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Bookmarks Issue: 
24-Sept-Oct-2006
By: 
Simon Schama
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Britain, the Slaves, and the American Revolution

A-RoughCrossingsThough the Revolutionary War was fought in the name of freedom, the parceling out of that right was anything but equal. America’s founding fathers either actively supported slavery or kept their opinions about the appalling irony of their battle for liberty to themselves. Capitalizing on this colonial complicity, the British military offered freedom and land to slaves who crossed the British line. In the waning days of the war, freed slaves were taken to Nova Scotia and offered poor plots of land and second-class citizenship. A decade later, 1,000 freemen jumped at the chance to cross the Atlantic for self-rule in Sierra Leone, but that dream faded, too, into a nightmare of colonialism.
Ecco. 478 pages. $29.95. ISBN: 006053916X

Chicago Tribune 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Schama is less concerned with the analysis of cultural, religious, or economic developments than he is with producing a compelling narrative. On that score, he succeeds wonderfully." Eric Arnesen

USA Today 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Schama has a sharp tongue and a discerning nose for hypocrisy. In his new book, he uses these weapons to deliver a body blow to some of our most cherished national illusions—or delusions—about the American Revolution and its leaders." Deirdre Donahue

Chicago Sun-Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Schama makes a convincing argument that the Revolution, at least in the South, was nearly as much about slavery as was the Civil War. The plantation owners he describes were encouraged to take up arms against the British in no small part out of fear that if they didn’t, they’d wind up staring down the barrel of a rifle held by one of their slaves." Mark Athitakis

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Always a master storyteller, Schama … 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." Brent Staples

Portland Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"Schama makes much of British promises of freedom for patriot-owned slaves who abandoned their masters and reached British lines. But he is fair-minded enough to admit that these offers were tactical in nature, intended primarily to redress British manpower shortages and to serve as an incentive for slave owners to remain loyal to the king." Mark David Hall

San Francisco Chronicle 3 of 5 Stars
"Schama’s narrative can be vivid and riveting, but at times his prose can be excessively flowery and melodramatic. … While [his] attempts to put his book in the context of the rising tide of the British abolitionist movement are admirable, he fails to provide a coherent context, and far too much of his account revolves around personalities." Dan Cornford

Critical Summary

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 Rough Crossings, 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.

Also by the Author

Citizens A Chronicle of the French Revolution (1988): This book was selected by two of the five experts in our "What One Book" column on the French Revolution, published in our March/April 2006 issue. Novelist Sandra Gulland, author of the Josephine B. trilogy, wrote: "Schama is that rare combination: an excellent historian who writes well. In Citizens, one gets a vivid sense of the period’s day-to-day tumult and ideological complexity."