Review: Rough Crossings, Simon Schama; or, how to feel decidedly unpatriotic on 4th of July Weekend

What now? 4th of July weekend was ages ago and I am the laziest book blogger ever for only getting around to posting about Rough Crossings: The Slaves, the British, and the American Revolution at the start of August? Fair point. In my defense, I read this book all in one weekend, and if you haven’t been carting a book around on the subway for several days, it hardly even feels like a book you read at all! So I forgot about it. And that’s really not my fault. Because of the subway thing.

(No, you’re the lamest excuse ever. Shut up!)

A colleague of mine recommended this book because I was wanting to read about Liberia. My colleague said, “Too bad you don’t want to read about Sierra Leone! because then you could read Rough Crossings, which is very interesting, and really, Sierra Leone and Liberia have a lot in common.” So I decided that in the absence of a resoundingly awesome book about Liberian history, I could read a book about Sierra Leonean history instead.

Here is what happened (probably everyone but me already knew this): When the American Revolution started, the British promised all American slaves that they would be given their freedom if they would desert to the British side. Accordingly, many American slaves flocked to the British side, and the British — who I guess didn’t think this through very clearly — had no place to put them. During the war, lots of former slaves got sick and died in the British army camps. After the war, the British sorted out rather crappy accommodations in Nova Scotia; eventually somebody got a bad conscience and came up with the idea of moving any former slaves who wanted to go to Sierra Leone, where Britain had a small settlement already.

I found the first two-fifths of this book, about the American Revolution, pretty depressing. 4th of July, never my favorite holiday, seemed hollow and empty, and I kept thinking grim thoughts about “created on the backs of slaves” and the three-fifths compromise and other unsavory chapters in our nation’s history. Moreover, the American Revolution — oh dear, like most of American history! — bores me to tears. But when they started the Sierra Leone Company, I perked right up.

Cynic that I am, I am greatly suspicious of anyone in a history book who seems like a genuinely and consistently good, moral person. But from what I can tell, the British man who oversaw the settlement of Freetown was a genuinely, consistently good, moral guy. John Clarkson. He went out of his way to ensure the settlers’ comfort on the passage over, so that they would not be reminded of the misery of the passage from Africa, and he himself sailed on the crappiest boat. He kept his promises to the settlers even when doing so got him in trouble with the colony’s governors. He wanted to know when things were hard for the settlers, and he listened to them. And totally ruined his health looking after the fledgling colony, poor lamb.

I resignedly await evidence that John Clarkson was a prat. I only have Simon Schama’s opinion to go on here. Go ahead, you can tell me. He feathered his nest by stealing from the former slaves. He took sexual advantage of the women in the settlement, like Jim Jones. He brutalized anyone who dared to question his authority. I’m sure there was something that happened that means I cannot love John Clarkson after all. I can never love anybody. Everyone but my mumsy and daddy have feet of clay.

Also read by:

Rhapsody in Books

Anyone else?

16 thoughts on “Review: Rough Crossings, Simon Schama; or, how to feel decidedly unpatriotic on 4th of July Weekend

  1. To me, one of the many important points of this excellent book is that between eighty thousand and one hundred thousand slaves left the plantations during the war. Schama’s detailed documentation about this mass flight, called the Revolutionary War’s “dirty little secret,” puts lie to the myth of the happy slaves who played no role in our nation’s founding.

    Re John Clarkson, I don’t see why you can’t believe in him. After all, it’s not like he served in Congress, where all the guys with clay feet seem to have gravitated since the founding…

    • It’s just that all people everywhere have feet of clay. Even good people aren’t perfect. And the way they aren’t perfect always seems to be something really rotten instead of something little like failing to declare things on their taxes. So I feel like John Clarkson probably has a thing.

  2. I know absolutely nothing about this subject, and though I think I would find the first bits of the book a little dry, the rest of it sounds interesting and hopeful. It’s also good that Clarkson wasn’t a scoundrel and that he didn’t take advantage where almost everyone else had. Very thoughtful review. You’ve convinced me that I may need to give this book a chance. Thanks!

    • I hope you like it! You can skip through the beginning parts, I think, and get right to the awesome stuff — if you get confused, there’s always Wikipedia to help you and explain things. 🙂

  3. I had no idea that any of this happened. I have such gaps in my historical knowedge.

    I like the sound of John Clarkson. I hope you never uncover any evidence that he wasn’t a sterling character.

    Also, I’m currently posting reviews of books I read at the end of April. So I think I win the slacker blogger award, dubious honour that it may be.

    • If I do discover anything bad about John Clarkson, I’m going to post about it. Because otherwise I’d feel like I was concealing evidence. Want me to use a code post title so that you won’t have to know about it? A code post title that means “Memory, don’t read this, it will only make you sad”?

  4. If you really feel like feeling cynical, you can always take the view that of all the people In History there is only one nonprat! Or something like that.

    I think I would only read the latter half of this book, since I’m not a person who delights in reading about wars and John Clarkson sounds worthy of being read. Or maybe I’ll just let you read it 🙂

    • I don’t like feeling cynical! I very much prefer to feel that people are good and their intentions are honest. I really do. They just keep proving me wrong.

    • I feel the same! All the little pockets of knowledge of whose existence I am totally unaware, and they are just out there waiting for me to stumble upon them. Yay.

  5. I did not know this bit of history either. The fact that the British asked the slaves to desert rings a bell but everything after is not familiar. Thanks for the review of the book!

  6. I did know about this period in history but I’ve not read this book. I’ve read others by Schama and enjoyed them. This one does sound good. Thanks for this review.

    For all their faults, and there certainly were many — take a look at what the Declaration of Independence has to say about Native Americans– I’ll take our founding fathers over just about anyone’s. Look what happened in France after their revolution or how badly the Soviet revolution ended. America got very lucky by comparison.

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