Simon Schama's "Rough Crossing: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution" (Ecco audio, $29.95) offers an often startling reappraisal of one of the most studied — and glorified — moments in history, presenting the War of Independence from the vantage point of the tens of thousands of slaves who did not share in the much-ballyhooed promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Casting their fates with the British in hopes of freedom, these Black men and women are the forgotten causalities of the battle to forge a new nation. Backing the losing side, their fates would prove less felicitous than they had dreamed.
The British-born Schama has lived half his life in America, where he is a professor of art history and history at Columbia University. "Rough Crossings" offers a clear-sighted examination of the political and moral transgressions of both nations. His narrative begins in London, where Granville Sharp, a musician and ardent abolitionist, expertly worked the legal system to gain the freedom of several runaway slaves.
On this side of the Atlantic, as insurrection against King George was brewing, the last British governor of Virginia offered slaves their freedom in return for military service against their former masters.Between 80,000 and 100,000 escaped to the British ranks, including some of the slaves of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry.
Schama documents the damning fact that many Southern plantation owners, until then not "enemies" of England, supported the revolutionary cause largely to protect their ownership of slaves — a regional proclivity that would play out 90 years later with the Civil War.
With the coming victory of the Colonists, Blacks who had defected to the British side once more found themselves in a precarious situation. Thousands were given refuge in Nova Scotia, forced to scratch out a meager subsistence from inhospitable terrain. Schama reconstructs the often-heartrending stories of many of these former slaves, men like David George and Boston King, who would ultimately guide their people on an epic exodus to Sierra Leone, where the first experiment in resettling free African Americans was founded by Granville Sharp and John Clarkson.
Whilewell-intentioned, this "reverse" passage would prove an ordeal for thousands of Blacks who had already endured bondage, transportation and untold hardships. But in the crucible of Black loyalism, many of the formative institutions of African American experience would be founded: the first free schools, the first free churches, the first free politics. And with far-reaching historical significance, the first women permitted to vote for anything, anywhere in the world were ex-slaves liberated by the British and settled in Sierra Leone.
To tell the colorful, forgotten stories of these Blacks — as well as their White emancipators and adversaries — Schama has turned to writings and personal narratives from the period, weaving together a riveting account of this little-studied blemish on our nation's past. With a balanced approach that exonerates neither America nor Britain, he presents a revisionist view of well-worn history, raising long-suppressed questions about an iconic moment in our story.