Liberty's Exiles: The Loss of America and the Remaking of the British Empire

June 2, 2011

The American Revolution against British rule in the future US tore families apart. While Benjamin Franklin, American Patriot and inventor of the lightning rod, was in Paris drumming up support for the war against Britain, his illegitimate but acknowledged son, William, the last Loyalist governor of New Jersey, remained in the colonies, fighting for the motherland.

Meanwhile, William's (also illegitimate) son, Temple, was in Paris with his grandfather, negotiating French support. When in 1782, the Patriots and their allies stood on the brink of victory, William exiled himself from the continent, never to return. William and his father remained estranged. He was only one of thousands who, according to Maya Jasanoff's immensely readable and erudite account, comprised a Loyalist diaspora, Britain's most extraordinary refugee crisis.

For Canadians, Loyalist refugees provide a familiar narrative of staunch, Protestant Tories who transferred their conservative political credo north of the border. Such families were a founding people of modern Canada. Those who went elsewhere - Britain, the West Indies, Africa and India, among other places - are less well known. Jasanoff brings them together through intensively told biographies of a small number of individuals who encapsulate the variety of people who marched under the Loyalist banner.

Through these lives she sets about telling a transnational, diasporic drama about communities of people who were, for decades, airbrushed from US history. Harried, defeated supporters of King George III often suffered greatly from confiscations, loss of property, cruel violence and expulsion from their homeland. But to encapsulate them as a small band of wealthy, dispossessed landowners missed much of the story. For one thing, even the wealthy escaped with few possessions; and some of the military men had to request financial help to get home.

The Loyalist flight also included vast numbers of men, women, slaves, freedmen, Mohawk, and, among those who boarded ships for Florida, Choctaw and Creek allies. The Loyalists made up no insignificant band. In fact, they included about one-third of the white population of the 13 colonies, although not all fled.

In some ways, these Loyalists were similar to their Patriot foes. When Loyalists made off to Sierra Leone, the Bahamas or India, they sought the same principles of freedom and participation in government that the Patriots had fought for. Such desires jarred with the British, whose understandable inclination in the face of national humiliation was to tighten bureaucratic and state bonds over the Empire - a lesson learned from granting the ungrateful Americans too much freedom. So while the Loyalists might have remained loyal, their loyalty was still contingent upon being treated as colonial adults, rather than filial underlings. In this, they were more like their Patriot enemies than their British masters.

If it is established that the Loyalists in Canada - organised as the British Empire Loyalists - had helped to shape Canada's national DNA, they were also important personnel in the Empire elsewhere. The idea that Britain had two empires, one Western and one Eastern, swinging to the latter as the American colonies were lost, is complicated by Loyalists whose peregrinations took them east and west, north and south. For such people helped to forge the Eastern Empire while also buttressing the Western colonies in Canada and the West Indies.

Jasanoff does remarkably well to weave larger narratives into her chosen biographies. Indeed, the lives she chooses represent the key groups who made up the Loyalists: landowners such as the Robinsons of New York; the Mohawk leader Joseph Brant (Thayendanegea); David George, the Virginian slave; and the peripatetic soldier's wife, Elizabeth Johnston of Georgia, Edinburgh, Nova Scotia and elsewhere. The American Revolution is not told anew here; but its global reach, seen from a Loyalist perspective, is articulated for the first time.

For too long we have looked from the US to France, and the related appeal of revolutions against tyranny, as the major external effect of the American revolt. But other byproducts of Britain's expulsion from America included a renewed sense of grievance against France, a search for security in the remainder of Empire and a desire to ensure that other territories were not lost.

America may have been lost in the 1780s, but India had been secured, the West Indies were never left, and Australia had been tentatively probed - the latter largely on the basis of a plan by an American Loyalist, James Mario Matra, who had earlier voyaged with Captain Cook. Thus, when Britain opened a new chapter on Empire, Loyalists proved to be part of its future rather than consigned to its past.

Liberty's Exiles: The Loss of America and the Remaking of the British Empire

By Maya Jasanoff. HarperCollins, 460pp, £30.00. ISBN 9780007180080. Published 3 February 2011

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