The History Channeler

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 26, 2006

Simon Schama has a story to tell -- and as with all of this historian's stories, there's big-time drama involved.

This one begins in London, in 1765, when a young Englishman encounters an injured man "whose dreadful condition horrified even someone inured to looking at the unfortunate." The victim, Schama tells his attentive bookstore audience at Politics and Prose, is a black slave named Jonathan Strong, whose face has been "reduced to crimson gore, the result of a pistol whipping so savage that after repeated, relentless blows the mouth of the gun had separated from the handle."

Strong's master, after beating him, has thrown him into the street to die.

The young Englishman, whose name is Granville Sharp, has a brother who is a surgeon. Together they help Strong recover and find him work. But two years later, he gets arrested as a runaway. The plan is to ship him to a West Indian plantation.

Strong sends a note to Granville Sharp, begging for help.

Schama will go on to outline the consequences of that desperate note. He'll show -- as he does in his latest book, "Rough Crossings" -- how it drives Sharp to immerse himself in legal study, determined to convince the courts that English Common Law is inconsistent with slaveholding. He'll explain how the news of Sharp's eventual success helps persuade tens of thousands of African American slaves to side with the British during the American Revolution. He'll hint at the arduous, ill-fated exodus to Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone that results.

First, however, he wants to underline an unlikely plot element. Without it, history might have unfolded in a different way. "The one crucial thing I say, rather overdramatically," he begins, then pauses to mock himself:

"Dramatically? Moi?"

Appreciative titters from the bookstore crowd. The storyteller plunges on.

"I say that the whole fate of the black population in Britain -- and a very large number in the subsequent American Revolutionary War -- turned on the one fact that while he had a job, as he was convalescing, Jonathan Strong learned to read and write."

'Debate by Stealth'

Schama's own story, you might say, is also about learning to write. He's made a life's work of mixing scholarship with dramatic narrative in ways that few of his scholarly peers can match.

Call it "How to Succeed by Doing What Other Historians Don't."

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