on 20 February 2008
Simon Schama's Rough Crossings tells the story of the American revolution, the resettlement of slaves and others loyal to the British after the war. It covers a period from the 1770's up to the the turn of the century with a final part, up to the mid nineteenth century, that explores the beginnings and endings of history. The narrative roams three continents with a cast of characters that includes the bad and the good.
As a black man, I came to this book to learn about the experience of the slaves from yet another perspective. However, the book is so well written, the story told with such great style that I was quickly shifted from my narrow perspective and was drawn fully into the complexities of the revolution and its making.
The germ of the making of the revolution is clearly revealed by Schama. The scheming, the wheeler dealings and deceit are all there. An early passage in the book states: "In the experience of both David George and Boston King (the best sources we have for the experience of blacks in the Revolutionary War), the British could appear as both benefactors and theives, hard-hearted and kind-hearted; yet there was never any question about the ultimate allegiance of these two."
But Rough Crossings is more than a histoy of the American revolution; Britian's response and the experience of slaves, it is also a political and geographical history. In other works, it is also about the formation of 'states'. Schama's outline of the makings of settlements in Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone is quite revealing of the politics of betrayal and brutishness that ensued. He clearly shows us life from the seedy to the pretentiousness of high civility. Pretentiousness to high civility that could never be obtained because these new societies carried within them the seeds from another place and time. In the early formation of these new colonies what begun to blossom again was racism. For example, in Nova Scotia, to keep the settlement of Shelburne free of the "frolicks" of negros the whites decided to create a settlement for the blacks - namely Birchtown. Here in lies the making of racial apartheid.
What also comes across clearly in this book is a history of greed and profitering at the expense of the slaves. One of the recurring themes was that the whole enterprise of the war and slavery was driven by profits. The drive for profits at the expense of human beings is painfully outlined in the story of captain Luke Collingwood. Rather than lose money by captured Africans dying during the passage from Africa to the Caribbean, during one passage Collingwood prepared and executed a plan to defruad his insures by casting live Africans into the sea.
Part two of this great history focuses on the efforts of John Clarkson to resettle "ex-slaves" and loyalist in Sierra Leone. In restrained almost understated language, Schama outlines how the hardships, the betrayals, the effects of indentured bonds and debts were experienced by "ex-slaves". It is a story of great human suffering, endurance and determination.
It is not just the content that makes the book highly readable. After all, the story has been told before in various guises. What also sustains the reading of this story is the way it is told. In part, Schama's style is rhetorical. This had the effect of sweeping me along with his narrative and persuading me into believing the content. Here is an example of Schama at the peak of rhetorical flourish as he describes how against poor conditions and experiences slaves were still prepared to join the British army: "For all the chaos and brutality; for all the untended sickness and the abandonment of the sick; for all the slaves forced on to public works, some of them even sent back to masters; for all the chronic uncertainty about their eventual fate; ... whereever the British army went, in big battalions or small, in North Carolina and then in Virginia, slaves still continue to pour into their camps by the score, then in hundreds and finally thousands."
Schama is detailed and scholarly whilst at the same time remaining sufficiently populist to allow his book to appeal to a broad readship. His command of the language is so great, his narrative flows so fluently that at times I had to read out aloud if only to hear an imagined voice and savour the text. Furthermore, Schama's descriptive passages are quite simply brilliant and dazzling. Take the long opening paragraph of part one. Here a vivid picture of aspects of life in London is presented. The reader can almost see the hustle and bustle of high and low life. As we read we can easily emerse ourselves into London life.
The truth is the apex to which the writer; whether historian, novelist or philosopher, must aim. In reading Rough Crossings, one is left with the clear impression that the truth is exactly what Schama achieves. He leaves no stone unturned, he shows us great acts of human kindness and the despicable, depravity of human behaviour. One example of the wide spectrum of human behaviour can be found in the story of Jonathan Stong, a London slave beaten almost beyond recognition by his master David Lisle, but rescued and rehabilitated by William Sharp. I was simply moved not just by the story but just as important Schama's ability to convey the pathos involved.
