Schama's Revolutionary Tale: 'Rough Crossings' Many Africans, enslaved in the colonies, were offered freedom by the British to fight their American masters. What became of the thousands who accepted? Historian Simon Schama tells the story in Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves, and the American Revolution.
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Schama's Revolutionary Tale: 'Rough Crossings'

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Schama's Revolutionary Tale: 'Rough Crossings'

Schama's Revolutionary Tale: 'Rough Crossings'

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ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon. Happy 4th of July.

Today, a bit of overlooked history as we celebrate Independence Day. During the American Revolution, many Africans enslaved here, were offered freedom by the British to fight their American masters. Thousands accepted the offer. So what became of these freed men and women?

Historian and Columbia University professor Simon Schama tries to answer that question with his new book, Rough Crossing: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution.

NPR's Farai Chideya recently spoke with Professor Schama about the book. Their conversation began with a passage about one man with an incredible name, British Freedom.

Professor SIMON SCHAMA (Historian and Professor, Columbia University): Ten years after the surrender of George III's army to General Washington at Yorktown, British freedom was hanging on in North America, scratching a living from the stingy soil around Preston a few miles northeast of Halifax, Nova Scotia. Like most of the Preston people, British Freedom was black and had come from a warmer place.

Now, he was a hard scrabbler, stuck in a wind-whipped corner of the world between the blue spruce forest and the sea. British freedom and the rest of the villages were clinging to more than a scrap of Nova Scotia. They were clinging to a promise.

CHIDEYA: So what was that promise?

Professor SCHAMA: Well, the promise, first of all, was liberty. It was enshrined on a little piece of paper that many of the settlers who had been with the British Army during the war clung to. The wording of that little piece of paper is very sweetly and endearingly pro se, but boy, it was a revolution in itself. It simply said that such-and-such-a-person were free to go wherever he or she chose, and to pursue whatever work he or she chose to pursue.

So in the first place, no more slavery for, as you say, these many tens of thousands of people who had escaped in response to a British offer. Secondly, however, and this was very important in Nova Scotia, they were also going to acquire land. And bearing in mind they'd been property in the south, of course, they'd been part of the land - this was an incredible change in their fortunes. But it was a change that was full of complicated heartbreaks, too.

CHIDEYA: There was the promise of 40 acres and a mule in the United States, which never got fulfilled. Tell us about British Freedom and what kind of land he had.

Professor SCHAMA: Interesting to say, because it is exactly 40 acres -with or without a mule. He could have used the mule that he had. The trouble was two- fold. One, it was the other people and the other loyalists who went with you into exile at the end of the Revolutionary War, white loyalists who went with their own slaves. Very, very important to know, that the British did not do this out the milk of human kindness, they were doing it out of military expediency, for the most part. And the deal on offer, was a deal to slaves leaving rebel plantations.

Many thousands of rebel-owned slaves, including Washington's own slaves and Patrick Henry's own slaves took the deal. But if you belonged to a loyalist, there wasn't any deal. So when they're on the ships going to New York Harbor to Nova Scotia, for example, in 1783, there were white loyalists - still with their own slaves - who did not like the fact there was a population of at least 3,000 free blacks going with them.

So once they were in Canada, the white loyalists did everything they could - first of all, to prevent the free blacks from spreading the message of liberty to their own slaves, and secondly, to stop the free blacks from getting land in a timely way. The reason for that was, they wanted a cheap labor source. They wanted these blacks to be depressed to such a position of desperation, that they were forced to indenture themselves as servants or to work for almost nothing, on farms and roads.

Secondly, not to make a huge lecture of it, despite the fact I'm a professor, the land is tough. Have you ever been to Nova Scotia, Farai?

CHIDEYA: You know, I actually haven't, but I have met black people from Nova Scotia, and I sometimes thought to myself, where did they come from.

Professor SCHAMA: Yeah - no, they're still very much a presence. I was going to say, if you know the land, it's not just blue spruce, but maple and pine, and it's tough land.

CHIDEYA: It's cold, right?

Professor SCHAMA: It's also cold. But even before it gets cold, need… If you're being dumped on the forest - and inevitably, what a surprise, the blacks got the most difficult land to farm - you needed oxen to really clear… Once you cut the trees down, you needed oxen to clear the stumps to make it cultivable. To rent oxen or to buy them, you needed time and you needed credit, and that's what they didn't get.

CHIDEYA: Did the Founding Fathers ever see the irony in their quest for freedom, when they were surrounded, on all sides, by slavery.

Professor SCHAMA: Well, they did. I mean, the one thing you absolutely have to give the Founding Fathers, with almost no exceptions, is that they're very candid in letters to each other, about the position they're in at the beginning of the revolution.

There is an extraordinary letter, from Patrick Henry to the Philadelphia abolitionist, Anthony Benezet - a wonderful man, a Quaker - in which Patrick Henry attacks slavery. As a man of the 18th century Enlightenment, he knows it's repugnantly inconsistent for him to be shouting on about liberty and how they're slaves of King George III, while owning slaves. And he joins the battle against the abomination of slavery.

