Rough crossings : Britain, the slaves, and the American Revolution

by Simon Schama

Hardcover, 2006




New York : Ecco, 2006.


In response to a declaration by the last royal governor of Virginia that any rebel-owned slave who escaped and served the King would be emancipated, tens of thousands of slaves--Americans who clung to the sentimental notion of British freedom--escaped from farms, plantations and cities to try to reach the British camp. This mass movement lasted as long as the war did, and a military strategy originally designed to break the plantations of the American South had unleashed one of the great exoduses in American history. Schama details the odyssey of the escaped blacks through the fires of war and the terror of potential recapture at the war's end, into inhospitable Nova Scotia, where thousands who had served the Crown were betrayed and, in a little-known hegira of the slave epic, sent across the broad, stormy ocean to Sierra Leone.--From publisher description.̓… (more)

Media reviews

Always a master storyteller, Schama — an Englishman who has long made his home in the United States — has woven the strands laid out by those who went before him into an epic work that gets the reader's blood rushing as it debunks the traditional American view of the Revolution. Schama throws more than a few bombs along the way, as when he writes of the Southern slave owners: "Theirs was a revolution, first and foremost, mobilized to protect slavery."

User reviews

LibraryThing member busterrll
Fantastic - but tough read. Well researched; learned a lot more about our founding fathers and how hypocritical they were. Race relations have changed but not nearly as far as we would think. Should be required reading.
LibraryThing member LesPhillips
Simon Schama consistently writes excellent histories that provide a 3 dimensional perspective of his topic. Rough Crossings is particularly important because it explores the usually overlooked aspect of slavery during the American Revolution. We Americans pride ourselves on our revolution for individual freedom but ignore the hypocracy inherent in a slave nation fighting for freedom of its owner class. If you want to get a better understanding of modern America and the domination of the wealthy and powerful over the middleclass, poor, and people of color, Simon Schama's Rough Crossing is a good place to start.… (more)
LibraryThing member nbmars
This is the little-known and astonishing story of the many blacks, some free but mostly slaves, who made their way to the British lines during the American Revolution in exchange for the promise of freedom. Tens of thousands took up the offer: “In all, between eighty thousand and one hundred thousand slaves left the plantations during the war.” Schama’s detailed documentation about this mass flight, called the Revolutionary War’s “dirty little secret,” puts lie to the myth of the happy slaves who played no role in our nation’s founding. On the contrary, many southern whites actually joined the Revolution to protect the institution of slavery, rather than to protest the price of tea. This extremely important observation is seldom discussed in popular accounts of the Revolution.

There were also blacks serving the Patriot cause, but for the most part white Americans feared giving arms to blacks and resisted until they were desperate for bodies. Whites threatened their slaves with death sentences for themselves and/or family members who went over to the British, and strung up captured mutilated bodies as deterrents. Yet still they fled. But many more wanted to escape to the British than those who tried.

Of those who survived all of the obstacles -- the harrowing escape, the battlefields, disease, and frequent betrayals of British protection, at the war’s end there were as many as 20,000 blacks living in British loyalist enclaves along the northeast coast. The British had logistical problems evacuating all the white and black loyalists from America, but for the former slaves, abandonment (and subsequent recapture) could be fatal. Thousands of blacks did, however, manage to get on ships bound for either Nova Scotia or to Britain itself. Later, the British established an experimental free colony in Sierra Leone by recruiting volunteers from these two areas. Much of the book tells the story of these settlements. Especially in Sierra Leone, the industry, perseverance, dignity and faith of the settlers in the face of continual hardship is a story that should be vigorously juxtaposed to the many American-borne myths denigrating black achievement.

Although there were many sordid moments both in Britain and in the free black colonies by whites trying to return the blacks to conditions of servitude, there were heroes as well. In particular, the stories of Granville Sharp, and John and Thomas Clarkson provide notable exceptions to the rule of white racism and greed.

