Oct 31, 2006

Book Review: Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution

Simon Schama, Rough Crossings Schama, Simon

New York: Ecco Press, 497 pages, 2005

Simon Schama’s Rough Crossings documents a long-ignored episode in Atlantic history: the American slaves who joined forces with the British during the Revolutionary War only to find that their British “emancipators” were a duplicitous lot whose ideas of “freedom” bore a striking resemblance to the institution of slavery left behind in the American colonies. The author also places the narrative within a larger context of the abolitionist movement, and key figures from the period are woven into the book. Schama is to be commended for bringing this tale of denied, delayed, and debased liberty to a wider audience, but his beautiful prose too frequently delves into the sort of pleasant mythology filled with righteous Protestant white liberators and hapless black victims that many white American publishers and readers enjoy devouring in order to assuage any lingering collective guilt they might feel toward the historical treatment of African slaves.

Schama described Granville Sharp, noted English abolitionist, as the “apostle of freedom” who found “inconceivably abhorrent” the idea that white loyalist planters and merchants in Nova Scotia would consider recreating the slavery thought to be left behind in the United States. Thomas Clarkson, fellow traveler of Sharp’s in the abolitionist movement, became the “patriarch of the Cause,” while English parliamentarian William Wilberforce had “broken his health for the cause and for some weeks in 1788 had collapsed altogether.” The English abolitionists, in Schama’s eyes, were men of action and conviction who – seemingly by force of will – were able to bring the light of truth to the world.

In Schama’s vision of an Atlantic world, however, slaves, ex-slaves, and African freemen were - in the main – passive objects of pity, rather than active participants in the movement to abolish slavery. Jonathan Strong, the maltreated slave who was the subject of Sharp’s first legal challenge to British slave laws, was described as a “ruin of a creature…discarded in the gutter” who, like a wounded dog licking a master’s hand, lay patiently outside the office of surgeon William Sharp. The Haitian slave revolt, which is the most visible historical example of black abolitionist agency, gets a lonely one-sentence mention on page 259 as “a long and bloody war,” despite the fact that this black-led rebellion shook the Western world in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Even Frederick Douglass, the self-made ex-slave who became a symbol of black potentiality, was reduced to a sycophantic admirer of Thomas Clarkson in the book’s Epilogue.

Thus, the views about slavery promulgated by Simon Schama in Rough Crossings – while documenting hidden Atlantic history and recounting forgotten black narratives – are as nauseatingly patriarchal and condescending in their own way as those put forward by Margaret Mitchell in Gone with the Wind. In Schama’s world, blacks are still dependent upon whites, and the traditional stereotypes of passive African victims and active European emancipators are rarely challenged. Readers, unfortunately, get only half of the story.


microdot said...

Another book I have been anticipating.
I agree with your assessment of Schama, though there is probably no other living historian author who covers such broad subjects in such an entertaining way.
After reading Citizens, I was hungry for other points of view which I found.
The same with An Embarrasment of Riches, I enjoyed his writing immensely but my Dutch friends found much to criticize.
Now his History of Britain is sitting on my book shelf waiting.......(I saw his BBC version of the book...very good gossipy history!)

Newsguy said...

Hey, History Mike, you may or may not have come across Phillis Wheatley, a remarkable slave who became a scholar and a poet and a celebrated figure in late 18th Century Boston. She is certainly a counterpoint to the way African-Americans were regarded in the 18th, 19th Centuries, and even unto today in some dark corners of this country