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Another Side of the Slave Trade,
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.