Human Traffic: Simon Schama brings the story of 18th-century slavery brilliantly to life in Rough Crossings, book review by James Walvin of the UK Guardian, 3 September 2005.
Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution
by Simon Schama
384pp, BBC Books, £20
Slavery has caught the public attention - at last. This past month alone three major BBC films have offered three hours' viewing into the squalid corners of the world of Atlantic slavery. And there is bound to be more, especially as we move towards the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in 2007. Yet even more remarkable is the way slavery was so marginal to mainstream intellectual and popular interests until relatively recently. For the British, slavery has long seemed a distant phenomenon; something that unfolded in Africa, the Americas or in the Atlantic. The fact that the British orchestrated much of slavery in the Atlantic by the mid-18th century went generally unnoticed. Today, that is no longer true and historians have come to recognise the centrality of African slaves in the shaping of the modern world by, say, the late 18th century. It is not surprising, then, that Simon Schama has turned his historical curiosity towards slavery, nor, given his earlier books, that he brings to it a verve and an imagination not found among other historians in the field.
Schama's story begins with the American revolution. Many of those who led America to independence were slave-owners. Jefferson and Washington both owned slaves, and both anguished over the morality of slavery. But they and their fellow revolutionaries were never able to establish black freedom as a principle of the new American republic. Slavery poisoned the ideals of American democracy from its birth, and created a troublesome political and social inheritance from that day to this. Whatever doubts America's slave-owning class displayed, there was no such doubt among the slaves themselves. They wanted freedom and had, for years, tried to seize it whenever the opportunity came their way. The possibilities had never been greater than in the wartime convulsion of the American revolution. In the mayhem of fighting, as the military manoeuvred across the rebellious colonies and as both sides jostled for advantage, thousands of slaves saw their chance. Many were seduced by the British promise of freedom, many by the simple chance to bolt in the wartime confusion. It seemed for a while that the American war would destroy American slavery. The Founding Fathers were not about to let that happen.
Oddly, among all the great upheavals caused by the revolution between 1776 and 1783, few were more painful, but less well remembered, than the fate of North American slaves. The revolution ultimately confirmed their bondage in the midst of American freedom. The reason was straightforward enough. Slavery had crept into all corners of American life, from its main home in tobacco and rice cultivation. It was ironic that the grand ideals of the revolution offered their greatest hopes to the slaves, but the revolutionary leaders had no intention of throwing their world into even greater chaos by freeing the very people whose toils brought them such wealth.
The slaves did not wait for the outcome of the war and the political argument. Many thousands simply voted with their feet, seduced by the prospects of freedom, and by offers from the British. But they chose the losing side. When the defeated British withdrew, thousands of former slaves found themselves herded on to British ships and relocated to Nova Scotia and London. Their miserable fate and protracted sufferings form the core of Schama's gripping new book.
The world of Atlantic slavery had, long before, been shaped by the brutal scattering of African peoples, mainly to the tropical and semi-tropical Americas, but also to any corner where the colonial powers demanded labour. It was a system that ensnared millions and which was, everywhere, lubricated by violence. But through it all, the slaves struggled to maintain some sort of independence and to seek their freedom. Those who found themselves under British control after 1783 did not want to go back to American bondage. But they could hardly have imagined what new miseries would soon come their way. Struggling to survive in the harsh Canadian winters or reduced to beggary in London, thousands had swapped American shackles for the cold poverty of freedom.
Throughout this extraordinary story there were groups of people anxious to care for them and to find them a suitable home. Unsung heroes (notably Granville Sharp, the defender of British black people for decades, and later - and especially - John Clarkson, Royal Navy captain) led a small band of Britons who fiercely protected black freedom. After prolonged discussions, Sierra Leone seemed an ideal place to resettle these uprooted refugees. Thus was created the Sierra Leone scheme, beginning in 1787, with expeditions packed with blacks from London and Nova Scotia, to create a new colony of freedom back "home" in Africa. The rosy expectations were, inevitably, grotesquely miscalculated, and few survived the initial settlement, though the colony began to thrive - albeit barely - after John Clarkson's Nova Scotia convoy arrived and settled.
It is too easy to dismiss the scheme as an attempt by colonial Britain to rid itself of troublesome free blacks. What Schama does is to undermine that view by teasing out the contribution and the objectives of the key white backers and actors, none more influential than Clarkson, brother of the great abolitionist Thomas.
Even in the history of Atlantic slavery, with its litany of excruciating black sufferings, this episode stands out for its mix of human failings and strength. Parts of the story have been well rehearsed by earlier historians, but never like this. One of Schama's great talents is the ability to fit together distinct episodes into a much broader and more telling narrative. He also brings to the story his characteristic flair and historical imagination. No other historian writes like Schama: he invests his books with a style that lifts his work above the ordinary run of academic history. He is also able, at every turn, to absorb the work of others and to say something new and eye-catching about it, whether writing about the American revolution, about the fate of ex-slaves in London and Nova Scotia, or about their terrifying ordeals at sea and in Africa. Schama has a remarkable ability to stare into the anonymous faces in the crowd and to pluck them from historical obscurity. Rough Crossings gives voice to people who have, until now, remained mere names on dusty lists.
It is easy to see why academic historians sometimes get shirty with Schama. For one thing, he is hugely successful and sells his books by the truckload. But this book is an example of why Schama deserves his status and success. To everything he writes he brings a global and a human vision which seduces readers. While other historians might scurry away to see if his evocative account of, say, the streets of London or of the terror of a mid-Atlantic storm might fit the facts, Schama's readers will remain gripped by the force of his writing.
In many respects the story Schama tells is already well known, but only by a very small band of scholars. Rough Crossings will make it familiar to an army of readers. It is a compelling story, and Schama tells it with typical panache. Other historians should step back and let him take the plaudits (and the dosh). In truth, he's an immense force for good in the understanding of history at large.
James Walvin's books include Black Ivory (Blackwell) and Britain's Slave Empire (Tempus)