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Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution
Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution
Simon Schama
Ecco / HarperCollins, 2006
496 pp., 29.95

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Mark Noll

Clashing Languages of Liberty

Books like Rough Crossing raise a large, important, and tragically enduring question.1 It is whether the United States' historical profession to be a land of liberty should be taken seriously. Ask generations of willing immigrants—ask adherents of countless religious minorities persecuted for one reason or another in their homelands—ask entrepreneurs beyond counting, the numberless founders of voluntary faith-based organizations or the great legion of American purveyors of print—and the answer must, on balance, be a conclusive yes. But concentrate on the history of African Americans, and the answer is not nearly so obvious. Is their experience an exception that proves the rule, or is it a deadly fly poisoning a hypocritical ointment?

Simon Schama's Rough Crossings joins a gathering stream of publications that will doubtless grow larger in the approach to March 25, 2007, which marks the 200th anniversary of the final enactment of the British Parliament's "Bill for the Abolition of the Slave Trade."2 For a comparison germane to Schama's purposes, it is pertinent to note that the United States Congress also enacted a ban on slave trading in 1807. Yet the effect of the American action was only marginal. For decades after 1807, the British naval squadrons that were dispatched to the west coast of Africa to enforce Parliament's action regularly interdicted slave ships bound with their human cargo to North America.

This book is presented as the story of American slaves who during the American Revolution escaped from "the Sons of Liberty" in order to find refuge, manumission, and at least some support from the British "tyrants." More than the subtitle might suggest, however, it is also about the zealously persistent British reformers who championed abolition and expended great energy in pursuing that goal on three continents. In its first half the key figure is Granville Sharp (1735–1813), a Quaker-influenced evangelical whose lifelong anti-slavery advocacy began in 1765 when on the stoop of his physician-brother's surgery in London he encountered Jonathan Strong, a West Indian slave brutally beaten by his master to within an inch of his life. In the book's second half Schama's lens is John Clarkson (1764–1828), a young naval lieutenant who in 1791–1792 persuaded over 1,000 Loyal blacks, who were living in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick after being rescued from their bondage in the United States, to emigrate to the west coast of Africa, where a British philanthropic company hoped to create a new life for librated slaves in Sierra Leone. Clarkson, like Sharp, was an earnest evangelical. For him, as for Sharp, there exists an abundance of published and archival source material, which Schama exploits very well.

Although the quantity of surviving sources makes it easier for Schama to depict the white philanthropists who promoted antislavery—as well as their white opponents—he nonetheless delivers a great deal of compelling reading on the freed slaves for whom the philanthropists mobilized. Their stories make up the most memorable parts of the book. Some of these accounts document levels of perseverance and integrity beside which the martyrologies and heroic deeds of the American search for "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" pale by comparison.

There was, for example, Shadrack Furman of Acamac County, Virginia, who in 1781 went to work for the British after his house was destroyed by Continental forces. After supplying information to General Cornwallis, Furman was captured by Americans, given 500 lashes, beaten about the head so that he lost most of his sight, had his leg chopped almost off with an ax, and was left to die in a field. But Furman recovered and went on to serve aboard a British ship and as an agent on land in the last days of the war. To indicate that emancipation by the British was never a unmitigated blessing, it took Furman several years of scrounging in London to convince a Court of Loyalist Claims that he was, in his mutilated body, who he said he was, and to be awarded a pension of £8 per year (or about the annual wage of a young servant).

One of the individuals whose biography encompasses all of the rough crossings of Schama's title was Mary Perth, who enters the story as a 36-year-old slave in Norfolk County, Virginia. Shortly after Lord Dunmore, the last royal governor of the colony, issued a declaration on November 7, 1775 that promised emancipation to all slaves who escaped to British lines, Perth and the other slaves on her plantation took up the governor's offer. After harrowing transits and many narrow escapes, she was eventually taken with other Loyal blacks to Shelbourne in Nova Scotia, where she was promised civil rights and a parcel of land.

But delivery on these promises proved spotty, and Perth was one of the blacks who responded when, in the fall of 1791, at an African Methodist chapel in Birchtown, Nova Scotia, John Clarkson delivered a moving appeal for migration to Sierra Leone. After surviving a storm-ravaged winter voyage to West Africa, she set up as a shopkeeper in Freetown, the new colony's main settlement, where, in 1793, she voted in an election for neighborhood committeemen and so became one of the first women anywhere in the world to exercise an electoral franchise. In 1794 her shop was looted when a French naval squadron occupied Sierra Leone during the early days of the great international war between France and Britain. In the aftermath of this occupation, Perth exerted herself to extend hospitality to Zachary Macaulay, the governor of the colony, who had replaced John Clarkson and his benevolent rule with a much harsher regime. When the French ships began their cannonade, she led children from one of the colony's schools through the rainforest to a neighboring village of Tembe tribespeople. Macaulay and Freetown's white residents were much less at home outside the colony, but when he too arrived in the village, Mary Perth made him tea and insisted that he spend the night in one of the settlement's few beds.

David George's story is even more notable. He was a slave near Savannah, Georgia, when shortly before the American Revolution he experienced a dramatic conversion. While still enslaved, George helped found perhaps the first black Baptist church in what became the United States. When the war began he escaped for his life and liberty to the British and was eventually taken with other black Loyalists to Nova Scotia. There he persevered through intense local persecution by whites resentful of the crumbs that were being distributed by British colonial officials to a few of George's fellow blacks, and he organized probably the first black Baptist church in what would become Canada. He too responded to the Sierra Leone appeal, and eventually became a kind of right-hand man for John Clarkson in shepherding the migrants during their voyage and their first months in the new colony, where he established what was probably the first black Baptist church in Africa.

