Humdrum Selfishness

Nicholas Guyatt

  • Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution by Simon Schama
    BBC, 448 pp, £20.00, September 2005, ISBN 0 563 48709 7

Ever since Samuel Johnson’s icy comment of 1775 – ‘How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?’ – British observers have felt a little sour about the American Revolution. For Tories like Johnson, the colonists were ungrateful wretches who had squandered the precious gift of British liberty. Worse, they had the temerity to crow about it, arguing that the American Revolution had purified their political inheritance. But British accusations of American hypocrisy foundered on the unsettling realisation that the colonists were justified in their complaints. From Edmund Burke to Richard Price, observers across the political spectrum struggled to see much evidence of British liberty in the crass mismanagement that led to the Revolution. Some even followed Jefferson, who in the first draft of the Declaration of Independence blamed Britain (and its controlling interest in the slave trade) for the introduction and persistence of slavery in America.

Simon Schama thinks that this silence about America’s founding paradox has lasted far too long. Americans have been allowed to generate their own creation myths, which marginalise the contradiction between liberty and slavery in the Revolutionary era. Take the Mel Gibson movie The Patriot, which shows a South Carolina planter with a black ‘employee’ who willingly joins a Patriot militia and takes arms against the British. Have a look at the many high-school or college textbooks in the US in which slavery is depicted as a peripheral aspect of the Revolution, but a central feature of America’s difficult journey towards freedom and equality in the antebellum period. These stories sustain a cherished myth about American history: that the Revolution was the first stage in a process which resulted in freedom being granted to everyone in the United States, and that this process (though gradual and contested) was both hermetic and successful. Americans eventually acknowledged the propriety of universal freedom, and redeemed the promise of the Revolution in the fires of the Civil War.

But exposing this myth is only a part of Schama’s project: having knocked American liberty off its pedestal, he wants to install British freedom in its place. Rough Crossings presents Britain as the ‘deliverer’ of African Americans in the Revolutionary era, and produces three episodes to sustain this unusual argument. First, in the years before the American Revolution, British anti-slavery campaigners worked to free black slaves in England who had been brought back from the Caribbean by their masters. These efforts culminated in the Somerset decision of 1772, a legal circumlocution which may not actually have ended slavery but which persuaded a good many people – planters included – that it had done. During the Revolution itself, the loyal British governor of Virginia, the Earl of Dunmore, offered the slaves of Patriot farmers freedom in return for military service. Dunmore’s strategy was taken up by other British commanders, and thousands of African Americans secured their liberty before the war’s conclusion. Finally, in the post-Revolutionary period, the British evacuated freed slaves as well as whites to Canada, the Caribbean and even to Britain. When some black Loyalists experienced hardship in their new surroundings – especially in crowded London and in the harsh climate of Nova Scotia – British philanthropists created the colony of Sierra Leone. Schama’s three examples offer a clear contrast with the new United States. While Britain was abolishing slavery at home, freeing slaves in the Revolutionary War and providing ‘a meaningful degree of local law and self-government’ in Sierra Leone, Americans were building a new republic that protected Southern slavery and marginalised free blacks in the Northern states.

Did Britain do a much better job than America of advancing black freedom between 1770 and 1800? British and American anti-slavery campaigners faced very different situations. In 1787 – when Americans drafted their constitution, and British philanthropists dispatched the first settlers to Sierra Leone – there were perhaps 15,000 black people in Britain, out of a population of nearly 10 million. In the United States, around 750,000 black people (90 per cent of them slaves) lived alongside three million or so whites. In other words, almost 20 per cent of the American population was black, and just 0.15 per cent of the British population. In Britain, slavery was a moral and an economic problem: by the 1780s, the moral argument against slavery had largely been won, and so anti-slavery campaigners could attack the economic argument that West Indian plantations were essential to the success of the British Empire. In America, by contrast, slavery was a political and social problem. What would happen if more than half a million slaves were suddenly freed? The received wisdom of many observers in the early republic, from Jefferson to Tocqueville, was that blacks and whites would engage in a genocidal war.

Before the Abolition Act of 1833, Britain had managed to externalise the social dangers of slavery while retaining the profits. British ships dominated the slave trade in the 18th century, and slave-produced sugar anchored the British economy from the 1640s until at least 1815. Even the planters of the Caribbean opted for absentee ownership, distancing themselves from the social consequences of their avarice. The American plantocracy, by contrast, enjoyed the benefits of slavery in uncomfortable proximity to its black victims. Schama overlooks the divergent contexts of slavery in the Atlantic world, and tells a simpler story of British vision and courage against American foot-dragging.

Rough Crossings is divided into two parts, each named after an exceptional Englishman who exemplifies ‘the promise of British freedom’. The first half introduces Granville Sharp, a pioneer in London’s anti-slavery movement before the American Revolution and a leading member of the Clapham Sect (other members included William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson, who orchestrated the British campaign against the slave trade). Sharp was a bundle of energy and full of contradictions. He pestered the powerful to address the difficulties facing London’s black population, but also entertained London society with a series of musical extravaganzas staged on board a barge on the Thames. He espoused radical views about black political ability and British imperial policy, but maintained an eccentric enthusiasm for the Anglo-Saxon form of government known as Frankpledge, a relic from the period before the Magna Carta that he hoped to export to Sierra Leone.

The other English hero of Rough Crossings is John Clarkson, brother of Thomas, a navy officer who had spent his early career in the Caribbean without displaying any qualms about slavery. On returning to Britain in 1783, however, he was swept up in his brother’s campaigns. At the suggestion of Sharp, Clarkson volunteered in 1791 to collect disgruntled black Loyalists from Nova Scotia and transfer them to Africa. Having persuaded more than a thousand to make the dangerous journey, he led the fleet of migrants across the Atlantic then spent a year as governor of Sierra Leone. Clarkson, Schama suggests, was a man of spotless motive and courageous actions, a servant of the empire who nonetheless believed in a freedom that eclipsed Britain’s imperial ambitions. Rough Crossings is at once a celebration of the British liberty that inspired the careers of these two men, and a scathing indictment of the racism and hypocrisy of Revolutionary America. Good men like Sharp and Clarkson put their lives at risk for Africans, while Americans bleated about the British role in the slave trade or scrambled to defend their property from the strategic abolitionism of Lord Dunmore. Schama even manages to present the American Revolution, in the South at least, as being waged ‘first and foremost to protect slavery’, an audacious claim.

His contrast between a Britain of eccentric abolitionists and an America of tyrannical slaveholders doesn’t ring true. Granville Sharp was an enthusiastic member of an Atlantic movement against slavery, corresponding avidly with Quakers such as Anthony Benezet of Philadelphia, and drawing inspiration from the progress made by American campaigners. Schama notes that Sharp and Benezet corresponded but never acknowledges the extent of the American anti-slavery movement and its close links with Britain. Instead, he indicts Jefferson, Adams and Franklin for hypocrisy and their ‘school playground plea’ that the British bore a share of responsibility given their maintenance of the slave trade. Schama fails to mention that Sharp agreed with the Americans.

In the early 1770s, a number of American colonial legislatures asked the British government to curb the slave trade to America, fearing that an increase in the black population would threaten the social order. But Lord North’s administration refused, preferring to protect the profits of Britain’s slave-trading monopoly. Schama admits that this was shabby behaviour; Sharp was incensed. In a letter to the bishop of London in 1795, which does not appear in Rough Crossings, Sharp held Britain directly accountable for the maintenance of the slave trade in America. In 1772, the Pennsylvania legislature had requested the imposition of prohibitive duties on imported slaves, and imagined that a British government ‘in all other cases so remarkably sanguine’ about new American taxes would concur. But colonial legislatures from New England to Virginia

were unhappily mistaken, for this seasonable attempt to discourage the crying national sin was rejected: so that the guilt of persisting in that monstrous wickedness demands indeed an atonement, or repentance, but not from America. Soon afterwards, I was desired, by a letter from America, to inquire for an answer to the Virginia Petition; and I waited on the secretary of state, and was informed by himself, that the petition was received, but that he apprehended no answer would be given. – Thus I had traced the evil to its source.

This was hyperbole. When Jefferson tried the same thing in the first draft of the Declaration of Independence, even the Continental Congress thought it imprudent to hold Britain entirely responsible for Amer-ican slavery. But Sharp’s anger is a telling omission from Rough Crossings. Here and elsewhere, Schama sustains his big idea about British freedom at the expense of a full reckoning of the complexities and commonalities of Atlantic slavery.

Schama’s account of the War of Independence is similarly frustrating. Rough Crossings briefly acknowledges that the motives of Lord Dunmore and his successors were not pure, and that many slaves who sought to redeem the promise of British freedom were frustrated in their attempts by disease or military expediency. But the force of these chapters is to suggest that the actions of the British had a transformative effect on the cause of African American liberty during the Revolution. Schama persuasively argues that slaves themselves transformed a battle between white people over political rights into a black revolution of sorts. (Steven Hahn recently made the same point about the role of slaves in the American Civil War.[*]) But given the mixed motives and inconsistency of British commanders, Schama’s repeated insistence on Britain’s formative role in all this is perplexing. What was British about the freedom that Southern slaves sought or achieved?

The book presents several examples of slaves who named their children after Dunmore, offered praise to the distant king or identified themselves as Britons whenever their free status was challenged. But the actions of the British during the Revolution did not demonstrate a consistent or durable commitment to black freedom. Lord Dunmore and his successors refused to free the slaves of Loyalists, which meant that many thousands of black Americans were excluded. The British also pursued an aggressive policy of sequestering slaves from Patriot plantations, effectively seizing black people before they could volunteer for service and pressing them into fortifying the British defences at Charleston and Savannah. These sequestered slaves were also denied their liberty at the war’s end, and were either abandoned to the Patriots or expropriated by Loyalist planters as compensation for slaves that they claimed to have lost. Schama occasionally acknowledges this bleaker story, but carefully arranges his sources to present the British in the best possible light.

His triumphal narrative of British freedom concludes in a joyous scene: in New York Harbour in 1783, thousands of freed slaves burst into song as they boarded British vessels taking Loyalists (black and white) into permanent exile. Rough Crossings dwells on the contrast between dejected whites and their elated black peers, but makes only fleeting reference to the very different departures that were underway in Charleston and Savannah. While some lucky African Americans sailed from New York with their freedom, thousands more left these Southern ports as slaves of Loyalist masters. Virtually all of them had worked for the British cause during the war, but now they were bound for slavery in the West Indies and elsewhere. Some of them ended up in the Bahamas, where they soon encountered a familiar figure: the Earl of Dunmore became governor in 1786, and the ‘patriarch of a great black exodus’, as Schama describes him, spent the next decade propping up British slavery in the West Indies.

The second part of Rough Crossings presents the founding of Sierra Leone as the culmination of the British emancipationary effort during the American Revolution. Why did white philanthropists believe it was necessary to remove blacks to Africa, rather than to help them consolidate their position in Britain and Canada? Schama explains that the black Loyalists fell into poverty on their arrival in London, and that white philanthropists proposed African colonisation as a more durable alternative to British charity. Black immigrants were certainly disadvantaged by the fact that poor relief in late Hanoverian England was dependent on membership of a particular parish. (The new arrivals needed to work for a full year to become eligible.) In this respect, the experience of blacks in London paralleled the difficulties of Irish or Scottish itinerants in English cities. But the sight of hundreds of poor blacks ‘swarming’ through the streets of London (as a report by the Sierra Leone Company later had it) was also distorted by the lens of race. Schama says very little about this, and leads the reader away from the awkward suspicion that a well-financed effort by white people to send black people to Africa constituted a form of segregation.

For a book about African Americans and the white people who took an interest in them, Rough Crossings is remarkably taciturn on the subject of race. This seems deliberate. Schama’s depiction of ‘British freedom’ encompasses anti-slavery, white philanthropy and even racial equality. The problem with this is that white proponents of anti-slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries (in Britain and America) could only rarely bring themselves to accept the idea of equality within a multiracial society. But a keen reader of Rough Crossings might easily conclude that British campaigners had overcome this prejudice by 1787, and that the removal of loyal blacks to Africa demonstrated the expansive ambitions of British freedom.

The Sierra Leone that Schama describes was built on good intentions but progressively undermined by humdrum selfishness. Sharp’s original commitment to black autonomy in Africa was undone by the difficulties of creating a new settlement in the rainy season. By 1790, he could salvage his plans only by turning the colony over to the Sierra Leone Company, a commercial venture with different priorities and a diminished view of black capability. John Clarkson revived the spirit of Sharp’s original plan by leading the Nova Scotian emigration to Africa in 1792, but the following year he was sacked by the company bean counters. By 1800, when the British put down a black rebellion against white rule, the promise of Sierra Leone’s early years had largely evaporated. But the memory of those times – and the reality of the free black settlement created by Sharp and Clarkson – transcended both the British empire which succeeded it and the American slavery from which these lucky exiles had been delivered.

This story of promises kept and promises betrayed conceals the more ambiguous elements of Sierra Leone’s creation. The idea of an African colony for freed slaves was one of a series of radical experiments devised by British philanthropists and imperial administrators in the decades after the Seven Years’ War. Would it be possible for Britain, in Christopher Brown’s provocative phrase, to envision an empire without slavery?[†] Sharp was one of many theorists who believed that it was, and Sierra Leone – like similar proposals to create free-black British colonies in Florida or Honduras – was designed to reconcile abolitionism and imperialism. On the peripheries of the empire, abolition might consolidate British control over contested areas. Lord Dunmore, before he settled in the Bahamas in 1786, suggested using the slaves of Loyalists to snatch Florida or Louisiana from Spain, once more promising freedom in return for military service. (Dunmore’s implausible goal was to create a south-eastern Loyalist outpost that could, in combination with Canada, squeeze the United States into imperial submission.) Sierra Leone, meanwhile, would link Britain with the African interior, encouraging commerce in goods rather than people, and providing a place to which illicitly traded Africans could be returned by the navy. Schama presents Sierra Leone as a noble effort that was distorted and ultimately betrayed by the dictates of imperialism, but what’s interesting about the British anti-slavery movement is just how comfortable it was with the idea of empire.

Sharp learned this lesson the hard way. In 1783, when he first became interested in a West African colony, he weighed up the advantages of a British commercial connection and chose instead to found an independent settlement, principally because he wanted to tinker with the social and political systems of the new colony without the formal interference of the British state. (Hence his interest in imposing Frankpledge – or even the ‘more ancient and perfect’ political models of the Old Testament – on the unwitting black colonists.) But the death or scattering of the original settlers within three years of the colony’s establishment in 1787 forced Sharp to reconsider. Fearing that his ‘ill-striven swarthy daughter’ might collapse entirely if it remained outside the empire, he became a committed advocate of a commercial colony under a royal charter. The marriage of abolitionism and imperialism was consummated in 1791 with the creation of the Sierra Leone Company. Along with other prominent members of the Clapham Sect, Sharp raised more than £300,000 to underwrite the operations of the colony. Even Sharp and Clarkson imagined a subordinate place for freed blacks in a refigured British empire and, before 1800, Sierra Leone remained firmly in the hands of white rulers. Clarkson, during his brief tenure as governor, alienated black settlers, who believed that their relocation to Africa would open the way to meaningful participation in their own government. There were, to be sure, better and worse whites, but an underlying assumption of black subjectship determined the thinking both of the British government and of the merchant-philanthropists who directed the company.

