Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves, and the American Revolution

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Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves, and the American Revolution * Simon Schama * New York: Ecco, 2006 * xiv, 478 pp. * $29.95

This book is of the kind we now expect from Simon Schama: sprawling, blithely written, personality-driven, and engrossing. Ostensibly concerned with "Britain, the Slaves, and the American Revolution," it is actually about the human drama surrounding the founding of Sierra Leone as a refuge, initially for London's "black poor," then for the self-liberated black loyalists, and finally for the Maroons of Jamaica. Along the way we are treated to a host of personalities large enough to demand a "Dramatis Personae," in the book's front matter.

Schama organizes his story into two parts, bracketed by a sort-of prologue and a sort-of epilogue. With his uncanny eye for the telling detail (in this case, of names), he begins and ends with an ex-slave named "British Freedom," first in Nova Scotia and finally beyond the imperial line in Sierra Leone. Part one marches us through the London of Lord Mansfield's Somerset decision (1772), the colonial South of Lord Dunmore's proclamation (1775), the southern theater of the Revolutionary War and its aftermath (1775-83), the fiasco of the first attempt to settle free blacks at Granville Town (1787-89), and the general travail of the thousands of black loyalists who had been transported to Canada after the war. Vividly written, if at times rather overly so (see, for example, the buzzards-eye view of Cornwalliss bedraggled army en route to Yorktown in 1781 [pp. 116-17]), the initial narrative revolves around Granville Sharp and skips back and forth across the Atlantic. In fact, Schama's many digressions and asides, and the tangled nature of the stories he chose, tend to sacrifice the packmule of narrative history, chronology, on the altar of story-telling.

Part two focuses on the founding of Freetown in 1792. Here the hero is John Clarkson, the brother of the better-known Thomas. Schama is at his best in describing the contingency and human drama of the "great black exodus" of some 1,196 souls (of whom 383 were children) in fifteen ships from Nova Scotia in the worst maritime weather and across the Atlantic in squall season. And the drama continued from their landing in early March through the rest of the year.

That Schama makes John Clarkson the key character, whose personal trajectory was from naval lieutenant to Sierra Leone Company commodore to colonial superintendent and finally governor, all in one year, itself is telling. …