When Clarkson was recalled to London in early 1793, he took George with him. Schama's verve as a writer, which sparkles throughout the book, catches the poignancy of that journey: George, "who had in his time lived with slaves, Indians and British soldiers, and who had tramped, run and slogged through swamps and creeks, snowdrifts and river ice, was now to be faced with the high hats, white bonnets and rosy cheeks of Home Counties Baptists."

In England, George was befriended by John Rippon, one of the era's great Baptist leaders. Under his patronage, George wrote up an account of his life for a Baptist periodical that Rippon edited, which means that more is known about George than almost any of his fellows. Sadly, when they were both in England, George fell out with Clarkson when the latter was dismissed by the directors of the Sierra Leone Company for arguing too abrasively for the rights of the Nova Scotia blacks. Schama's tone toward George cools after this point in the story, which is regrettable since in episodes that Schama only sketches, George would later argue fiercely with Governor Macaulay on behalf of the blacks' political rights, and also for what had become their distinctive Christian beliefs and practices.3

One final story suggests the ironies at work in an age where, as in our own, the promotion of "freedom" was as haphazard as it was ardent. Henry Washington, a slave whose patronymic came from his owner, had also come over to the British after Lord Dunmore's declaration. (In Schama's colorful phrase, he "deserted General George for King George.") This Washington was part of the Nova Scotia band recruited by Clarkson, and he became one of the leaders among the Sierra Leone settlers. But when Governor Macaulay tried to crack down on blacks who insisted that the Sierra Leone Company keep the promises Clarkson had made in Nova Scotia, Washington took part in a mini-revolt against the British. After that revolt was put down, this former slave left Sierra Leone to seek his livelihood in the African wilds, and from that point he is lost to recorded history.

Schama, the author of big and lively books on Dutch civilization, Rembrandt, the French Revolution, and (for the bbc) the whole of British history, is a terrific writer. Here he is, for example, on Halifax, Nova Scotia, when the liberated American slaves arrived:

There was the North British Club, where the Scots could rub their chins, exchange gloomy intelligence about the shocking state of trade and shake their heads at the follies of the world. There was the Salt Fish Club, where the Anglo-Irish could speak their piece about the Scots and pass the decanter. There were prayers and blusters, wagers and seductions. It was like most other eighteenth-century commercial towns in the British Atlantic empire: greedy, gossipy, and parochial, with eyes much bigger than its stomach.

And yet for all such stylistic skill, and despite the moral depths this story plumbs, Rough Crossings suffers from one nearly fatal weakness. That weakness is Schama's inability to fathom the religion that drove philanthropists like Sharp and Clarkson and that was, if anything, even more vital to many of the freed slaves at the heart of his story. On the evangelical enthusiasms displayed in different forms by the whites and the blacks, Schama's tone throughout is wearily patronizing. For instance, Jonas Hanway, an energetic Londoner who supported countless philanthropies, is described as representing "a certain kind of busy, charitable Englishman." Schama mentions one of Hanway's tracts—with a very long title that begins Advice to a Farmer's Daughter …—and then says he wrote "many more that all said more or less the same thing: abhor vice, pray, get up early."

And here is Schama's concluding paragraph at the end of a exquisitely narrated account of mob actions by white Nova Scotians against the black Loyalists in the summer of 1784:

Among those who had lost his house in the riot was the Baptist pastor David George, described by a local merchant, Simeon Perkins, as "Very Loud," and who had persisted in preaching to his flock in the Shelbourne meeting house, even while the mob surrounded it with flaming torches, threatening to burn it to the ground. But then David George was not one to abandon his faith, for while the Lord was with him, he feared no evil.

Most egregiously, the emotion-packed meetings that the twice-migrated blacks held in Sierra Leone's five or six Methodist and Baptist chapels—each and every night!—elicit from Schama no commentary, except that the noise could sometimes be heard by the whites on board ship in the harbor or in their own lodgings in the town. Such treatments are invariably clever, and they do not exactly dismiss the motives that drove the book's key actors. But neither do they give those motives their due.

And so we are left with a hole in the middle of an engaging, important, and very readable book. Which is a real shame, since if there was (and is) any possibility of saving the "language of liberty" from the cant and hypocrisy it has so often endured in modern Western history, it must surely come from the depth of religion that inspired the lives of Granville Sharp, John Clarkson, Mary Perth, and David George.

Mark Noll is McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College and the author most recently of The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, just published by the University of North Carolina Press. In July he will assume a new position in the History Department at the University of Notre Dame.

1. Other noteworthy recent volumes that raise the same question include James B. Bennet, Religion and the Rise of Jim Crow in New Orleans (Princeton Univ. Press, 2005); Edward J. Blum, Reforging the White Republic: Race, Religion, and American Nationalism, 1865-1898 (LSU Press, 2005); and Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (Oxford Univ. Press, 2000).

2. Two recent books that, like Schama's volume, effectively popularize material that has been much discussed in professional historical work include Adam Hochschild, Bury Their Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves (Houghton Mifflin, 2005); and Steven M. Wise, Though the Heavens May Fall: The Landmark Trial that Led to the End of Human Slavery (Da Capo, 2005), which treats the 1772 ruling by British Chief Justice Mansfield that a West Indian slave, James Somerset, could not be enslaved on English soil.

3. A valuable book that Schama misses, which documents George's conflicts with Macaulay, is Grant Gordon, From Slavery to Freedom: The Life of David George, Pioneer Black Baptist Minister (Baptist Heritage in Atlantic Canada, 1992).

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