Rough Crossings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1716

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...

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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 British army, convinced that they would receive their freedom.

The motives for encouraging this mass migration were strategic rather than humanitarian, and the British did not necessarily treat their black recruits any better than the Patriot army did theirs. While slaves did fight on both sides of the conflict, occasionally against one another, the general feeling among them was that, in the end, the British would treat them better than would the masters they had left behind. The blacks worked as scouts, as pioneers, and as servants; there was a great reluctance on both sides of the conflict to arm slaves, but the British did finally raise and arm a black regiment. The British promised the slaves certificates to confirm their freedom, grants of land, and the chance to live freely. In practice, the system broke down as the war drew to a close and evacuation began. Masters tried to reclaim their slaves, and slaves were required to prove their service to the army. Slaves belonging to loyalists were required to remain with their masters, further complicating the situation.

Former slaves were evacuated to Nova Scotia, where they faced a future more uncertain than they had anticipated. Denied land and property, forced to work for poor wages in harsh conditions, they remained slaves in all but name. Their petitions to government representatives, in Nova Scotia and in London, were met with indifference, or else they were paid derisory sums of compensation and more or less told to be grateful to receive anything at all. By this time many were destitute on the streets of London. When it had become impossible to ignore them any longer, Jonas Hanway, a philanthropist, determined to help the poor blacks there. He suggested colonial resettlement, and Sierra Leone, then being vigorouslyif inaccuratelypromoted by Henry Smeathson as an ideal place to settle, was chosen as a suitable destination (though it was, in fact, a slave province). Granville Sharp was involved with the scheme and worked vigorously to promote it.

Initial attempts to resettle the blacks did not go well. Many wanted to go to Nova Scotia rather than return to Africa, but finally the St. Georges Bay Company managed to gather together enough people to despatch boats to Sierra Leone. Ill-prepared for the weather conditions, and poorly provisioned because some of the company’s white employees had cheated the expedition, the colony struggled and faltered. Many residents died of fever, while others defected to the nearby slaving post and made shift as best they could. Despondent, Sharp and his fellow campaigners were uncertain about what to do until they began to meet the petitioners from Nova Scotia. Impressed with the quality of the people they were meeting, and disturbed by the stories they heard, it made sense to invite the Nova Scotians to emigrate to Sierra Leone.

Sharp despatched John Clarkson, brother of the abolitionist Thomas, to Nova Scotia to recruit a party of settlers and thus set in train a remarkable series of events. Clarkson, hitherto a naval man, indifferent to politics and immune to the sufferings of others, was so moved by the plight of the black loyalists who had been promised so much and given so little, that it became his life’s mission to help them. His attempts to recruit settlers were met with massive enthusiasm from the blacks; entire townships made plans to leave. Amid protests from the whites, who were concerned about losing cheap labor, Clarkson schemed, connived, and politicked to find and fit as many ships as he could and to get as many settlers as possible onto those ships, determined to do right by the people who came to see him. He planned the voyage meticulously, determined that the settlers would have every comfort and not be reminded of their voyage to the New World. Blacks were given positions of authority within the company; on at least one occasion white sailors were flogged for being disrespectful to their black passengers.

In the end, Clarkson brought his flotilla to Sierra Leone, only to find that the company had undermined his authority, independently appointing a committee who, having arrived ahead of him, had done nothing to set up the camp to receive the settlers. The governors saw the blacks as their inferiors, children to be guided by themno matter how ineffectual they actually wereand once again attempted to take the best land for themselves. Clarkson found himself embroiled in a series of power struggles, with the blacks wanting also to be in charge of their own destinies. Leaders such as Thomas Peters, David George, Boston King, and Isaac DuBois would emerge from their ranks. Meanwhile, the members of the company in London bombarded Clarkson with advice and rulings, taking no account of the true state of matters on the ground.

By dint of careful work, Clarkson managed to keep the settlement going, providing the settlers with a degree of autonomy, but after his departure, subsequent governors such as Thomas Dawes and Zachary Macaulay attempted to reestablish a situation where black settlers took orders from their white masters, who determined what was best for them and endeavored to impose rulings from London on a reluctant population. This could only lead to outright rebellion, during the course of which the company brought in a troop of Maroon soldiers (fugitive slaves) to restore peace. Many of the settlers determined to stand aloof from the conflict in order to get on with their lives, which were undeniably better. They were prospering, finally, and in the end it was acknowledged that the company was not running the colony as well as it might. The company was wound up, and the colony came under the direct protection of the Crown as it built an empire of its own. Freedom was still an illusion, but one had to look harder to see that. In the meanwhile, the free blacks from Nova Scotia had, against the odds, created a workable black society and political system for themselves.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 39

American Scholar 75, no. 4 (Autumn, 2006): 135-139.

Booklist 102, no. 12 (February 15, 2006): 4.

The Economist 376 (August 27, 2005): 66.

History Today 55, no. 10 (October, 2005): 54.

Kirkus Reviews 74, no. 5 (March 1, 2006): 223.

Library Journal 131, no. 5 (March 15, 2006): 83.

The New York Times 155 (June 4, 2006): 30-31.

Publishers Weekly 253, no. 10 (March 6, 2006): 56.

The Times Literary Supplement, November 18, 2005, p. 7.

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