Schama is always an interesting writer, but he has seldom been as easy to read as in Rough Crossings. Perhaps the subject itself is so unambiguous that he finds his way to simplicity. That subject is the fate of African and African-American refugees from the Thirteen Colonies, the bold proclaimers of Liberty, during and after the Revolutionary War. Unmentioned in most American textbooks of history, thousands of slaves and some free blacks took refuge with the British army and navy during the war. After the war, many of them were transported to other British lands, especially to Nova Scotia. Schama details their hopes and their misery quite eloquently. Eventually, the tale focuses on the efforts of English abolitionists to establish a "homeland" for liberated American and British slaves in Sierra Leone. The English abolitionists, especially John Clarkson, are the central personages of the book, but the former slaves themselves are the most compelling figures.
For a sometime-American reader like myself, the most enlightening portion of this book comes first, i.e. the chapters that describe the role of the defense of slavery in the southern colonies against perceived threats of abolition and strategic offers of freedom from Britain. The motives of our Founding Fathers, in other words, were not always as idealistic as we were taught. An understanding of the American Revolution can't always be limited to Boston and taxes. The story of Virginian expansionism, the problems of colonial indebtedness, and colonial racism towards both slaves and Native Americans must also be told, and Schama does a good part of that job. Particularly revealing are Schama's pages devoted to George Washington, whose slaves were as willing to run away to the British as most others. Inevitably, certain British generals who have been execrated in American history books emerge as more sympathetic and honorable than "we" expect. I don't want to "spoil" the narrative with too many revelations; taken as a "novel of facts", Rough Crossings is an exciting book to read, with plenty of picturesque scenes, humorous encounters, pathos and rage.
The book won and deserved to win the National Book Critics Circle Award.