This untold story of the Revolutionary War should be required reading for American students. Schama’s 2006 award from the National Book Critics Circle was richly deserved.
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LibraryThing member LarrySouders
If you want to know about slavery and the revolutionary war this is the book for you. Emotional feelings run through out this narrative. Makes one aware of the importance of the African race in this country's struggle for self rule.
LibraryThing member billiecat
I'm not really sure where Schama was intending to go with this book. It starts as an examination of the treatment of slaves during and immediately after the American Revolution, but it evolves to a story about the abolition movement in Britain and the colonization of Sierra Leone by ex-slaves. Schama does not have an over-arching theme here (or if he does, it's well-hidden) and as a result, some important points get lost among the details.… (more)
LibraryThing member John_Vaughan
This book’s account about the role of slaves in the Revolutionary War apparently offers a surprise to many American readers as Simon Schama details the mass flight of the Southern States escaped and freed slaves to fight the revolutionaries on the English side. This historical fact was so little known it was called the “dirty little secret” of the war. The work continues the story of those slaves through to their escape to hardship in Acadia, New Foundland, Nova Scotia and even England, and describes the fate for many of ultimate betrayal, along with many thousands of white “Royalists”, who also choose to fight on the losing side.
Schama, as usual in his excellent works, offers the reader a gripping view of history, and he brings the account up into the period of the politics of Wilberforce and the English “Abolition Movement”, the and eventual emancipation. His account of the corrupted ideals and confusions of the attempted creation of new lands in Africa is fascinating, giving new details of the founding of the colony of Sierra Leone. Further betrayals awaited many of the original African settlers, even to re-sale back into the West Indies slave trade.

A sad and important story.
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LibraryThing member lyzadanger
I like history. I like books. I really like Simon Schama. And it won awards. And yet, fail. I tried to read this book three times and couldn't get past the first chapter. This is likely a personal shortcoming.
LibraryThing member JBD1
Columbia University professor Simon Schama's newest offering is Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves, and the American Revolution. In his signature narrative style, Schama tackles a subject which certainly does not rank among the most popular or comfortable for American readers - the treatment of slaves during the Revolutionary era, and in particular the tension between the expressed ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the practical implications of those concepts.

The first section of Schama's book is concerned with the Revolutionary conflict proper, focusing (as one would expect from the subtitle) on the measures taken by British commanders in the southern colonies to upset the standing social order by offering emancipation to slaves who would join the royalist forces. The book covers little new ground here, relying heavily as it does on prior work by Benjamin Quarles, Woody Holton, Sylvia Frey, Gary Nash and others. The latter portions of Schama's book are more original: his coverage of British abolitionists Granville Sharp, Thomas and John Clarkson, and William Wilberforce is quite good, as is the important discussion of what happened to the escaped slaves in the years following the Revolution as they were shunted about from Nova Scotia to Sierra Leone and other locations just trying to make a go of it.

While I found myself annoyed at times with Schama's frequent shifts from scene to scene, and some of his stylistic quirks bugged me (his capitalization of Certain Phrases was particularly obnoxious), in general I enjoyed the narrative. Sometimes a synthesis like this is the only way to get academic research into the public eye, and I think Schama's work will contribute to that in regard to the role of blacks (slaves and otherwise) in the American Revolution. More important still is the treatment of the Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone colonies.
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LibraryThing member cpg
Not the most enjoyable of Schama's books, but very instructive. A good lesson for those who would issue a blanket condemnation of the American South, since it illustrates how widely the evils of slavery permeated elsewhere, too. Eye. Beam. Mote. etc.
LibraryThing member vguy
Brilliant. Reads like a novel, but deeply researched. Sense of characters, their ridealsms and hypocrisies, as well as strong story and vivid word pictures. i really wanted to know what would happen next in this neglected corner of history. Some surprising firsts - votes for women , black political manifesto and more - in the events following the War of Independence. The central mauvais foi of that event as pointed out by dr Johnson ( the vociferous assertion of liberty by slave owners) is well described; and how blacks came in droves to the sheltering wing of King George, seeing England as the guarantor of their freedom, while the views and actions of British individuals was considerably more nuanced. But there was also heroism and self sacrifice by at least one Brit, which is heartwarming to read of.… (more)
LibraryThing member rivkat
Really interesting history of African-Americans (and some Africans as well) who escaped slavery during/because of the American Revolution—some of them escaping from men who signed the Declaration of Independence. Schama follows them to Canada and Sierra Leone, where they rarely got what they were promised from the British but never stopped seeking freedom and security.… (more)
LibraryThing member Marie-Clare
Very sad, a bit hard-going at times but well written and interesting.



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