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.̓
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.
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.
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.