The company’s reports from the 1790s (which don’t appear in Rough Crossings) provide a window on the limits and ironies of anti-slavery imperialism. As problems piled up in Sierra Leone, and both the colony and the company failed to realise the returns that early boosters had promised, the directors in London were tempted to attribute all the problems to the ‘degraded’ black settlers. In particular, the efforts of the colonists to protest to the company – over broken promises, exorbitant rents and the high prices of imported goods at the company store – were presented as ‘unreasonable discontent’ which reflected the inability of the black settlers to control their tempers or to exercise good judgment. However, the very future of the company – and the anti-slavery imperialism it sought to advance – depended on the notion that blacks were neither hopelessly inferior to whites nor naturally fitted for slavery. Hence these reports shuttled between condemnation of slavery’s degrading effects on its victims and the insistence that black colonists ‘should neither be left without instructors from hence, nor without a government consisting of Europeans’. This was the paradox of British freedom for blacks in the decades after the American Revolution, and the story of Sierra Leone’s founding shows the gulf between anti-slavery imperialism and a commitment to racial equality.

Another surprising omission from Rough Crossings is the free-black population of the United States, which provides a yardstick against which to measure the progress of the black Loyalists under British rule. Except for a tendentious epilogue that enlists Frederick Douglass in support of Schama’s thesis, there is no reference to the hundreds of thousands of free blacks who chose to remain in the United States after 1776, rather than make for Canada, Haiti or the American colony of Liberia (a model of racial removal and colonial segregation that was inspired by Sierra Leone). One of them, James Forten, was a free black from Philadelphia who decided at the age of 15 to enlist on an American privateer during the Revolutionary War. Forten harassed British vessels with distinction until his ship was captured by HMS Amphion in October 1781. He was saved from the fate which would otherwise have befallen him – transportation to a British slave plantation in the Caribbean – by a friendship he quickly developed with the son of the Amphion’s British captain, John Bazely. Bazely was so impressed with Forten, and so taken with the bond between the black American and his son, that he made an unusual proposal: if young Forten would agree to give up America, he could return with the Bazelys to Britain and make his home there.

James Forten considered the offer, but opted to face the uncertainty of a prison ship rather than embrace British freedom. After a successful prisoner exchange in 1782, he travelled to Britain in the spring of 1784 as a sailor on a merchant vessel, and spent the better part of a year in and around London. But he returned to America, where he took up an apprenticeship in Philadelphia with a white sailmaker and became so good at his job that he eventually bought out his boss. (He was one of the free black businessmen on whom William Lloyd Garrison depended for loans, as the young editor struggled to establish his abolitionist newspaper, the Liberator, in the early 1830s.) Forten’s career hardly typifies free-black prospects in the new American republic, and his success coincided with the intensification of white prejudice towards free blacks in the Northern states. But his story reveals an African American struggle for liberty that rejected freedom on British terms. Forten initially saw promise in Sierra Leone, and toyed with the idea of promoting emigration to Africa as a solution to the problems of prejudice faced by free blacks in America. But along with other African Americans he became suspicious of the circumscribed freedom available to migrants in Sierra Leone and Liberia, and eventually insisted that blacks should stand their ground and fight for equality within the United States. Forten could have found little inspiration for this struggle in the story of Sierra Leone, a venture which placed the needs of anti-slavery imperialism before the challenge of racial integration.

Rough Crossings is exasperated by the parochialism of American history, but only offers a British substitute for it. For Schama, the American Revolution was the catalyst for a British anti-slavery movement that eclipsed and embarrassed the story of American freedom: ‘The genesis of African American liberty,’ Schama maintains, ‘is inseparable from the British connection during and after the war.’ But given the bleak record of white-governed societies on either side of the Atlantic in promoting racial equality, it would be better to concede that before the 20th century neither Americans nor Britons did a good job of extending their definitions of freedom and citizenship to non-white people.

[*] A Nation under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration (Harvard, 624 pp., £12.95, April 2005, 0 674 01765 x).

[†] In Black Experience and the Empire, edited by Philip Morgan and Sean Hawkins (Oxford, 432 pp., £15.99, May, 0 19 929067 9).