta’s musters.

[7]“Certificate of Col. Simcoe dated 25th Feby 1789”, AO 13/5, fol. 30, TNA.

[8]For Harris, see Cassandra Pybus, Epic Journeys of Freedom: Runaway Slaves of the American Revolution and their Global Quest for Liberty (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006), 26, 44, 63, 78, 212.

[9]AO 13/70B part 1, fols. 301-302, TNA.

[10]On London’s “Black Poor” and the genesis of the Sierra Leone scheme see Mary Beth Norton, “The Fate of Some Black Loyalists of the American Revolution,” Journal of Negro History, 58, no 4 (October 1973), 402-426; and Douglas R Egerton, Death or Liberty: African Americans and Revolutionary America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 209-212.

[11]Originally published in Prince Hoare, Memoirs of Granville Sharp (2 vols., London: Henry Colburn & Co, 1828), 2: 114-115, and given in Folarin Shyllon, Black People in Britain 1553-1833 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), Appendix II, “Letters of Sons of Africa,” 266.

[12]PRO 30/55/100, doc. 10427, TNA (for “Prince Wigfall” see pp. 31-32). For a discussion of this important source, see James W. St. G. Walker, The Black Loyalists: The search for a Promised Land in Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone 1783-1870 (New York: Africana Publishing Company, 1976), 11-12.

[13] Pybus, Epic Journeys of Freedom, 211-212. See also Norton, “Fate of Some Black Loyalists”, 417.

[14] The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavas Vassa, the African (London, 1789).

[15] Yonge to the Right Honourable the Lords and others Commissioners for the affairs of Chelsea Hospital, War Office, March 25, 1789, in WO 4/137, pp. 427-28, TNA.

[16] For an overview of the Chelsea Pensioners in the second half of the eighteenth century, see Stephen Brumwell, “Home from the Wars,” History Today, 52, no 3 (March, 2002), 41-47.

[17]Yonge to Captain McCreal of the Invalids, March 25, 1789, in WO/4/137, p. 425, TNA.

[18]WO/116/9, TNA.

[19] Army List, 1789, 159.

[20]Musters of the Invalids, Chester 1783-1802, WO/12/11600, TNA.

[21]Given in Shyllon, Black People in Britain, Appendix II, 271-72.


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