Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Rough Crossings

I once had a job teaching high school history in French. I don't really know if this information would be included in an English medium history class, but in teaching the American Revolution in French, I became aware that American Blacks had fought on the side of England and why.

Then, in my theology class this fall, I learned that only Anglicans could attend university and sit in parliament in England until the 1830's. This explains why Wilberforce, as an Anglican, is known as a leader of the anti-slave legislation rather than the many Quakers (and women) who also fought against slavery.

And, of course, Granville Sharp, one of the first anti-slave protesters is known to many as the author of the famous rule of Greek grammar named in his honour, a rule intended to prove the divinity of Christ.

Where do all these disparate strands come together? In Rough Crossings by Simon Schama. Here is a review found on Charging RINO. It lines up well with my first impressions of this book, a very powerful and moving tale of little known history.
    Columbia University professor Simon Schama's newest offering is Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves, and the American Revolution. In his signature narrative style, Schama tackles a subject which certainly does not rank among the most popular or comfortable for American readers - the treatment of slaves during the Revolutionary era, and in particular the tension between the expressed ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the practical implications of those concepts.

    The first section of Schama's book is concerned with the Revolutionary conflict proper, focusing (as one would expect from the subtitle) on the measures taken by British commanders in the southern colonies to upset the standing social order by offering emancipation to slaves who would join the royalist forces. The book covers little new ground here, relying heavily as it does on prior work by Benjamin Quarles, Woody Holton, Sylvia Frey, Gary Nash and others. The latter portions of Schama's book are more original: his coverage of British abolitionists Granville Sharp, Thomas and John Clarkson, and William Wilberforce is quite good, as is the important discussion of what happened to the escaped slaves in the years following the Revolution as they were shunted about from Nova Scotia to Sierra Leone and other locations just trying to make a go of it.

    While I found myself annoyed at times with Schama's frequent shifts from scene to scene, and some of his stylistic quirks bugged me (his capitalization of Certain Phrases was particularly obnoxious), in general I enjoyed the narrative. Sometimes a synthesis like this is the only way to get academic research into the public eye, and I think Schama's work will contribute to that in regard to the role of blacks (slaves and otherwise) in the American Revolution. More important still is the treatment of the Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone colonies.

The Washington Post Review is here.

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