Thursday, February 19, 2009

A question of loyalty: Rough Crossings (Books read in 2009)

This was on my library to-read list for this year, and it was with some satisfaction that I ticked it off as read, all 399 pages of it. Whew. History books aren't always on my free-reading list.

But I'm really glad I read this one. It may have been long, but it wasn't tough reading. Simon Schama knows how to bring characters to life--and that can be tough when they all seem to be guys in white wigs.

What happened to the fairly large black population in the Thirteen Colonies--free blacks, escaped slaves, and people who were still "owned"--during and after the American War of Independence?

I realize that I'm reading this book from a different perspective than a lot of you. In my school lessons, the Loyalists were (more or less) the good guys--after all, without them, Canadian history would have been very different. (This book contains a fair amount of Canadian history as well as British and American, particularly the parts about black loyalists attempting to settle in Nova Scotia.) Some Americans might get quite annoyed with the idea that some of the most famous Patriots seem to have done the most to hold back the rights of black Americans; as the book points out, they emphasized Liberty, but that didn't necessarily include people of colour. Simon Schama seems like the perfect historian to try and cover this part of the story without bias on either side: he's from the U.K. but teaches at Columbia University.

As the New York Times review said, the book gives you a good look at how the American Revolution got all tangled up with British abolitionism. It's about making promises and then having no idea how you're going to keep them. Mainly, in this case, to the great numbers of free blacks and escaped slaves who fought for the British during the War of Independence, after being promised freedom and/or land in return for their loyalty. It's about who qualifies as citizens, or subjects, with all the rights and freedoms that go along with that status--and what happens when a group of people insist on those rights even if it's inconvenient.

It's about finding someone to blame when things go wrong.

Well, the British never figured on losing the war, right?

I like the New York Times review of this book; I think it summarizes most of the main points of the book pretty well. The Amazon reviews are more mixed, but they're harder to take seriously; some of the low-scoring reviews seem to be based on incorrect information, such as the idea that Great Britain had actually passed a law against slavery by the time the Revolution started. That misunderstanding actually caused some of the problems during the war itself: there was a court case which made transporting a slave out of the country (against his will) illegal; this gave a lot of people the impression that slavery had been outlawed in Britain, which wasn't technically true.

In the end, I don't think anybody really comes out as Superman in this story. Granville Sharp and John Clarkson come pretty close, at least if good intentions count for something. But even they had their blind spots and made mistakes.

I found the book to be--amazingly--very fair and respectful to people (both black and white) with strong Christian beliefs. In our current age there is a tendency to downplay the influence that religious beliefs have on history; in this case, that would be almost impossible since Christian faith--though in many varieties--motivated many of the key people in this story. It makes a good, although perhaps unintended, point that just belonging to the right church or holding a certain set of beliefs doesn't always mean that someone will make the right decisions, act intelligently, or even show compassion.

Highly recommended reading for homeschooled highschool students, and anyone else.

1 comment:

christinethecurious said...

This sounds interesting, I'll see if our library has a copy.

-Christine in Massachusetts