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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Another Side of the Slave Trade, 10 Jan. 2012
This review is from: Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution (Paperback)
No short review of Rough Crossings by Simon Schama could begin to do it justice. It is far too big a project, far too significant an achievement for any simple summary. It presents a momentous story, highly relevant to our own times, of partial emancipation for the enslaved. The book is not for the faint hearted. For a start there's almost five hundred pages of detailed historical narrative, several distinctly prickly characters to meet and many direct quotes from contemporary documents, complete with the writers' inconsistencies of spelling and grammar. And then there is the raw suffering that it describes. There is real human suffering here, real people who were wronged by others who perpetrated a crime for which they will remain forever unpunished. Balancing this, however, is optimism engendered by the idealism of those who campaigned and worked for freedom and justice, against the convenient populist bigotry of their time. But rising above all others are those whose personal histories are described. These are people who devoted their lives to the undoing of the wrongs that were done to them, who never lost faith in life's eventual ability to deliver justice, despite the repeated contradiction of experience. In the end, it's the enduring human spirit that seems to triumph, despite the lack of any obvious lasting victories. For all concerned, it's a struggle, has always been so and will probably remain so in the future.

Rough Crossings chronicles the politics, warfare, commerce and human experience surrounding the practical application of the campaign to abolish the slave trade. It was Gore Vidal who described several of the founding fathers of the United States as dedicated slave owners, eager to protect their investments. He thus questions their commitment to their own declarations on freedom and equality. Simon Schama provides much detail to support this theme.

He describes black soldiers fighting for the British, ex-slaves, escapees, collaborators and supporters who sided with the colonial forces. We follow some of these people to the not very hospitable but at least relatively vacant lands of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. And then, via the campaigns and vision of Granville Sharp and the active management of John Clarkson, we follow the development and enactment of a truly magnificent project. The abolitionists, not for any convenience associated with the idea of merely "shipping them back home", but born of a sincere pursuit of freedom and autonomy for human kind, suggest that freed slaves might settle in Sierra Leone and there establish an autonomous, modern and self-supporting state. Not all goes to plan, of course, but then whatever does when idealism is realised? But the plan comes to fruition and communities sail the ocean to establish themselves in warmer climes on West Africa's shore.

An observation offered late in the book will be permanently etched in this reader's memory. The first women ever to participate in electing the government of a modern state were black women in Sierra Leone in the 1790s. Rough Crossings is worth reading for that revelation alone, for it is not the fact itself but the assumptions of the protagonists that led to it that is truly fascinating. How things came about, the motives of those involved and the energy with which they pursued their ideals is the real story, the enduring fascination.

There is far too much in Simon Schama's Rough Crossings to review. There are finely drawn biographies, moving stories of human interest, political posturing and analysis, and a complete history of a commercial enterprise based on idealism. The only advice is to read the book, but also to take time along the way to reflect on what is described, to imagine what issue of our own time would be as politically risky as the applied idealism of these eighteenth century anti-slavery campaigners. And then follow that with any attempt to empathise with the experience of the cargo, whatever the direction of or motive for its transport.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very educative & entertaining, 13 Jan. 2010
This review is from: Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution (Paperback)
Schama has written a very important historical account linking slavery, abolitionists, the American war of independence and leading to the founding of the city of Freetown in Sierraleone in a way and style not seen before. I grew up in The Gambia where I have often wondered as a child where some of the neighbourhood kids with foreign sounding (mostly Scot and English lastnames) names came from or how they got their names, looking just like me, but different names. They belonged to the Aku or Creole group who spoke a language akin to english, and had different manners; generally better educated, more western in demeanour than the rest of us and were generally civil servants, lawyers, doctors, priests etc. I would later come to know of their connection to Freetown and their connection to ex-slaves in the same way Liberia was, but the knowledge of how they came to Freetown was less known to me than the perhaps the americo-liberians.
Schama's Rough crossing, not only filled in the missing gaps, but was full of very important pieces of information about the populations and conditions of black people in London in the late 1700s, the involvement of the clackson brothers in the abolition movement. The account, although shows how important a role wilberfoce played in the London Abolition movement as the advocate in parliament, there were other instrumental figures who commiteed their whole lifes to the pursuits of shaping the English laws to improve the lifes of former slaves in England and the slave colonies. Schame explores extensively the American war of independence and the role of slaves in the fait of that war. The highlight of the book for me is the account of the preparation and endeavour to transport the slaves who won their freedom fighting for the british side, initially transported to Novo Scotia where they were ill treated by the settler white community and decided to move to Freetown when given the opportunity. The sea voyage from Canada to Africa was very fascinating. I honesty could not put the book down. It sent me through a roller coaster of emotions. It was indeed a rough crossing mired in problems with the ocean so rough that some of the ships were almost lost. Its as if the ocean was against the idea of the journey. Lifes were lost on the way but they eventually saw land with all ships intact. Schama then goes on to piece together the lifes of the settlers, their challenges and ways they overcame them in their new environment. There were significant drawbacks, many of the settlers died from diseases but like all people, adapted to their new environment and learn to grown food. The story had a happy ending. The city of Freetown took shape, developed its form of government, legal system, schools, public health etc.
Its sad when one thinks about Freetown today, to think that all that tireless work and the blood shed in buidling the country would end up what it is today.
This book is brilliant and written with quotations written in the language of 1700hrs of both Africans, English and Americans.
I strongly recommend anyone interested in west african history to read it.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Grinding History Of A Long Hard Road, 11 Jun. 2013
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Charles Vasey (London, England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution (Paperback)
The story of Britain's treatment of the slaves of American Rebels (and indeed Loyalists) during the American War of Independence has usually been no more than a good excuse to annoy Americans draped in the flag of Liberty. Simon Schama goes into the practical effect of this strategy: the ex-slaves (and freedmen) whose stories are recounted who served in Britain's armies and navy and then moved to (variously) Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone. Their long travails then intermix with the struggle of the Abolitionists in the UK. At every stage malice and innocent folly combine on all sides to produce a rather sorry story of hope deferred. Schama is not content to summarise and to speed us on, instead we follow in detail a cast of hundreds as they struggle for freedom. The only uplifting point was that freedom was, for so many, the most desirable thing they had. A tale therefore for the philosophical and not the easily-depressed.
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4.0 out of 5 stars A Tale of freedom from America to Africa, 3 Mar. 2012
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This review is from: Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution (Paperback)
During the American War of Independence, the British made an offer to those they had formerly seen as slaves 'Come and fight for us and we will guarantee your freedom'. Even at the end when the war was lost, the British did not totally abandon these people who fought for them.
Following the story of the ex-slaves who fought for the British this is a tale of great sacrifice, betrayal and deceit! The fight for freedom and the establishment of Sierra Leone!
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Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution
Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution by Simon Schama (Paperback - 2 April 2009)
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