Of human bondage and British links

Rough Crossings
September 16, 2005

One of the ironies of the American Revolution is that a movement designed to enhance the cause of freedom in fact retarded the march towards liberty of many people. Although the ideals of the revolution did animate a few founders, most notably George Washington, to reconsider whether they should hold blacks in bondage and did encourage a few legislatures to adopt schemes of gradual emancipation, the long-term effect of the revolution was to entrench slavery in America.

To its lasting shame, the United States of America was founded as a slave-holding republic where the right of whites to keep the vast majority of blacks as property was enshrined in the Constitution. For most blacks, the revolution was nothing to celebrate because it ensured that chattel slavery would endure in the US for nearly 90 years after Thomas Jefferson's declaration that all men were created equal. As the great black abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass argued, the Fourth of July was to slaves a galling reminder of the immense gap between the founders' high ideals and the grubby reality of black slavery's role in preserving white prosperity.

When blacks looked to whites for support in their quest for freedom, they looked to Britons, the people against whose tyrannies in the mid-18th century the much greater tyrants, the slave owners of the American South, had rebelled. As Simon Schama argues in his new book, it was Britain, not the United States, that did most to advance black freedom during and after the American Revolution. It was dragged reluctantly towards recognising that slavery was immoral by a few fervent abolitionists, such as Granville Sharp, whose life is a particular focus of Schama's book, and by thousands of blacks who fought for the British cause during the revolution and who demanded some recognition by the British Government that they were entitled to freedom.

It is these ordinary blacks who are the heroes of this engrossing and daring book. As Schama points out, the actions of these seldom-chronicled blacks shaped the course of the revolutionary war and the subsequent development of a British Empire without America. Schama's book tells their stories, and especially their search for freedom aided by a few remarkable English supporters, such as Sharp and John Clarkson, a naval officer, brother of the well-known abolitionist Thomas Clarkson and leader of the expedition of free black Britons who returned as free people to Africa in the 1790s.

Rough Crossings is a very good book about a little-known subject that because of the deserved fame of its author will now become much better known. I hope it sells in vast quantities. It is written with enormous verve. Schama is an historian writing at the peak of his powers, with his distinctive style, which in other works has veered too much towards the flowery, always under control here as he tells a series of enthralling stories about one of the great events in British history. I read it in one sitting, engrossed by the drama of Sharp's one-man assault on the legal propriety of slavery; intrigued by the ways in which the exigencies of war forced Britain to use blacks as weapons against their American foes, often with unexpected consequences; and entertained by the determination of Clarkson and his Nova Scotian blacks to create a land of freedom on the inhospitable shores of western Africa.

I would have liked to have heard more directly from blacks themselves, such as Thomas Peters, a natural-born leader who clashed with Clarkson, but that we hear such voices at all in a popular work associated with the American Revolution is remarkable enough. It would also have been welcome to see attention paid to slavery in the West Indies and to Britain's role in first protecting and then attacking slavery in that region.

I can understand why Schama does not deal with the Caribbean - he has enough compelling stories to tell - but by not doing so his story is necessarily incomplete. Blacks may have looked to Britain as their best hope for freedom, but they did so in the knowledge that Britain was the greatest oppressor of Africans of all nations, freeing just one slave in the celebrated Mansfield case in 1772 while shipping thousands to ruthlessly exploitative sugar colonies. Devoting attention to how Britain was simultaneously deriving profits from African enslavement while making tentative steps towards dismantling the monstrous system it had established would heighten one of Schama's major themes - the ambivalences in Britain's attitudes towards its black supporters and the hypocrisy that surrounded its dealings with Africa, Africans and African-Americans.

But I do not want to quibble. This brilliant book by the leading historian of our times about a subject of great significance will delight professional historians and entrance the reading public. Rough Crossings succeeds in all respects. It is a tour de force and a landmark in historical scholarship.

Trevor Burnard is professor of American studies, Sussex University.

Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution

Author - Simon Schama
Publisher - BBC Books
Pages - 448
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 0 563 48709 7

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