John Kizell lived a heroic life that must never be forgotten. Enslaved as a boy from West Africa and brought to South Carolina not too long before the American Revolution, Kizell escaped his owner, served with the British military in the Revolutionary War, started family life in Nova Scotia, and then returned to his ancestral homeland in Sierra Leone to help fight the slave trade and help found Liberia. This is his story.
Born around 1760, Kizell was believed to be Sherbro whose father was a chief on Sherbro Island, in what is now the Bonthe District of Sierra Leone. At the age of 13, Kizell was captured during an attack on his uncle’s village and sold into slavery. He was taken to Charleston, South Carolina, which was a major slave-trading port in British North America.
Kizell had gone through horrifying experiences while being taken to a new land against his will by a slave ship captain. Now in Charleston, South Carolina, he faced the American Revolution. About four years after the British North American colonies declared independence from Great Britain in 1776, Kizell fled his slave owner and joined the British military. Historians say that he was taken prisoner by the Americans, however, he escaped to Charleston, South Carolina, and from there, he boarded a British ship to New York with black and white loyalists.
After the British surrendered to the American Patriots (members of the Thirteen Colonies who rejected British rule during the American Revolution) at Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781, the British agreed to return property to the Americans, including slaves. However, British General Sir Guy Carlton declared that all of the Blacks who had joined the British before 1782 would be freed.
Thanks to this, John got his freedom and would be among thousands of Black Loyalists who were evacuated and resettled in Nova Scotia (Canada), along with white Loyalists in 1783. The Black Loyalists were people of African descent who sided with the Loyalists during the American Revolutionary War. They were the largest group of people of African birth and of African descent to come to Nova Scotia at any one time.
In Nova Scotia, Kizell got married and had three children. He joined a black Baptist Church congregation with his family and became a devoted Christian. But life was tough for him and his fellow black loyalist settlers. Besides suffering from the harsh climate, discrimination, and shortage of work, they never received land grants promised them.
Later, the British offered the Black Loyalists an opportunity to have their own colony. Thus, in 1792, Kizell and his family including more than a thousand Black and White passengers boarded a fleet of ships bound for Freetown, Sierra Leone. The Sierra Leone Company was a British organization that managed the development of the new settlement. But the company’s board members failed to fulfill many of the promises the company made to the settlers including self-government. This led to unrest within the Black communities and some Black Nova Scotian leaders were arrested and tried for treason in England.
Kizell testified in the case in England and made use of his time there to better his life and that of his family. When he returned to Sierra Leone in 1796, he engaged in many commercial ventures with the resources he had. He helped construct a sailing vessel to promote trade with the Sherbro people and grew cotton, pepper, ginger and sugarcane to sell to the Sierra Leone Company store.
He also participated in some of the earliest Baptist missions in Africa as a member of the Baptist Church before settling on Sherbro Island in 1805 where he built a trading post and a church. He would then help fight the slave trade. According to the book, “The African American Odyssey of John Kizell” by Kevin G. Lowther, Kizell “spent decades battling European and African slave traders along the coast and urging his people to stop selling their own into foreign bondage.”
In 1811 when Black ship owner Paul Cuffee sailed free Black people from the U.S. to Freetown, Kizell met him and the two became friends, working together to encourage trade between Sierra Leone and Blacks in the U.S.
Kizell also met with members of the American Colonization Society (ACS) whose mission was to help relocate freed Black people in West Africa. Kizell told the ACS in 1816 that Sherbro territory would be good for freed Black Americans. And between 1821 and 1838 after the ACS had helped 86 freed Black slaves leave New York for the British colony of Sierra Leone, the ACS developed the first settlement, which would be known as Liberia.
Kizell helped to make this happen. Historians say that when the ACS sought land in what would be known as Liberia, they consulted Kizell.
Kizell passed away in the 1830s but he lives on in the numerous letters he wrote to the governors about his observations of the slave trade and life in Sierra Leone. Even though many enslaved African Americans followed a path similar to his, Kizell remains one of the few who wrote down the story of their journeys, helping us to reimagine the stories of those who survived the transatlantic slave trade and were able to return to their homelands.