Book Review of “Rough Crossings” by Simon Schama

This is the little-known and astonishing story by a distinguished historian about the many blacks, some free but mostly slaves, who made their way to the British lines during the American Revolution in exchange for the promise of freedom. Since many American rebel leaders were slave owners, the British knew it would be punitive to them to offer freedom to their slaves. Between eighty thousand and one hundred thousand slaves took up the offer.

Schama’s detailed documentation about this mass flight, called the Revolutionary War’s “dirty little secret,” puts lie to the myth of the happy slaves who played no role in our nation’s founding. On the contrary, many southern whites actually joined the Revolution to protect the institution of slavery, rather than to protest the price of tea. This extremely important observation is seldom discussed in popular accounts of the Revolution.


There were also blacks serving the Patriot cause, but for the most part white Americans feared giving arms to blacks and resisted until they were desperate for bodies. Whites threatened their slaves with death sentences for themselves and/or family members who went over to the British, and strung up captured mutilated bodies as deterrents. Yet still they fled. But many more wanted to escape to the British than those who tried.

Of those who survived all of the obstacles — the harrowing escape, the battlefields, disease, and frequent betrayals of British protection, at the war’s end there were as many as 20,000 blacks living in British loyalist enclaves along the northeast coast. The British had logistical problems evacuating all the white and black loyalists from America, but for the former slaves, abandonment (and subsequent recapture) could be fatal. Thousands of blacks did, however, manage to get on ships bound for either Nova Scotia or to Britain itself. Later, the British established an experimental free colony in Sierra Leone by recruiting volunteers from these two areas. Much of the book tells the story of these settlements. Especially in Sierra Leone, the industry, perseverance, dignity and faith of the settlers in the face of continual hardship is a story that should be vigorously juxtaposed to the many American-borne myths denigrating black achievement.

Although there were many sordid moments both in Britain and in the free black colonies by whites trying to return the blacks to conditions of servitude, there were heroes as well. In particular, the stories of Granville Sharp, and John and Thomas Clarkson provide notable exceptions to the rule of white racism and greed.

Evaluation: This untold story of the Revolutionary War should be required reading for American students. Schama’s 2006 award from the National Book Critics Circle was richly deserved.

Rating: 4/5

Published by BBC Books, 2005


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