Fighting for freedom

The “Colored Corps” provincial plaque unveiling (1994)

Photo: The “Colored Corps” provincial plaque unveiling (1994)


Wayne Kelly

Black heritage, Military heritage

Published Date: Feb 17, 2012

What must Richard Pierpoint have thought in 1812 when he heard the war drums beating again? Abducted from Senegal at the age of 16, Pierpoint was brought to America where a British officer purchased him as a slave. During the American Revolution, he fought for the British side in Butler’s Rangers. Later, he came to Upper Canada – a freed man to settle a military land grant. In 1794, with other Black veterans, he unsuccessfully asked the government for land so that a separate Black settlement could be formed.

By 1812, Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe’s act to limit slavery had made Upper Canada a safe haven for freedom seekers and escaped slaves from the United States. When the United States declared war against Britain in 1812, Blacks living in Canada rallied to the flag to defend their new homeland and liberty.

Pierpoint offered “to raise a Corps of Men of Color on the Niagara frontier.” The army refused his offer but named white officer Captain Robert Runchey to command a segregated Coloured Company. The small company was garrisoned at Fort George and fought in key battles at Queenston Heights, Fort George and Stoney Creek. During the battle of Fort George, Captain Fowler – who, by that time, commanded the Coloured Company – wrote that the “Black Corps (as part of the British forces) . . . advanced to repel the foe, notwithstanding the showers of grape and other shot from his vessels brought to this point . . . The contest was severe and . . . The officers and men of the above mentioned corps fast fell and the contest soon became unequal . . . ”

That bloody campaign turned the Americans back from taking Canada, marking the beginning of the war’s end. But the Coloured Company continued on for the duration – constructing and maintaining military posts, fortifications and transportation routes – tedious and laborious work unpopular with soldiers.

During the War of 1812, Blacks played an important role in defending Upper Canada. They fought in key battles, faced hardships and achieved much. After the war, the soldiers who had fought so hard returned to civilian life. But things were not easy for them. The soldiers had been promised six months disbandment pay but Sergeant Thompson of the Coloured Company was told “he must go and look for it himself.” When Black veterans went to claim their land grants, they found that the land was smaller and more remotely located than grants being given to white veterans. In the end, few veterans could settle their grants. Pierpoint, destitute by 1821, asked the authorities for help: “now old and without property … he finds it difficult to obtain a livelihood by his labor; that he is above all things desirous to return to his native country”. Pierpoint, whose life was so punctuated by war, never did get to go home.