Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution

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Rough Crossings: Britain, the slaves and the American Revolution; by Simon Schama. London: BBC Books, 2005. 447 pp. ISBN 0-563-48709-7. £20.

Simon Schama has an enviable reputation on both sides of the Atlantic as both a scholar and a populariser, a familiar and engaging star of the television screen after his BBC2 A History of Britain. With this book he turns his attention for the first time to African and Atlantic themes, retelling the interconnected stories of the black loyalists and escaped slaves of the American Revolutionary War, their experience in Nova Scotia, the English abolitionist circle around Granville Sharpe, Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce and the founding of Sierra Leone. These stories have all been told before - there is no ground-breaking research and not much revisionism here - but rarely with such narrative verve, wit and consummate readability.

Schama never loses control of his complex narrative or his cast of colourful and complex characters. His prose is lucid, occasionally epigrammatic. It is said of Granville Sharp (p. 46), "He seemed to believe he could embarrass the powerful into goodness - a truly English strategy", of Jonas Han way, "He had strong views about two items that, to foreigners, defined Englishness: tea and umbrellas". However Schama is not afraid of the occasional purple passage as in his gory account of how the young John Clarkson "had experienced just about everything that the wartime navy could throw at him".

He begins in North America putting Blacks, slave and free, into the middle of the picture: "Seeing the Revolutionary War through the eyes of enslaved blacks turns its meaning upside down... forces an honest and overdue rethinking of the war as involving at its core, a third party". He exposes the irony and hypocrisy of a revolutionary war for "freedom" fought by a slave-owning society. …