Simon Schama’s “Rough Crossings: Britain, Slaves and the American Revolution” is one of those truth-is-stranger than fiction books; there’s something almost fantastic in this chronicle of what happened to the 80,000 to 100,000 African Americans who crossed the lines of the Revolutionary War to join the British side. It is an epic of Homeric proportions – some of Schama’s subjects were captured as slaves in Africa, shackled in slave ships that sailed the Atlantic to the American South, fled north to join the British side, fought bravely, sailed to Nova Scotia after the war to start a snow-bound, ill-fated colony, then sailed back across the Atlantic to Sierra Leone in ships provided by British abolitionists. When those fifteen ships sailed out of Halifax, on board one was an ancient blind woman of 104, abducted by slavers as a child in Sierra Leone, who had implored the expedition’s leader to “take her with him so that she might ‘lay her bones in her native country.’”
“Rough Crossings”is a tragedy–many more of these pilgrims died of smallpox or were recaptured than ever made it to freedom in Nova Scotia or Africa. One Hessian officer mournfully wrote that the British “had used them to good advantage and set them free and now, with fear and trembling they had to face the reward of their cruel masters.”
It even has heroes – the black soldiers who fought for Lord Dunmore with “liberty to slaves” emblazoned on their coats; John Clarkson, the young naval officer who resolved to finally honor British promises to the blacks by seeing them safely to Sierra Leone. When Clarkson landed in Novia Scotia, he was shocked to the core at the shabby, hostile treatment of the black loyalists by their white counterparts. He told those determined to make the journey, he wrote later, that “they must look up to me as their friend and protector; that I should at all times be happy to redress their grievances and ready to defend them with my life.”
And at times, it’s even a comedy, as Schama, a native Brit who now teaches at Columbia University, paints a richly textured portrait of his countrymen’s foibles, hypocrisies and heroism. Schama has a great group of eccentrics to work with – Granville Sharp, a Biblical scholar, musician to the high and mighty and intransigent abolitionist, was a “tireless public nuisance,” Schama writes, but one who forced the the British to confront their own hypocrisy in aiding and abetting the slave trade. Schama has an eye for the devastating detail: Patrick Henry, America’s own “give me liberty or give me death” patriot, said of his dependence on slaves that “I am drawn along by the general inconvenience of living without them.”
Schama is one of those people who appears not to sleep much – in addition to teaching, he has written several books, including “Landscape and Memory,” “Citizens,” and “Rembrandt’s Eyes.”
He became a transatlantic star of sorts in 2004 with his “History of Britain” television series, broadcast in the UK on the BBC and here on the History Channel. But he turned his full focus on this story, with its Dickensian drama and ironclad scholarship– “Rough Crossings” has earned praise from other scholars of the era (Harvard professor Gary Nash, Adam Hochschild).
It’s a tale so well told, and so rife with deceit and betrayal, that you find yourself holding your breath at the end of each chapter, thinking “what next?” Not bad for a work of history. And who will make the movie? Peter Weir, are you there?–Mary Ann Gwinn, NBCC Board Member