Of human bondage

 

History: Simon Schama's heart-rending examination of the role of American slaves in fighting for the British during the American Revolution and of the legacies of that encounter is, ostensibly, a revisionist narrative.

Though decidedly "awkward for the orthodox history of the Founding Fathers and their revolution", Schama argues that the British monarchy, rather than the American republic, was believed by African-Americans to be more likely to deliver them from slavery. To explain what he regards as this "astounding fact" requires what for Schama is a new and more nuanced approach to the study of the revolutionary war, one that places slaves at the centre of the conflict - not as pawns in the hands of loyalist and patriot forces, but, with as many as 100,000 of them casting off their shackles during the course of the war, as a powerful third party in shaping its outcome.

Lord Dunmore, the colonial governor of Virginia, began recruiting slaves in 1775, promising them liberty in return for fighting for the British. It was an extremely sharp move, for thousands of slaves began flocking to British encampments, a stream that turned into a veritable flood when the definition of those entitled to liberty was extended to black women and children. It is this extension of liberty to American slaves that, Schama reveals, highlights the hypocrisy of the "Great Contradiction" maintained by the American patriots, namely that Americans were fighting for the cause of liberty - including the right to own slaves - against British tyranny and oppression.

In a post 9/11, post-invasionary era in which Americans have sought refuge against the various physical and moral attacks against them through a reaffirmation of "American values", attacking the icons of these values is a decidedly bold move for a prominent British academic teaching in America. But as Schama illustrates, although George Washington could blithely declare Dunmore an "arch traitor to the rights of humanity" for promising to free slaves while in the same breath proclaiming the pro-slavery patriots advocates for freedom, the British were hardly advocates for humanitarianism. They in fact had no intention of abolishing slavery entirely or of even asking their loyalist supporters to give up their slaves (as is evident in their often brutal treatment of the slaves who rallied to their cause); they merely sought to expand their forces and create economic and social disruptions for their opponents. In light of the slave rebellions then under way in Surinam, St Vincent and Jamaica, all of which were reported in the American press, such a ploy was also calculated to strike fear into the hearts of patriot slave-owners (although doubtless in their loyalist peers as well).

The relation between the former slaves who fled with loyalist Americans to Nova Scotia and the British abolitionist movement - in particular the activities of Granville Sharp, one of the early abolitionists, and John Clarkson, the first governor of the colony of Sierra Leone, founded as a colony for free blacks - occupies Schama's attention in the rest of the book. While he goes on to document the seemingly endless tragedies perpetuated by British paternalism and the desperation of the "liberated" slaves, he also argues that, in addition to being the progenitors of African-American liberty, the British were also the progenitors, through the founding of the colony of Sierra Leone, of what he terms free black politics.

It is here that Schama runs into difficulties, for while his work appears, on the surface, to give agency and a voice to those usually deemed without, and to rectify the glaring absence in popular (and indeed, in much academic history) of non-whites in shaping the history of Britain and its empire, in reality this book serves to silence the nature of those contributions.

This is because the real subject of Rough Crossings is the development and triumph of liberty, of the extension of Enlightenment ideals to those previously denied them. It is, in short, a history of the birth of the modern black subject, of the transition of slaves from chattels into modern subjects with rights and a place within the nation-state. The individuals at the heart of this history are therefore only represented in terms of this transition; the pre-history of this narrative, or of alternative conceptions of self or modes of being that American slaves had (and that, as the Algerian psychologist and freedom fighter Franz Fanon revealed, often co-existed with Western conceptions - a phenomenon he refers to as "double consciousness") are mentioned only in passing. Thus for all its emphasis on agency and counter-narratives, this book is in the finest tradition of universalist history (itself a product of the Enlightenment), which subsumes all other histories to one dominant, triumphalist narrative. As in much recent popular history of the British empire, this book therefore emerges uncomfortably as an apologia for empire in a new guise.

Deana Heath is a lecturer in history at Trinity College Dublin. She is currently working on a book, Creating the Moral Colonial Subject: Obscenity, Censorship and Modernity

Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution By Simon Schama BBC Books, 447pp. £20