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Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution Hardcover – April 25, 2006

ISBN-13: 978-0060539160 ISBN-10: 006053916X Edition: 1st

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

[Signature]Reviewed by Adam HochschildHas there ever been a patch of history more celebrated than the American Revolution? The torrent is endless: volume after volume about the glory of 1776, the miracle of 1787 and enough biographies of the Founding Fathers to stretch from the Liberty Bell to Bunker Hill and back again. The Library of Congress catalogue lists 271 books or other items to do with George Washington's death and burial alone. Enough!By contrast with the usual hagiography, distinguished historian Schama has found a little-known story from this era that makes the Founding Fathers look not so glorious. The Revolution saw the first mass emancipation of slaves in the Americas—an emancipation, however, not done by the revolutionaries but by their enemies. Many American rebel leaders were slave owners. To hit them where it most hurt, Britain proclaimed freedom for all slaves of rebel masters who could make their way to British-controlled territory. Slaves deserted their horrified owners by the tens of thousands. One, who used his master's last name, was Henry Washington; another renamed himself British Freedom. The most subversive news in this book is that the British move so shocked many undecided Southern whites that it actually pushed them into the rebel camp: "Theirs was a revolution, first and foremost, mobilized to protect slavery." Even though they lost the war, most British officers honored their promise to the escaped slaves. The British commander in New York at the war's end, where some 3,000 runaway slaves had taken refuge, adamantly refused an irate Washington's demand to give them back. Instead, he put them on ships for Nova Scotia.And there, nearly a decade later, another saga began. More than a thousand ex-slaves accepted a British offer of land in Sierra Leone, a utopian colony newly founded by abolitionists, which for a few years in the 1790s was the first place on earth where women could vote. Sadly, however, financial problems and the British government's dismay at so much democracy soon brought an end to the self-rule the former slaves had been promised. Schama once again gives his readers something rare: history that is both well told and well documented. In this wonderfully sprawling epic, there are a few small errors about dates and the like, and perhaps a few more characters than we can easily keep track of, but again and again he manages to bring a scene, a person, a conversation dramatically to life. Would that more historians wrote like this. (On sale Apr. 25)Adam Hochschild is the author of, most recently, Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves, a National Book Award finalist.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Bookmarks Magazine

Though historians have known this story for decades, expatriate British historian Simon Schama, a professor at Columbia, brings his narrative vigor to the account of America's first emancipation. The "novelistic, exacting" (Chicago Sun-Times) touch that made A History of Britain and Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution successes is evident in RoughCrossings, as is an appetite to tell the story of those dispossessed by history's sweep. Uninfluenced by patriotism, Schama confronts the hypocrisy of both the colonists and the British. Though some of Schama's facts might be skewed and his scope limited by available primary materials, Schama presents a compelling story that should serve to correct any lingering hagiography.

Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Ecco / HarperCollins; 1st edition (April 25, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 006053916X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060539160
  • Product Dimensions: 9 x 6.3 x 1.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (38 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,210,480 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Simon Schama is a professor of art history and history at Columbia University, and is the author of numerous award-winning books; his most recent history, Rough Crossings, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction. He is a cultural essayist for the New Yorker and has written and presented more than thirty documentaries for the BBC, PBS, and the History Channel, including The Power of Art, which won the 2007 International Emmy for Best Arts Programming.

Customer Reviews

This should be required reading for everyone.
Frank J. Konopka
The triad of sites in this book are London, North America - particularly Nova Scotia - and the African Coast.
Stephen A. Haines
Schama's wonderfully written account of this little-mentioned struggle is very engaging and sorrowful.
Izaak VanGaalen

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

56 of 64 people found the following review helpful By Bart King on May 3, 2006
Format: Hardcover
First of all, I want to establish that Simon Schama is a terrific writer, keenly observant and generous with the telling details. And he has a lot of details in this marvelously researched book.

