Simon Schama. Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves, and the American Revolution. New York: Ecco, 2006.
It’s become avant-garde for historians to use creative literary structure and narrative when telling their stories. This is due, in large part, to the tremendous influence that postmodernist theory has had on the study of history. Scholar Hayden White remains one of the chief proponents for the use of more creative forms of writing in academic circles. White goes as far as to suggest that historians should self-consciously write like novelists. He writes, “Viewed simply as verbal artifacts, histories and novels are indistinguishable from one another….[T]he aim of the writer of a novel must be the same as that of a writer of history. Both wish to provide a verbal image of ‘reality.'” When I first read White at the end of the my first year of graduate school, I received these words like thunder from heaven. I wanted to jump up in the library and stand on the top of the stacks and yell “AMEN” at the top of my lungs. After nearly two semesters of graduate school, I had read dozens and dozens of books and articles. Most of them were lively and engaging, but all too many of them were dry and extremely tedious. Every week I found myself struggling through some monograph on an interesting subject, but the writing had no soul. I found myself up to my neck in academic jargon and I felt (indeed I still feel) that this made most history so boring and difficult that nobody in the real world would ever want to sit down and read it. While it’s true that historians should never (EVER) write books that they think might become best sellers, writing a book bogged down in rarefied language makes the subject unattainable to even the most motivated non-academic interested in history. If nobody but other scholars will ever read your book, what the hell the point? Standards of research should never be watered down, but instead of writing in the formal academic tone so common among historians, scholars should strive to make their books flow like novels. I firmly believe that this sort of writing allows the reader to elicit a more emotional response while still faithfully representing the reality of the past. This makes history both an educational and emotional experience – and suddenly learning about the past becomes a powerful tool for intellectual growth and the development of an educated citizenry, instead of a required course that high school and college students simply endure. And thanks to the influence scholars like White (and others), there are some recent examples of books that use creative narrative, read like novels, and still adhere to the highest standards of research and intellectual rigor. Not all historians can pull this sort of thing off because it takes a very gifted writer to do this well. One recent example of an academic history book that reads like a novel and takes full advantage of a lively and creative narrative is Simon Schama’s Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves, and the American Revolution. The narrative and writing in Rough Crossings is everything that I dreamed history writing could and should be when I first read the work of Hayden White.
And I didn’t really like it. I am going to try to be fair to Schama because my criticism of Rough Crossings hinges on interpretation, details, and tone.
Schama’s research question is not new to historians – he asks the reader which side of the American Revolution would they have picked if they were black. I recently read Ira Berlin’s Many Thousands Gone which, among other things, explored the black experience during the Revolution and came to the same conclusion that Schama did. The British clearly offered the best opportunities for a better life if you were black in America in 1776. It is well-known that the last Royal Governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, offered freedom to any slave who fought with the British to put down the rebellion. Other British leaders made similar proclamations and many historians have discussed their importance and consequences. Schama argues that “the genesis of African-American liberty is…inseparable from the British connection during and after the war” (his thesis is never clearly articulated, and that’s not uncommon in books like this). I don’t think that Schama is coming out of left field here and there is evidence to suggest that this is a viable and potentially path-breaking thesis. But while Schama correctly stresses that certain British officials or generals offered slaves freedom for defecting from their rebellious American masters, he fails to adequately qualify this argument. At no time – none whatsoever – did Great Britain ever have an official policy on what to do with the runaway slaves who flocked to the British lines. Schama needed to, at a minimum, acknowledge that the promise of “British freedom” was never official government policy. To the British, the promise of freedom made the slaves a political football in a bitterly contested war. This realization throws cold water on Schama’s thesis – the British connection was, at best, shaky and never even officially acknowledged! Instead of arguing measured and carefully qualified language, Schama lacked the sobriety required of a historian when dancing through such a complicated minefield.
Berlin, on the other hand, presented, in just a few pages, a more measured (and thus more accurate) account of the experience of fugitive slaves. He discussed Gen. Henry Clinton’s promise for freedom for slaves who defected from rebel owners – a distinction that Schama made, but did not fully explore. Berlin and Schama agreed that slaves interpreted this proclamation as a general emancipation and, and such, the promises had tremendous importance in the lives of both slaves and masters. Slaves flooded to the British lines in places like Charleston and Savannah. Berlin described slaves who became laborers for the army and observed that “every British officer seem[ed] to have his own servant.” While most fugitive slaves did not become servants, many others built forts, drove wagons, and performed many of the countless tasks it took to maintain an army. Schama stressed slaves that become soldiers and indeed some fought bravely with great distinction under the Union Jack. But the number who actually took up arms was relatively small because the British were understandably uncomfortable to make slaves into soldiers because many loyalists owned slaves. And Berlin qualifies the whole business of promising freedom to slaves in a few tight sentences.
[T]he British proved to be unreliable liberators. The influx of fugitives frightened them, as they feared identification as the slaves’ friend would drive slaveholding Loyalists into the Patriot camp. Caught between the need to mobilize slave laborers and the fear of alienating slaveholders, British commanders wavered, developing no consistent policy. Although some officers and soldiers continued to harbor fugitives, others did not, and while some fugitives sometimes found themselves welcomed into British lines, others were jailed, whipped, and returned to their Loyalist owners in exchange for promises of loyalty, supplies, and information respecting the movement of Patriot forces.
He goes on.
Slaves of “unfriendly persons” were frequently forced to work on sequestered estates or awarded to Loyalists in compensation for slaves they had lost. British commanders also employed slaves as bounties to recruit white men to His Majesty’s service, or they simply sold runaways for profit. Loyalist partisans – aided and abetted by British authorities – raided rebel plantations, taking as many as 8,000 slaves to East Florida, where they invigorated the plantations of the British-controlled province. Yet others were sold to the sugar islands, West Florida, or Louisiana, sometimes by Loyalists and sometimes by privateers with no loyalty expect to themselves.
