Simon Schama: Now He's Writing About Slavery

Historians in the News

NATIONS need luck in their historians, as with everything else, and in Simon Schama, Britain—not to mention America, where he lives and works—has hit the jackpot. It must have been tempting to follow his panoramic “A History of Britain”, the three volumes of which dominated the bestseller lists in 2000 and beyond, and made him into Britain's national storyteller, with more from the lucrative mainstream. The book trade would surely have opened up acres of space for Mr Schama on Victoria, on Churchill, on Lincoln.

But he has done no such thing. On the contrary, Mr Schama has deployed his celebrity in the service of an episode which did not even rate a footnote in his earlier work—the noble but half-baked attempt to plant a colony of freed American slaves in Sierra Leone at the end of the American war of independence in 1776. Anyone who felt that his “A History of Britain” skipped a little lightly over the empire's adventures overseas (leaving some ugly national skeletons unrattled in the process) now knows why. Like a stealthy chef, Mr Schama was pocketing truffles for his own later use.

He was also returning to the form of vibrant and cosmopolitan narrative which entitled him to write “A History of Britain” in the first place. His first book, “The Embarrassment of Riches” (1987), was a meticulous and witty account of Holland's artistic golden age in the 17th century; “Citizens”, his next work, was a storming narration of the French revolution, a bloodbath which generations of abstract ideologues had managed to drain of blood. Now, once again, his articulate intelligence plays elegantly over a saga full of grim twists. There are heroes and cowards, fools, chancers and baffled victims. The doomed migration from Nova Scotia to Africa (just as resonant as the Australian odyssey described by Robert Hughes in “The Fatal Shore”) is gripping and vivid. It stinks of putrid flesh and maggots, tar and rope, chains and broken promises.

The story of the freed American slaves is not quite unknown, but neither is it well known. British history has rarely dwelt on the loss of its colonies across the Atlantic (preferring to celebrate victories), and until recently has been happy to draw a veil over the horrors of slavery (“ghastly business—less said about it the better”). But this terrific story straddles some very large contemporary concerns: the roots of transatlantic racism, and the ugly wrench that inspired the special relationship.

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