Thursday, February 22, 2007

Rough Crossings

Back last June I talked here about the Union Jack as "the flag of liberty" in connection with the abolition of first the slave trade and then slavery as an institution acceptable to civilized people, and mentioned the new book by Simon Schama, Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution. Well, I've finally had time to read the book and thought I should say something about it.

If you have never read anything about the issue of the slaves in the American Revolution, when patriots by and large upheld slavery while the monarchists were willing to free Patriots' slaves to fight for the Crown, with the result that thousands escaped captivity; if you've never read about the ex-slaves' settlement in Nova Scotia; if you've never read about the establishment of the more-or-less self-governing black colony of Freetown in present-day Sierra Leone, well, you've got a lot to learn from this interesting narrative history (in other words, it's a good story).

On the other hand, I thought this was not as good as some other Schama books, such as Citizens, which infuriated me in places but which I retain the highest respect for. There were a few writing tics that made me want to get out my blue pencil. More seriously, I couldn't exactly understand Schama's purpose in writing the book as he did. Why, for instance, did he focus so much on two white guys, Granville Sharp and John Clarkson? Because they were among a handful of white people willing to give black people an even break? Or for the more prosaic reason that we have good sources for Sharp and Clarkson and the ex-slaves are harder to know (not that Schama didn't try)?

I thought that this book failed to put the budding emancipation movement around 1800 into a wide enough context. Even with only a general knowledge of the events I thought that this was a pretty traditional story of British people -- at least a few, generally of a pious Evangelical persuasion -- discovering the humanity of Africans and doing something about it.

Still, a readable account of important events. And I became fond of Sharp and his family of musical brothers and sisters. It seems right that a great humanitarian should come from such a loving family.

The NU library has this book, or rather will have it back soon.

Update: Andrew Sullivan's blog at the Atlantic alerts me to the fact that a big-budget biopic on anti-slavery crusader William Wilberforce is being released today. According to Schama's book, the connection to the hymn Amazing Grace is legit.


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