Breaking Away

Reviewed by Stanley Weintraub
Sunday, May 28, 2006


Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution

By Simon Schama

Ecco. 478 pp. $29.95


African Americans in the Age of Revolution

By Gary B. Nash

Harvard Univ. 235 pp. $19.95

In his engrossing new history, Simon Schama asks some startling questions: Which side should slaves have rooted for in the American Revolution -- the colonists, who spoke of liberty, or the British, who offered to free rebel-owned slaves willing to serve the crown? For many of them, Schama argues, "it was the British monarchy rather than the new American republic that was more likely to deliver Africans from slavery." As he puts it, "tens of thousands of Africans, enslaved in the American South, [looked] to Britain as their deliverer, to the point where they were ready to risk life and limb to reach the lines of the royal army" -- an "astounding fact" that necessitates retelling the tale of the Revolution "in a freshly complicated way."

Britain's offer of liberation was not made out of pure altruism or racial tolerance, of course. The British were quite amenable to dispossessing the rebels who had won the war of their human property, but the losers fleeing the former colonies retained their slave-owning rights. Tens of thousands of chattel slaves were evacuated by the Royal Navy along with their masters from post-Yorktown British enclaves such as Charleston and Savannah. Black bondage continued in the sugar islands of the British-ruled West Indies and in British West Florida. In his thoughtful The Forgotten Fifth , the colonial historian Gary B. Nash writes that some ostensibly free blacks were seized and sold by British officers "bent on leaving America with something to show for their troubles."

As one strategy to counter colonial uprisings, the British had promised that rebel-owned slaves who had served King George III would be freed, hoping that the slaves would back the British over the colonists. (Lincoln offered much the same bonus in his Emancipation Proclamation in 1862.) In the aftermath of both the Revolution and the Civil War, the nation that declared that all men were created equal considered blacks who were still slaves as human merchandise. Those blacks who had escaped to Canada or Britain were also a problem: In predominantly white societies, they were an uncomfortable fit.

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