Simon Schama’s Rough Crossings focuses on an episode of the American Revolution that is not often discussed, namely the fate of those blacks who left their masters and fought for the British side during the conflict. Described by one historian as the Revolutionary War’s dirty little secret, African Americans, who made up 20 percent of the population at that time (40 percent in some states), represent a significant third party in the conflict. Badly treated by both sides, they nonetheless mainly believed the loyalists’ cause to be the more advantageous to themselves. Thus was put in motion a significant mass movement of African Americans on the North American continent.
Schama’s book opens ten years after the war. In a small township called Preston, near Halifax, Nova Scotia, a man called British Freedom was scraping a precarious living from forty barren acres of land. A former slave, he had escaped to the British lines and fought with the loyalists through the Revolutionary War, motivated by the belief that from the British he would receive his freedom, land, and the chance to live in equality with white men and women. After a fashion, his experience with the British substantiated his belief. He had land, though it was not very good, and he was his own man, although many of his brethren had been obliged to indenture themselves to white masters because they were too poor to work their own land. Whether he lived in equality with the white community was much more debatable. British Freedom and his fellow ex-slaves had been allotted land a long way from the townships, often the poorest land, and every obstacle was put in their way when it came to working that land. Many of them lived in extreme poverty as a result; still, these were the lucky ones. Other former slaves had been to obliged to travel to London to petition the Crown’s representatives for redress, often with little success. Those who received payments often received less than the whites in equivalent distress and were saddled with a greater burden of proof, calling for documents that they had lost during the war and could not hope to replace. Many were living on London’s streets, reliant on handouts from sympathetic supporters.
The question thus arises: Why did British Freedomhis former name is unknownfeel that his chances of leading a fruitful life were better with the British than with the Americans? Why did he and his fellow ex-slaves remain loyal to the British in the face of such poor treatment? The answer lies in an otherwise obscure English court decision of 1772 concerning the runaway slave James Somerset and the burgeoning movement in England to bring about the abolition of slavery. Granville Sharp was a leading figure in the movement, a man who had become involved almost by accident. A badly injured slave, Jonathan Strong, dumped by his master on the street in London, was brought to Sharp’s brother, a doctor. Two years later, healed and in employment, Strong was spotted by his former master, who determined to regain his “property” and send Strong to the sugar plantations in the West Indies. Strong was captured but was able to get a message to Sharp, who secured a court hearing and obtained Strong’s release. In turn, Sharp found himself accused of theft.
Sharp embarked on a study of the law and, driven by an instinctive belief that a person could not be considered to be property, participated in a series of court cases to prove his point. Although Sharp found earlier rulings that supported his belief, lawyers and judges relied on an informal opinion called Yorke-Talbot to support their decisions, seeking to maintain the status quo. Sharp’s mission culminated in the Somerset case, which did not actually declare slavery in England to be illegal but nonetheless said that the power of a master to transport a slave out of England against his will had never been known. On this basis James Somerset was released, and as a result, many blacks in England wrote to their friends in America, telling them that slavery was illegal in England and that there they would be free. As the Revolutionary War got under way, thousands of slaves left their masters and attempted to join the...
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