I think the best way to summarise Schama's achievement is to pay him a tribute. One senses that Schama's handling of his material and subject is second to none. He manages to achieve what I would think most historians aim at, that is the right balance between the narration of the story, description of scenes and events, and analysis of the underlying causes. This is a magnificent piece of history, please read it.
on 10 January 2012
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.
on 20 October 2011
A very important book which tells a hidden or little known story about slavery. Schama goes into such incredible detail and shows his mastery of meticulous research. Lots of new information about this particular episode of the history of American and British slavery but some parts of the book are quite dense and I have to agree with another reviewer, O'Dwyer that the book is not really accessible to the general reader, you really need to be a bit of an academic to take this book on, Schama at times makes too many references to things which are not directly relevant(he obviously knows too much lol!). I skipped through part one as the second half for me was more interesting and the characters came to life, thanks to Schama's skill and sense of the melodramatic. It really could easily have been two separate books and would have been better for it. One question I would like to ask him is why did he make no mention of Back to Africa by Richard West written in 1970, it tells almost exactly the same story as the second half of Schama's book without so much digression. Surely, Schama must have come across this book.
on 14 November 2008
Simon Schama is not only one of Britain's leading historians but a story-teller par excellence. And he is not a historian with a political agenda; his compassion for the oppressed and the voiceless of history shines through every page of his writing. In this unashamedly populist account of the thousands of black slaves who chose to fight on the British side in the American War of Independence, he has fabulously rich subject matter. It is a tale of incalculable suffering, brutality, degradation and betrayal on one hand and of integrity, dedication, altruism and hope on the other. And it is not always straightforward. We learn of white men who risked their lives in the abolitionist cause and black men who became slavers when the opportunity arose.
Although we have been taught not to fall into the trap of judging past historical events with the values and concepts of the modern era I soon learnt that far from being universally accepted as a legitimate mode of commerce, there was a large body of individuals in England in the eighteenth century who were outraged by the obscenity of the transatlantic slave trade. Many of these were the celebrities of the day: man of letters Dr Johnson, actor David Garrick, pottery magnate Josiah Wedgewood and Darwin's botanist Joseph Banks. But Schama as ever concentrates on the unsung heroes and the hidden villains of history. He gives voice to many of the vocal, articulate blacks who, though understandably always reticent in trusting their white persecutors, nevertheless never lose faith either in British justice or in their abolitionist friends: Thomas Peters, Boston King, David George, Olaudah Equiano and the charismatic Frederick Douglass, even as many of them are buffeted between the Virginian and Carolinan plantations, freezing Nova Scotia and disease-ridden Sierra Leone.
Early in Rough Crossings we are introduced to obsessive abolitionist Granville Sharp who successfully defends in court James Somerset, one of London's thousands of black men who had escaped slavery in the colonies but who constantly faced the horror of recapture. The milestone decision of the court - that once a slave sets foot on English soil he becomes a free man - was to reverberate throughout the slave world. Concerned with the wretched plight of London's blacks Sharp then sets about resettling them voluntarily in a small community in Sierra Leone in West Africa, Sharp Town, the first such experiment but which faced monolithic political, social and environmental barriers to success. In spite of Sharp's best efforts, black-white hatred and suspicion constant bubbled beneath the surface.
Meanwhile, in America the result of the Somerset case had signalled to slaves there that British justice was honourable and fair and offered them their only hope of freedom. Consequently, thousands of them opted to abandon their masters and fight as loyalists on the side of the crown during the American War of Independence. Many of them joined the British Black Pioneers. They were encouraged by the struggling British government who had promised them land in return for military service. Of course, there were the usual disasters and betrayals, including one terrible incident when hundreds of blacks and their families weakened by smallpox were abandoned to die on the beach of the Virginian coast.
