Breaking Away
If you were a slave at the time of the American Revolution, which side would you root for?

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.

Both Nash (an emeritus history professor at UCLA and the author of The Unknown American Revolution ) and Schama (a Columbia University historian and the author of numerous books, including the widely hailed Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution ) deal more with the post-Revolution dilemmas faced by slaves and former slaves than with their prewar plight, which was miserable enough. Greed and malice overwhelmed most efforts by passionate white do-gooders and the activist blacks dependent upon them. The plight of the refugees, as Schama graphically depicts it, will unsettle most readers.

The fragile American republic, half-slave and half-free, had its own problems merely staying together. It put off ending the slave trade and ignored its slaves, except to count them as fractions of persons in allocating seats in Congress. Nash charges moral cowardice -- a failure of will by North and South -- and both he and Schama cite chapter and verse about the new republic's lapses. Despite John Adams's republican idealism and religious piety, before the Revolution he had appeared as a lawyer for slave owners; as vice president, he confessed frankly in 1795 that slavery was "a subject to which I had never given any particular attention." Twelve American presidents, including Jefferson, were slave-owners. Benjamin Franklin freed his last slave only in his will. Washington also freed his many slaves by testament at his death, but Martha Washington's slaves -- her property at marriage -- remained in bondage. Not even all Quakers, Schama observes, "were averse to slaveowning." The prewar slave trade largely operated out of liberty-loving Rhode Island. Schama and Nash do not paint a pretty picture, before the Revolution or after.

To solve the problem of what to do with Britain's freed slaves, several unlikely and un-Utopian settlements were created -- attractive mainly by being in someone else's backyard. Chief among them, until Liberia came along later, were an adjunct to the penal colony of Botany Bay in Australia; a bleak wilderness in Nova Scotia where almost nothing grew, and the bizarre "Province of Freedom" in Sierra Leone, where the British placed several hundred freed slaves in 1787, adjacent to a busy harbor for thriving slave traders.

As Schama shows, betrayal faced freed blacks everywhere, except for the fortunate few who managed self-supporting lives in England. Chilly, stony Nova Scotia -- the New Scotland, where the British offered ex-slaves acreage to cultivate -- was not, in Schama's wry words, "carpeted in heather and running with deer." Blacks had envisioned the dignity of freedom -- their own houses, gardens and churches. But fewer than half the impoverished, resettled refugees got any land, and what they were offered was more meager and poorly situated than the comparable allotments for loyalist whites.

Demoralized, their population thinned by defections, disease and death, some free blacks seized the alternative of Sierra Leone, the subject of much of Schama's melancholy history. While hardly the stuff of dreams, at least it was warm year-round, and missionaries were raising funds in England to settle it. Schama has his heroes, including the Cambridge deacon Thomas Clarkson and his younger brother John, a former naval officer, who helped turn the "Province of Freedom" into the larger settlement known still as Freetown. To its blacks, the younger Clarkson was a "Mosis."

Freetown was the closest thing to an ex-slave success in Sierra Leone. Remarkably, by the middle 1790s, according to Schama, it had become "a place quite unlike any other in the Atlantic world," a thriving "community of free black British African-Americans."

Much less is known about the former slaves themselves than about such energetic sponsors as the Clarksons, but Schama brings some blacks to vivid life. He employs the growing number of rediscovered slave narratives, including one published as early as 1788, to explore the lives of black pioneers (including one royalist with the wonderful name of British Freedom) with novelistic flair.

Following his brief governorship of the colony of Freetown, Clarkson returned to England to marry his patient fianceé. Perhaps that occasion and the survival into the present of Freetown itself can be taken as the happy endings of Schama's often disheartening tale. But it's hard to shake a sense of gloom. Despite the best efforts of self-sacrificing Englishmen like Clarkson, unscrupulous whites and their exploitative companies saw to it that settlement efforts not to their financial advantage would fail. No transplantation of the former chattels worked as hoped -- and those who were freed composed only a fraction of the festering human cargo of the slave trade, which went on profitably well past legislated expiration dates. British slavery had supposedly been ended by judicial fiat in the 1770s, but it lingered on. In 1831, a slave insurrection in Jamaica was brutally crushed, galvanizing anti-slavery sentiment in England. Suddenly, Britain remembered it had an empire riddled with slavery, and Parliament mandated full emancipation in 1833.

Both books are less about the American Revolution than its racial aftermath. The modest but forceful reassessment by Nash and the colorful, eventful narrative by Schama evoke colonial and post-colonial greed as fully as the arbitrary and unforgiving boundaries on the map of contemporary Africa. No matter which side won in America, the black population lost. ·

Stanley Weintraub's most recent books are "General Washington's Christmas Farewell: A Mount Vernon Homecoming, 1783" and "Iron Tears: America's Struggle for Freedom, Britain's Quagmire."

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