BYERS, PETER, known as Black Peter, labourer; b. probably after 1796 on St John’s (Prince Edward) Island; d. March 1815 in Charlottetown, P.E.I.
By the middle of the second decade of the 19th century slavery had probably come to an end on Prince Edward Island. There were, however, many former slaves among the small black population in the colony. One family of this community was that of John Byers, known as Black Jack, who was identified in 1796 as “a Negro of Colonel Robinson”; the master was undoubtedly Joseph Robinson, at that time an assistant judge of the Supreme Court. Byers and his wife, Amelia, had probably come to the Island with Robinson after the American revolution. They had a number of children but just where Peter stood in the family is not certain. We know nothing of Peter except for the events leading up to his death. He apparently had no difficulties with the law until 1815, although his father had been charged with theft the previous year. The elder Byers had been defended by Charlottetown lawyer James Bardin Palmer* and found not guilty of the charge.
Early in 1815 the shop of James Gibson, a tobacconist, was broken into during the night and a sum of about £5 taken. A number of the coins were identifiable, among them “an English half crown of the coin of King William having a hole on the arms side near the centre thereof.” On 24 February Peter Byers gave this piece and several others to millwright John Spittal in payment of an outstanding debt. Spittal, who had been warned to look out for the stolen coins, went directly to the authorities. A warrant was issued for Byers’s arrest and he was questioned at length.
Over the next three days the financial dealings of the entire Byers family came under investigation; it appears that several of them had been found to have unexplained funds. Under repeated examination a welter of conflicting testimony emerged. Peter himself at first claimed that the half-crown which had led to his arrest was among money he had received as wages and given to his mother, who later returned the coin to him. John and Amelia, however, stated that none of their funds had come from Peter and that money they had recently dispensed had been found by John on the road. When Peter was re-examined on 4 March, he finally admitted his involvement in the theft, stating that he and William Billinger, another black, had planned to rob the store but that Billinger had been the one who had broken down the door and removed the money from its hiding place. He explained his new story by saying that he had “told so many Lyes on this subject that he could not rest.” Billinger, however, had an alibi, having been so drunk on the evening in question that he had been unable to leave the house where the drinking had taken place; this story was supported by Billinger’s employer, William Gardner.
The matter came up for trial on 8 March before Chief Justice Thomas Tremlett* and Peter pleaded guilty. Three days later he was sentenced. Although pleading benefit of clergy had previously resulted in lighter sentences for those convicted of capital crimes, an act of 1792 had removed theft and burglary from the list of clergiable offences. For Peter, then, there was no relief: he was condemned to be hanged. Twelve days earlier in the same courtroom his brother Sancho had received the same sentence for stealing a loaf of bread and a pound of butter.
The sentences were carried out by the end of the month. Their harshness was not disproportionate to that of others handed down in the period and reflected the values of colonial society. Security of property was protected by the law, and breaking and entering, especially at night, was considered a heinous crime; even when criminal law was reformed in 1836, burglary remained a felony punishable by death. Peter and Sancho Byers were sentenced to hang, not because they were black, but because they were judged to be guilty and there was no other penalty for such guilt.
PAC, MG 24, D99: 8–10. PAPEI, RG 6, Supreme Court, case papers, 1814, King v. John Byers; 1815, King v. Peter Byers, King v. Sancho Byers; minutes, 1814–15. St Paul’s Anglican Church (Charlottetown), Reg. of baptisms (mfm. at PAPEI). J. A. Mathieson, “Bench and bar,” Past and present of Prince Edward Island . . . , ed. D. A. MacKinnon and A. B. Warburton (Charlottetown, ), 121–42.