Saturday, July 17, 2010

Book Notes: Rough Crossings: Britain, The Slaves and The American Revolution, by Simon Schama

The story of the abolition of the British slave trade, of Wilberforce, the Clapham Sect and their life-long struggle against "the accursed trade in human souls", has been told many times. In contrast, a story which has been too often forgotten is that of the African-American slaves who fled to fight for the King in the American Wars of Independence; believing that in so-doing they would gain, "British Freedom". In almost 450 pages of riveting narrative, in 'Rough Crossings', Simon Schama has retold this important story.

He describes the way in which British and American laws and attitudes to slavery diverged, and how in George III's England, free blacks lived with the fear of kidnapping; under a legal system which was at best ambiguos as to their status. In the centre of this story is the early abolitionist Granville Sharp, and his tireless efforts to establish and defend the legal basis for liberty.

The story of the African-Americans who fought against Independence for America, is a tragic one, and Schama tells the story both of the people as a whole, as well as many of the individuals caught up in the great unfolding drama of Empires in collision. Driven by the fear of the slave-holding state that that the USA was evidently to become, and lured by the false hope of land and liberty under the rule of the English King; the African-American army of former-slaves fought hard, loyally and sustained dreadful losses. Schama quite beautifully describes their experience of war, and of the broken promises they endured as Britain pulled out of America.

Schama then describes, the disastrous attempt to form a settlement for these loyalist 'free-blacks' in Nova Scotia (Canada still being a British colony at the time). With the land-promises made to them in tatters, "British Freedom" proving to be illusory, and amidst great hardship and alarming mortality rates, the experiment was ended. What emerged from the heart-break of Nova-Scotia was the attempt to establish a free state for these former slaves in Sierra Leone.

The final part of the book details the reasons for the attempt to establish the free colony at Sierra Leone, the successes and failures of the Nova-Scotians (As the ex-slaves were known), as they sought to carve out a new life for themselves in Freetown. The inevitable parallel with the biblical-Exodus in which slaves were lead by Providence to a 'Promised Land', was clearly in the minds of the settlers. Equally inevitably we are told of the struggles, hardships, more broken promises, diseases and political squabbles that characterised the first few generations of the settlement. Schama paints a wonderful portrait of the settlement's first governor, John Clarkson - and his missionary zeal to see his people established in the land, treated equitably and provided for. He tells of how Clarkson's absolute determination to see these people flourish, led him into conflict with his masters in London, who ultimately replaced him with a governor whose priorities were those of the Sierra Leone Company, rather than the people.

Schama is a historian who writes like a novelist. As such, he supplies great detail, with remarkably few references. However it means that he writes with great feeling and pathos. He isn't the kind of writer who seeks to persuade with statistics - but rather makes the reader feel the anger of injustice, and vividly picture the great sieges and battles. The reader almost smells the inside of the ships, and then marvels at the exploits of those both black and white who struggled for liberty and hope, but is finally brought to despair as hopes are dashed, and justice delayed once again.

Whilst occasionally the abundance of poetic metaphors and flowery prose is a bit much, nevertheless this lively writing brings this history alive. This is a brilliant read about an important subject - a part of our past about which I feel I ought to have been told before. This is popular history at its best. It is riveting, accessible, moving, powerful and disturbing.

No comments: