§ion=&combo2=&text1=&text2=&SocNetUsername=&SocNetPassword=&authCode=& 7th Decade Thoughts: Rough Crossings by Simon Schama

7th Decade Thoughts

Thoughts about books, politics and history (personal and otherwise), pictures I've taken and pictures I've edited.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Rough Crossings by Simon Schama

This is a committed and passionate book about the long fight to outlaw the slave trade from Africa to the Americas and eventually to outlaw slavery itself. The focus is on Britain and on two Englishmen, one (Granville Sharp) who dedicated his life to ending slavery in the British Empire and the other (John Clarkson) who undertook a mission to settle ex-slaves in Sierra Leone where they could govern themselves. The historical sequence is this:

1. Granville Sharp championed blacks who were slaves or threatened with slavery and in 1772 the Lord Chief Justice Mansfield decided in favor of James Somerset in a decision that sent the word round the globe that “as soon as any slave sets his foot on English soil he becomes free”. That was not exactly what Mansfield ruled, but it was what we’d today call the “word on the street”. The concept of “British freedom” was born.

2. Note the date. The “street” included plantations in the American South where slaves took advantage of the American Revolution to flee to the British. Many fought with British troops and large numbers were transported, along with loyalist Americans, to Canada when the British military left. Nova Scotia, under-populated at the time, received large numbers. Black and white loyalists were promised land in Nova Scotia, but, not surprisingly, the whites were served first and best—though many of them were given far less than promised and they were dissatisfied as well. The blacks were thwarted at every turn and for many the only way to survive was to indenture themselves to whites in something that felt to them very much like slavery—and was.

3. In England, Granville Sharp and others began a campaign to send a number of free British blacks back to Africa. On the advice of a naturalist who had studied ants in the Banana Islands, Sierra Leone (for many years thereafter known as “white man’s grave”) was picked as a likely spot and a large area near the mouth of the river near the only natural harbor along the coast was obtained from the ruling chiefs (in some ways not propitious because of the proximity of a slave trading station on nearby Bunce Island). It was to be called the Province of Freedom. Their settlement was Granville Town.

4. In 1791 William Wilberforce introduced a bill in Parliament to abolish the slave trade to the West Indies and Wilberforce, Sharp and Thomas Clarkson and others formed the Sierra Leone Company to create another colony (Granville Town having been burned to the ground in fighting among slave traders, settlers and indigenous tribes) which would offer a home to the loyalist blacks in Canada who were desperate and disillusioned with “British freedom”. Clarkson’s brother, John, a Navy lieutenant without a ship, was sent to organize the expedition. He ended up with 15 ships and nearly 1200 black settlers, many ex-American slaves and a few natives of the place they were going to. One was a woman who claimed to be over 100, a member of Sherbro tribe, who’d been captured by slave traders as a girl and wanted to die in her native country. John Clarkson was young (in his 20ies still) and emotional. He was however capable, learned as he went, and developed a passionate attachment both to the project he championed and the black settlers under his charge. He commanded the fleet that left Halifax in January of 1792 on what was a very difficult passage (during much of which he himself was ill—so ill he was strapped in a shroud ready to be buried at sea when signs of life were noticed). Despite continued ill health, he stayed in Sierra Leone for the first year, always the champion of the settlers, often against the Company he worked for which was after all in it to make a profit. When he went home for leave, he was dismissed and sterner Christians (the father of English writer Macauley) took over and alienated the colonists but ended up supporting the growth and welfare of the Freetown (as the colony was called) which was turned over to the British government in 1808.

The colony turned out to be the first democratic settlement of free black men, where even women voted (if they were heads of household). Schama himself seemed as proud of them as either Sharp or Clarkson would have been and his prose is sprinkled with his commitment: “…they spoke like the founding fathers of a new black nation. It was their Philadelphia moment.” (p.392) Then there is this, about a settler whose name was British Freedom and who’d been an American slave, a warrior for the British in the Revolution, and eventually a rebel against the governors after Clarkson. With other rebels, British Freedom been banished to the Bulom Shore opposite Freetown: “And if he did indeed cling to that name, he could only do so by not crossing the river to Freetown. For he must have understood that he had had his day. Over there, no one had much use for British freedom any more. Over there was something different. Over there was the British Empire.” (p. 397)

Schama is, in my opinion, of one of the best writers of history because he is a stylist and a storyteller who is not afraid to involve readers passionately in his stories at the same time as he is scrupulous in his research. I think he does some injustice to the United States in the matter of slavery because after all it was the British who introduced slavery into the colonies and because the British passion for justice to blacks was, by and large, unencumbered by economic considerations—port cities in the west thrived on the slave trade but after that was abandoned, Britain itself was not economically tied to slavery the way the American South was. That it took so long to untangle the complex slavery question in the US is owing at least in part to the British who started it. But that’s an opinion and I fully grant that Schama blames Briton and the British wherever it’s called for, as for example, when he lists the different groups that settled Nova Scotia, including "...the dipthonged French from Maine across the Bay of Fundy in the early 1750s before the British, in a moment of strategic ethnic cleansing, deported the rest all the way south to Louisiana." (p.229) Posted by Picasa


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