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Customer Review

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.
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