Blogs > Cliopatria > Christian Tyler: Review of Simon Schama's Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution

Dec 17, 2005 7:12 pm

Christian Tyler: Review of Simon Schama's Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution

Simon Schama's book on the beginnings of the anti-slavery movement is based on a glorious, and for today's Americans shocking, paradox. When the colonists declared independence from the tyranny of British rule, brandishing the rights of man, many of their slaves ran off to join the King's army. One of those refugees was Henry Washington, whose owner was George Washington; another was a comrade of Henry's who rechristened himself "British Freedom". Like the thousands who joined them, they believed they stood a better chance of emancipation under the British king than under an American republic.

Simon Schama made his name with books such as the impressionistic Landscape and Memory and the art-historical biography Rembrandt's Eyes. In Rough Crossings he is back to a more traditional form, tracking the long physical and political road travelled by the black loyalists and the white British eccentrics who backed them. His story takes us from the battlefields of the Revolutionary War, to Nova Scotia and London, and then to the place from which the slaves were first transported: West Africa.

And what a story it is. We have heard before about the dreadful conditions aboard the slave ships, the savagery of the masters' beatings, the horrors of war and disease and the perils of the sea. What shines in Schama's narrative is the dignity with which slaves endured their suffering, and the self-sacrificing stamina of the people who tried to help them. Schama shows us how mistaken is the stereotype of the slave as a passive victim. These people petitioned and fought for their own liberation.

Rough crossings there were indeed. But the early days of emancipation were notable also for the crossing of barriers. We are shown the first black church to be established in America, the first black marriages and mixed dancing (during the British occupation of New York city), the first black political leader, and the first elections in which blacks - women as well as men - were able to vote.

In this drama the small actors are brought to the front of the stage while the big names pass silently behind. Schama expects his readers to have a reasonable grasp of the period he covers, from 1760 to 1810, helping out with a dramatis personae, a chronology and an epilogue tying up loose ends. But the need to give each character a "back story" makes the structure and chronology of his narrative sometimes confusing, especially in the early stages. As a reader you have to trust the pilot eventually to bring you into clear water.

A wonderfully cinematic opening - a typical piece of Schamarama - focuses the scene in Mincing Lane, London, 1765. Like a panning camera, the author's eye settles on the lantern-jawed Granville Sharp emerging from his brother's surgery to encounter a horribly mutilated black man waiting in the queue. It is the start of his career as an abolitionist....

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