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?