In summation, Berlin states that “despite the contradictory policies and inconsistent practices, slaves clung to the belief, however uncertain, that the enemy of their enemy was their friend.” This is pinpoint accurate analysis of a complex historical narrative that unfolded because of many small contingencies.
While I find it particularly disappointing that Schama never stated that the British never had an official or consistent policy toward runaway slaves, he does discuss in painful detail many of the perils that awaited slaves who made it behind British lines. He even used the line (without plagiarism) “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” to make clear that the British did not have clean hands. And in fact, there are only a few places in the book where Schama’s rhetoric soars beyond what is reasonable. I’m probably going to regret taking my review down this path, but there is a subtle, but still crystal clear, anti-American and pro-British tinge in Rough Crossings. Schama is British but teaches at Columbia University in New York City. The places where Schama clearly demonstrated this bias, which are all pretty early in the book, are the only places where his argument lacked sobriety. While Schama did criticize the British, he is entirely dismissive of Americans – a people, then and now, of vast intellectual diversity. While there were more abolitionists in England than America in 1776, evangelicalism was making tremendous strides throughout North America and this provided the chief moral underpinning for abolitionism throughout both England and America in the 18th and 19th centuries. If you read between the lines in Rough Crossings a little, Americans might feel like Schama is winking and nudging the reader and whispering something like “the British were bad, but the Americans were worse – long live the Union Jack!” Anybody who knows the history of British imperialism knows that the British have a terrible history when it comes to dealing with non-British people – Indians, Native Americans, Chinese, Irish, South Africans…and the list is truly endless. Furthermore, Schama indulged in hyperbolic language for dramatic effect. Consider this sentence, “To see the embryo of the first authentically free African-American society one has to look to the Union Jack.” The numbers of slaves who died of disease or who ended up as slaves back on plantations is large compared to the numbers who made it out and makes the sentence above seem laughably hyperbolic and homerish. As the narrative made perfectly clear, any slave who eventually won freedom as a reward for their service to the British during the Revolutionary War, whether in Nova Scotia or eventually in Sierra Leone, only succeeded because they were extremely lucky and determined to hold the British accountable for promises made. While the promise of freedom was politically important for blacks, the very idea of freedom is intuitive for anybody in legal bondage. The British did not create the idea of African American freedom – African Americans did! They did not start searching for ways to form a free society once generals promised freedom. That history dates back to the founding of slavery in the 13 colonies.
One argument Schama made actually made me mad. Eventually, the British Army left Charleston and Savannah after signing the Treaty of Paris in 1783. Many slave refugees remained behind, and instead of just going back to their old owners, many formed paramilitary organizations known as maroons. These settlements had always been present throughout the colonial South. Schama described one group in particular: “In 1786, three years after the Treaty of Paris had been signed, a band of some three hundred former slaves, trained in arms by the British during the war, were still operating as freebooting partisans (or, depending on your point of view, outlaws) on both sides of the Savannah River.” Schama describes their village and their fortifications. This was classic maroonage, even if these blacks had been trained by the British (after looking at the footnotes, I think this is a claim of questionable veracity). These black Americans held a grudge against their former masters and were certainly willing to raid white settlements with impunity. It is historically inaccurate and misleading to assume they were anything other than slave maroons. Schama leads very briefly down another path, I suspect only to end a chapter with spectacular punctuation. He writes, “But to the blacks of the South they were something more. They were exactly what they had decided to call themselves: ‘The King of England’s Soldiers.'” Chapter over, moving on to a description of the evacuation of black refugees from New York City. I was enraged with this statement because it implied that these blacks were chiefly loyal to George III or even only existed to return British rule to what was now the United States. These former slaves were merely eking out an existence through banditry. They were black, refused to be slaves, and as such their options in southern society were quite limited. It is impossible to know why they named themselves “the King of England’s Soldiers,” but they probably used the name simply to be provocative or even to be ironic. I think the implication that these fugitives slaves were somehow loyal to the king (especially after they had been left behind by the British army) is simply Schama twisting information in an effort to raise hackles for dramatic effect. Academic history demands much more than this kind of soaring rhetoric.
While I’ve gone on at some length about Schama’s tone that seemed to be winking and nudging about British superiority and a few isolated statements that were blatantly hyperbolic, I thought the book wasn’t really bad, just flawed. The writing, from a purely literary standpoint, was wonderful. The bulk of the book is about the journey of those who actually got to leave the United States under the auspices of British protection – which amounted to only a very small fraction of the slaves who defected from their owners. The story of former American slaves who struggled, persevered, and made it to Nova Scotia or eventually back to Africa to found the British colony of Sierra Leone was riveting. Schama introduces characters like the renowned British abolitionist Granville Sharpe and the British Navy Lieutenant John Clarkson, who might have done more personally than any other white person in history to mitigate the suffering of blacks and see that they were treated as they deserved. The story stretches from the Savannah River, to the city streets of New York, to tiny hamlets in Canada, to parlors and back alleys in London, to ships on the Atlantic, to west coast of Africa – this is a story of the Atlantic world, powerfully told by one of the best writers in the academy. With a few caveats, I would recommend this book to anybody interested in history or just reading something that is entertaining. The book reads like a novel and Schama takes great pains to avoid the language of scholarly drivel.
It makes me sad that a book with so much potential is marred by two or three spots of excess and a few omissions that wouldn’t have dramatically altered the argument but would have required a more sober and qualified tone than Schama was willing to take. So instead of a ringing endorsement of a book that fulfilled my dreams of what history could be, the best I can offer you is a largely negative review of a book that could have been – no, should have been – much better.