But guess what? At the end he says, well, my dear - and I'm paraphrasing, forgive me the ghost of Patrick Henry - says, my dear friend, you'll understand that there might seem to be a little inconsistency in my position. I confess there is, he says, with a disarming candor. But I also confess I simply cannot do without the convenience. What a terrible word to use about owning humans.

Jefferson is more schizophrenic. Washington has always been a little more conflicted. But the fact is - it's more interesting, I suppose - to say what about people in the North like John Adams, who are more authentically liberal in their feeling about race? Well, people like John and Abigail Adams knew two things. One, the British are rumored, in the black population, to be coming to fight a war to free them. That's what many of the blacks believe. That's why that slave recalled himself British Freedom.

And secondly, that they have got a war to fight against the British, and they cannot do it by themselves, without the help of the south. And if it means that they have to really postpone, as some of them say, the issue of what one of them called the accursed thing, slavery, so be it. So it's a Faustian bargain, isn't it?

CHIDEYA: So own group's freedom pitted against another one?

Professor SCHAMA: Yes, exactly. We have to go for our American freedom right now. And never mind if we have to do it with this gigantic, hypocritical blot on our conscience. We will settle that later. But of course, later, becomes the Civil War.

CHIDEYA: In your book, you quote Frederick Douglas, and have a little Daguerreotype of him. And it says: “Histories never conclude, they just pause their prose. Their stories, like the one just told, are truthful, untidy affairs.” And I think that's what you're talking about. But you have so many fascinating characters in this history.

We briefly mentioned Harry Washington, who was Washington's slave who fought for the British, British Freedom. And give us a little sense briefly of Boston King.

Professor SCHAMA: Boston King is a slave who belongs to a racehorse breeder in Colonial North Carolina - I hope I'm right about that, certainly in the south. And he escapes and he joins the British Army, almost certainly is a black pioneer, which meant he was a sapper - he built bridges and fortifications, a sort of, military engineer - along with many others. And he ends up - he goes to England and he writes an absolutely precious memoir. This is the first time we can hear African Americans in their own voices, who have a sense of what politics were. I mean, it's an amazing generation.

And he tell us, in May 1783, that when peace happened, everybody was inclined to celebrate, he said, except us. Because there were slave capturers all through New York, who were out to return the slaves - who were now free and had taken protection with the British - back to their owners in Virginia and North Carolina.

So King ends up in Nova Scotia, he ends up very poor. He knows… He ends up as a fisherman, a salmon fisherman. But he survives and he makes it all the way back to Sierra Leone, to this self-governing, free black commonwealth in Africa - that the British create, really, for these people.

CHIDEYA: Now how well did things work out for people in Sierra Leone and - give us the story, too, of John Clarkson.

Professor SCHAMA: Yeah, if we want to find the place where African Americans first create their free - first free black schools; first free black churches; first politics, really; this is where we find it. Because, the rest of the escaped slaves, of course, have to go back to slavery and the plantation South, or become free in the American North.

But if you want to see the authentic of what would become black politics, so saturated with the inspirational rhetoric of the church, you go to, ironically, to the people who were the British. But one of them was a sergeant in the British Army called Thomas Peters. And he's so angry about the betrayal of these people and not getting their land in a timely way. He makes it all the way back to London and puts the complaints of the blacks who fought with the British, to the abolitionists, and indeed, to the British government.

And they send him back, together with a man called John Clarkson, who's a young, greenhorn, 27-year-old naval lieutenant, very brave and very neurotic. I mean, I always describe him as a cross between Russell Crowe in Master and Commander, and Woody Allen. And Clarkson goes back to Nova Scotia with an offer, to say that if you want to stay here, we'll find a way to get to your land. If you want to leave, the government will subsidize - well, won't subsidize it - will pay you for your transport back across the Atlantic Ocean.

We'll deliver land to you in Sierra Leone. We'll create Freetown for you, and this will be your own black, self-governing commonwealth. And that's what happened for 1,200 blacks who chose to accept that offer. Sold their land, which they'd endured terrible hardship, finally to get, in Nova Scotia, for the hope of an African utopia.

CHIDEYA: And finally, what is the good side? What is worth all the pain and tragedy of this complicated tale, of what you call the first act of the Civil War?

Professor SCHAMA: That's really easy to say, I think. It is the incredibly moving spectacle of people who'd been slaves, discovering how they could become a community. You find solidarity between the preachers and their flock. You find schoolteachers teaching little black boys and girls. You find, for example, the first elected black juries, in Sierra Leone. You find a life in freedom, that people who'd been slaves are capable of making.

And that memory doesn't disappear. Blacks back in America, like David Walker, know about this story. Frederick Douglas learns about the story. It's not entirely in vain. And it remains, I think, a torch for future generations of black self-determination.

CHIDEYA: On that note, thank you, Professor, Schama.

Professor SCHAMA: You're very welcome.

GORDON: That was NPR's Farai Chideya with Historian Simon Schama. His new book is Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves, and the American Revolution. To learn more about the book and to hear an excerpt, visit our Web site at

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