Tangier Island is little more than a sandbar, barely rising above the raging waters of the Chesapeake Bay. However, for nearly 1,000 slaves during the War of 1812, it was a fortress of salvation, and the place where they took their first free steps. Fort Albion, named after the ancient name for England and Commodore George Cockburn’s flagship, was constructed there in 1814 to serve two major functions: as a central base to sustain continued British attacks along the Chesapeake, and as a depot for receiving runaway American slaves into citizenship and service to His Majesty, King George III of England.
Using America’s slaves against it was not a novel idea – the British successfully employed this war tactic during the Revolutionary War. However, in the War of 1812, American slaves were considered free British citizens as soon as they set foot on British soil (which included forts and vessels), as slavery was illegal in all British territories. The new recruits remained neither American nor enslaved in the eyes of the British. Some slaves stole boats or canoes and met British troops directly; others started fires to get the attention of British soldiers for rescue. In some cases, these slaves took up arms as part of an active offense, while in others they simply took the opportunity presented by the British to escape bondage.
As early as 1813, British army and navy officers were instructed to “provide shelter, protection, and evacuation to refugees.” Admiral Alexander Cochrane formalized the policy in April 1814, with a proclamation offering the “choice of either entering into His Majesty’s Sea or Land Forces, or of being sent as FREE Settlers to the British Possessions in North America or the West Indies.”
With an anticipated influx of new recruits, the Royal Navy needed a new base. Tangier Island provided an easy access point in the Chesapeake to the Upper and Lower Bays, as well as the Potomac, Washington and Baltimore, while being surrounded by slaves in the plantation country of Virginia and Maryland. Fort Albion included a barracks, a hospital, a church, family dwellings and gardens, meant to accommodate not just prospective soldiers, but the families they brought with them as well. From its earliest inception, Fort Albion was conceived not just as a place for military training, but a place which would be a temporary home for newly freed Britons.
Tangier Island was not employed long; the War of 1812 ended less than a year after Fort Albion was built, on February 17, 1815. As the British withdrew, Cockburn ordered that “on no account [is] a Single Negro [to] be left, except by his own request,” fully embracing the status of the former slaves – whether in service or not – as free subjects of the British Empire. On March 21, 1815, the evacuation of the British from the island was completed, and Fort Albion and its barracks were burned. Former slaves were sent as soldiers and citizens to settle British colonies in the Caribbean and Canada.
Between the fort’s intentional destruction and subsequent unintentional destruction by storms and floods common in the Chesapeake, nothing remains of Fort Albion today. Much of Tangier Island where it stood has eroded, leaving a sandy beach reminiscent of those that slaves saw as they set foot on the island, in search of freedom.