ROUGH CROSSINGS deals with a topic that I don't remember running across in any history class I've taken (and I have an M.A. in the subject.) During the Revolutionary War, black slaves fought for freedom... their OWN freedom from their colonial masters, and they did so on the side of the English.

The fact that slaves' colonial masters were in many cases the Founding Fathers of the U.S. makes this book utterly fascinating. The Brits encouraged and used escaped slaves for all facets of warfare, even forming a unit called the Ethiopian Regiment. (Kidnapped West Africans fighting for their liberty by supporting a monarch against a budding republic based on human rights?! Go figure.)

And since the slaves were fighting for a losing cause, many of them ended up stranded afterwards in Nova Scotia. The Brits eventually shipped many of them back to West Africa to found Sierra Leone. (Ironically, this was located in a spot where the slave trade had been long established.)

Although Sierra Leone seemed like a brilliant idea, Schama eloquently explains why the experiment didn't even last a generation. (One of George Washington's slaves helped found the government and ended up a rebel against it.) In telling this tragic tale, Schama (an Englishman, BTW) provides us with a small glimpse of what-might-have-been. And though it may take another century for Sierra Leone to stabilize and flourish, perhaps it's a glimpse of what-will-someday-be.
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20 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Izaak VanGaalen on October 24, 2006
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
For those readers who enjoyed last year's best seller, David McCullough's "1776," the present volume by Simon Schama will show the events of that same period in a whole new light. Once you thought you had the definitive story, a book such as this comes along and turns the story upside down. In this book, Schama writes of the promise of freedom offered by the British Monarchy to the American slaves who were willing to serve on the side of the crown. The offer of course was not entirely altruistic; King George had much to gain from depriving the ungrateful colonists of their workforce. But for the slaves this was an offer they couldn't refuse, and they were willing to risk life and limb to cross over to the British side.

Much has been said about the Founding Fathers and the fact that they were slaveholders; Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin had all anguished over the morality of it. Yet not only did they retain their slaves, they acquiesced to the southern slaveholding states to allow it in order to get the constitution ratified. This poisoned the republic from the beginning and festered until it erupted with the Civil War many years later. It was one of the tragic ironies of the American Revolution; for all their high-minded ideals of independence and freedom, they could not let go of the institution of slavery which had given them their prosperity.

Schama's wonderfully written account of this little-mentioned struggle is very engaging and sorrowful. Those slaves who found themselves under British rule after 1787 were shipped either to Nova Scotia, the Carribean, or London, where they encountered new hardships and a sense of betrayal. To a great extent the British, having lost their struggle to control the colonists, were looking for places to unload their new subjects.
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48 of 60 people found the following review helpful By David Wineberg TOP 500 REVIEWER on September 25, 2005
Format: Hardcover
There appears to be two kinds of political history: that which is hidden from us completely by the special interests, and that which can be dug up and exposed when it is "safe". Rough Crossings by Simon Shama is of the latter, and will stir up a storm of indignation when it is published in the USA in 2006.

Starting even before the Revolutionary War, so-called American Patriots and our founding fathers exhibited the same kind of special interest/self interest that schoolchildren today are taught is beneath public service. Patrick (Give me liberty or give me death!) Henry could not for the life of him understand why he should free his own slaves. Thomas Jefferson's first declaration of independence in 1775 cited the British government's rumored incitement of Negroes to rise up for their freedom as one of the prime movers of the colonies to break free of the tyranny of England.

He was proven right in that tens of thousands of slaves ran away to fight on the British side, against the colonists. The "Patriots" killed every runaway they could find before they got to the English ships. (The same was to occur in 1812, when the British and the Americans clashed again)

The British, who of course taught the Americans everything they knew about slavery in the first place, had only recently begun to abhor it. Using the courts, English activists were able to obtain the freedom of people who were being captured in England to be shipped off to sugar plantations. The British public, caught up in this humanitarian, headline-making campaign, was offended by the tyranny of the Americans, just as the Americans were offended by the tyranny of the British in things like taxation. The result was armed conflict.
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