When the war ended in defeat for the British the black loyalists, far from being settled on arable plots of land to feed their families as they had hoped, instead found themselves freezing on a barren, rock-strewn wilderness in Nova Scotia maltreated and humiliated by the loyalist whites among whom they lived. Enter British naval officer and indefatigable abolitionist John Clarkson, brother of like-minded Thomas, incensed by the humiliation of the ex-slaves in the Canadian wasteland, most of whom were now servants or indentured labourers, shunned and maltreated by their white neighbours, little more than slaves again. Like Sharp, Clarkson felt that the only hope for them was a return to the warmth and cultural familiarity of West Africa and so the moribund Sharp Town community in Sierra Leone was kick-started again by a new influx of free black men. Much of the second half of the book describes the almost insurmountable problems faced by Clarkson as he prepares the voyage and resettlement of hundreds of black loyalists and the increasing number of white hangers-on; and then the hunger, disease, storms, squabbles, sabotage and treachery that constantly threatens to derail the project. We read of the unsteady growth of the beleaguered community, and the gradual emergence of an embryonic black democracy. From beginning to end this wonderful and moving historical narrative is empathetic, beautifully written and riveting to read. And for those who seek to supplement their knowledge there is a highly accessible and comprehensive reference list and a dramatis personae.
on 13 January 2010
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.
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.
on 12 October 2006
Simon Schama's book deals with the history of a few thousand, in a war that concerned millions, while giving poignant examples from the personal few. He successful fits his story of the slaves who fought behind British lines into a larger picture of the civil war, and gives them a voice. To the reviewer who claimed this book is overcomplicated, I must simply argue that you're wrong. In this book, Schama writes clearly and is at all points captivating, if one wants an example of imaginative, yet no pretentious social history then one needs to look no further. With his unique style, he writes a book that could easily be a work of fiction were it not so thoroughly researched. Highly recommended to those with even the passing interest in history, it may win the subject some converts.
on 5 June 2015
Simon Schama demonstrates once again that history is not neat and tidy. The truth is seldom plain and never simple, someone once said. There are many stories to tell which Simon Schama does well, relating individual lives to the bigger picture and, in the process, demonstrates how messy history really is.. There are many surprises in this book, covering angles less (or not) considered by the standard approach. I found myself able to identify with people's lives which changed what I thought and how I felt about it.
Having reread this amazing account, at an apposite moment, given the recent murders in the USA of black people, I began to wonder how much progress has been made. Is American Civil War still being fought? The conflict over the Confederate battle flag hides much darker creatures, suggesting it's not over yet.
To read this masterly work again is to be given encouragement that, no matter what the odds (the black and white champions faced impossible conditions), there is progress. We can live together in harmony. Read it.
With so many historians writing about subjects already extensively covered, it is always a particular delight to find a book which tells a story unfamiliar to all but the the specialist. Simon Schama has found just such a subject in the chronicles of black Afro American slaves who fought for the British Crown in the American War of Independence in return for their freedom and the chance to start afresh in Canada and Seirra Leone.It is account full of exciting incident, vivid characters, idealism, betrayal, misfortune, courage and hypocrisy: it also makes for a cracking read. Those who might find the topic of slavery so immense as to be off putting will find this volume focussed, detailed and cleverly structured whilst some who find Schama's on screen persona irritating will find him a far more appealing on the printed page. Along the way we encounter the usual suspects: politicians who say one thing and do another, Southern plantation owners proclaiming their worship of liberty providing it doesn't apply to slaves and pious martinets who don't let humanity and commonsense get in the way of a moral sermon. Yet in the hard work and commitment of the freed slaves and the idealism of decent men like Granville Sharp and John Clarkson the story of struggle against enormous odds becomes inspiring. For those wanting an informed overview on the debate over the legality of slavery or differing transatlantic approaches to the notion of liberty or the roots of the quest for black political representation will find much of interest here, but if you just like a totally engrossing account of a fascinating historical episode, you cannot go wrong. One of the best popular history books of recent years without doubt.
on 3 March 2012
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!