The tale of the escaped slaves who fought

with the British turns the American Revolution

on its head.

THE FORMULA FOR WRITING A SUCCESSFUL BOOK ABOUT THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION IS NO MYSTERY. Choose a Founding Father—Washington, Hamilton, Adams—venerate him for a few hundred pages, and in no time you’re on the best-seller list. O.K., it’s not that simple, but you get the picture. Patriotic content equals readership appeal.

With Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves, and the American Revolution  (Ecco; 475 pages), the indispensable Simon Schama (Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution) has taken a much trickier path . By choosing to tell the story of the thousands of escaped slaves who fought beside the British in the hope of securing their freedom, he effectively turns the American Revolution upside down. In Schama’s book, it’s the Crown that holds out the promise of liberty, the patriots who would take it away. As war approached, the British promised emancipation to any runaway who would join forces with the loyalists. When George Washington first appears in Schama’s pages, it’s not as the Father of His Country but as the recipient of a letter informing him of the many slaves who were high-tailing it off his family properties.

“For blacks,” Schama reminds us, “the news that the British Were Coming was a reason for hope, celebration and action.” On the eve of independence, as many as 20% of the rebellious colonies’ 2.5 million people were African American. That figure rose to 40% in Virginia, the home of Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry, who were slave owners all. Then again, so was Lord Dunmore, the last Royal Governor of Virginia and the man who first made the offer of freedom for military service. Schama’s book, nuanced, fair-minded and beautifully written, does not pretend that the British, who oversaw their own brutal slave economy in the Caribbean, operated with clean hands. But for American slaves, the prospect of continued bondage in an independent America was no choice at all.

Schama’s subtle history is a webwork of characters: early American abolitionists like Washington’s aide-de-camp John Laurens, determined slaves like the self- named “British Freedom” and scoundrels too numerous to mention. His heroes include anti-slavery pamphleteer Granville Sharp, who subsidized a pivotal English court case on behalf of an American slave who escaped from his master while visiting England.

Lord Mansfield, the judge hearing the case, was no abolitionist firebrand like Sharp. But he too had reason to know that blacks were human. His nephew had fathered a child by a black woman. The child, Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay, lived with Mansfield and his wife. When war came, his much discussed decision in favor of the slave was taken by African Americans as another incentive to wish Britain well.

The second half of Schama’s powerful book follows the former slaves in their wretched exile after the war, when thousands joined an exodus of white loyalists to Nova Scotia. Others shipped out to Africa to establish a struggling township in Sierra Leone . Although the African settlers suffered years of illness and near starvation they were the first largely self-governing community of African Americans. If it wasn’t quite “British fteedom” it was still a taste of the liberty the U.S. would not offer blacks for many years to come.

 —By Richard Lacayo


                                                                                          TIME Magazine

                                                                                                      May 8, 2006

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