'Rough Crossings': Slaves and the Revolution

Historian Simon Schama talks about his most recent book, Rough Crossings. In it, Schama tells the story of slaves during the American Revolution. Thousands of slaves fled plantations to join forces with the British.

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'Rough Crossings' Revisits Slaves and the American Revolution

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The great abolitionist Frederick Douglas famously challenged an Independence Day crowd with these words, What, to the slave, is the Fourth of July? Historian Simon Schama has taken up that question in his new book, Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves, and the American Revolution. In 1776, Schama writes, 'the journey to freedom for many slaves began on the battlefields alongside the British.'

The Red Coats hoped to pit the slaves against their masters by offering freedom in exchange for fighting. For some that journey ended across the ocean in Africa at the Utopian settlement of Freetown, Sierra Leone. One man who got there shows up in the records as British Freedom.

Mr. SIMON SCHAMA (Historian and Author): British Freedom had been born something else, and at some point in the aftermath of the American Revolutionary War, he decided to give himself a free name in honor of the fact that it was the British, who in fact had emancipated him. And I saw this at the time when there was much talk of the Freedom Tower.

MONTAGNE: In New York.

Mr. SCHAMA: Downtown. At the World Trade Center, right. It had to be 1776 feet tall. The argument being that freedom sort of arrives in the modern world when the Red Coats leave. And it certainly, of course, in some very profound, important way, does arrive in the world when the Red Coats leave.

I thought, well, not for this guy. And not for this guy and not for tens of thousands of blacks whom, if you had asked them who they want to win the war, they would have had said the king. It's the British who, for cynical military reasons, as the book details, issue a proclamation and say, if you serve the king we will offer you your freedom and some land. And many, many thousands of slaves believed it. And this person, British Freedom, clearly was one of them. For him, to be an American, was to remain a slave.

MONTAGNE: In a way, when you speak about setting out the question, which side would a slave in America have been on, it seems deceptively simple. But on the other hand, most people I believe, I think in the U.S especially, don't think about it.

Mr. SCHAMA: Well, it's a bit of a party pooper on the Fourth of July, isn't it? It's an inconvenient fact. You certainly won't find it in social studies textbook I know, of or curriculum. George Washington's own slave, Henry Washington, went to the British army.

You can go down a list of the Founding Fathers who signed the Declaration of Independence, and among the Southerners, all had blacks who voted with their feet, to get to the British in the desperate hope the British would make them free.

MONTANGE: And they were given certificates to carry.

Mr. SCHAMA: Yes. They were given the equivalent of passports, that's right, certificates of freedom. They are called General Birch Certificates. I can't tell you really how extraordinary and moving it is actually when you go to the public record office in London, or the New York Historical Society, and you find these little scrapes of paper, which are really the kind of birthright of the kind of African-American freedom that's sort of cut off in way in its prime by what followed.

MONTAGNE: For some what followed began well. In 1783, former slaves, promised freedom and land, boarded ships headed for Nova Scotia, Canada.

Mr. SCHAMA: They go to Nova Scotia with the British fleet, about 3,000 of them, and there terrible things happen to them. The freedom is honored as a matter of legal status. But they don't get their land, that they had been promised by all kinds of subterfuges. So they become extremely poor. They have to hire themselves out as indentured servants, and they become again, in a way, slaves in all but name.

MONTAGNE: Jump ahead in time. The British have freed these American slaves. They've gone to Nova Scotia and then on to Britain, some of them. And an idea emerges to create a place that would allow them to go back to Africa, and this place turned out to be a place we know now, Sierra Leone

Mr. SCHAMA: Yes. They of course, many of them did not know much and were quite frightened by the prospect of going back to Africa. So there was a lot of uncertainty. There were rumors also spread by people who were hostile to the expedition to create Sierra Leone, that it was a disguised form of re-enslavement.

And there was one huge reason why they knew it was going to tough to create a free black township in Africa, and that's because they were being taken to the place which was the hub of the slave trade. So they were going to have to somehow defend this bitterly won freedom, sandwiched between European slave traders and African slave traders.

MONTAGNE: The notion, the dream of a free country or a settlement for blacks who had been enslaved--and that was Sierra Leone--was a beautiful dream, but it was a very difficult reality.

Mr. SCHAMA: Yes, it was. It was a dream that had been born in London by a truly wonderful man called Granville Sharp. He went in search of a place that would be a perfect place of British liberty. Granville Sharp felt this was a perfect place for black slaves. They would have the honor of recovering freedom for the rest of the world. And for him and for others in my story, it was a matter of honor. They were deeply burdened by the sense that the British empire had been sullied and still was sullied in the Caribbean by the sin of slavery.

And Sierra Leone became a place of redemption. So they arrive with the greatest expectations, and they've come at the wrong time. It's the rainy season. They're hit by everything you can be possibly hit by, wild beasts, monsoons, brutal storms. But somehow, some of them survived.

MONTAGNE: At the point at which Freetown was built, with great difficulty, how long did it thrive?

Mr. SCHAMA: Well, not long enough really. The system of self-government begins in 1792. It finally comes to an end in 1808, where there are constant rebellions against the white British governors. And then it just really becomes part of British imperial Africa, by the time you get to the 1830s and 1840s. At one point there's almost a little kind of American moment, where some of the original black farmers actually say we will now make our own laws.

British Freedom, who we spoke about, ends up as one of the rebels, as does Henry Washington, George Washington's slave. They're exiled from the colony for taking part in one of these periodic rebellions. So we're only talking about 20 years at the most, but it's a kind of blazing moment. It's a moment full of possibilities, only a few of which actually do get realized.

MONTAGNE: Historian, Simon Schama. His new book is Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves, and the American Revolution.

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution

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