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Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution

3.98  ·  Rating details ·  904 ratings  ·  107 reviews
Rough Crossings turns on a single huge question: if you were black in America at the start of the Revolutionary War, whom would you want to win? In response to a declaration by the last governor of Virginia that any rebel-owned slave who escaped and served the King would be emancipated, tens of thousands of slaves -- Americans who clung to the sentimental notion of British ...more
Hardcover, 496 pages
Published April 25th 2006 by Ecco / HarperCollins (first published September 8th 2005)
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Average rating 3.98  · 
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The Colonial
May 29, 2020 rated it really liked it
The lives and stories of both escaped and freed slaves are rarely covered in America’s history prior to the Civil War, and Simon Schama indulges the audience with a captivating history of their journeys and those most-ardent supporters who granted them a new world, livelihood, and an overall “pursuit” of happiness. Having read Schama’s prior works such as his monumental account of the French Revolution, Citizens, the casual reader may be hesitant in undertaking another drawn-out chronicle. Howev ...more
Gumble's Yard
Apr 16, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2007
Interesting take on the campaign for the abolition of slavery.

The central contention of the book is that in the American War of Independence, the British were seen by the black community as representing freedom and liberty.

At one point Schama provocatively claims that it was only when it became clear that the British were prepared to arm slaves to fight against the colonial uprising in the North East that the political uprising over representation and taxes became a full fledged war of indepen
May 26, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book is a handful, expect to be at it for awile.
History is turned on its head by this book, however when I say history I dont mean actual facts disproven, rather this IS factual history, just modern (American mostly) historys dont want to point out that huge numbers of there Black Slaves fled to freedom in the British lines, that long before the Civil War the British Empire (and others) were giving Blacks tracks of land, wages and freedoms there brothers and sisters in the America's could o
Apr 16, 2013 rated it really liked it
Another useful reminder that Americans like me shouldn't be too smug about being shining beacons of freedom throughout the world. Schama's book is ambitious, fascinating, and surprisingly easy to read.

Unmentioned in most American textbooks and popular histories, thousands of slaves and some free blacks took refuge with the British army and navy during the war. American slavery did much to unify British public opinion against the colonists, and it did much to unify colonial sentiment against the
John Devlin
Jun 11, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Starkly illuminating

The story of how American slaves sided with the English during the American Revolution.
The difficulty of that decision and the aftermath is spun in rigorous detail.

The moral ambiguities swell from the outset.
A black freeman in the Carolinas is unfairly branded a Tory, he is but he’s not guilty of the charges, he’s hanged an innocent man.
The twist, the martyred black man owned slaves.

Once the British are forced to leave North America the loyalist blacks come with them.
Soon af
Sep 04, 2010 rated it it was ok
Rough Crossings is a fascinating topic that poses the challenging question to an American audience, "Would America's free blacks and slaves have been better off if America had lost the War for Indpendence?" America's exceptionalism may have been more limited than it has preferred to consider.

The book was informative in describing the evolution of British domestic policy as well as the British offers to free slaves if they found their way to British positions (offerend not entirely out of enligh
In this work, Schama ascribes blame to all sides when presenting his case on the efficacy of the abolition of slavery: the British promised much, in a high-handed, and unpardonable arrogance, which they passed off as scrupulousness and caution; the Americans were drowning in their own irony: freedom and equality at any cost, except if your skin was dark, and somebody owned you.

Abolitionism, it turns out, was a veritable push-pull of conscience and convenience: occasionally, if it was economical
Jan 14, 2012 rated it it was amazing
No short review of Rough Crossings by Simon Schama could begin to do it justice. It is far too big a project, far too significant an achievement for any simple summary. It presents a momentous story, highly relevant to our own times, of partial emancipation for the enslaved. The book is not for the faint hearted. For a start there’s almost five hundred pages of detailed historical narrative, several distinctly prickly characters to meet and many direct quotes from contemporary documents, complet ...more
Oct 24, 2010 rated it it was amazing
This 2006 National Book Critics Award history covers the period from shortly before the Revolutionary War to 1847. Schama notes the hypocrisy between the Declaration of Independence and reality. Liberty did not apply to slaves and free blacks.

During the Revolutionary War the British promised that any slave crossing over its lines and agreeing to help their cause would be freed. Thousands of slaves crossed and were freed. The question after the war was what to do with these newly freed people? Sc
Jan 03, 2017 rated it liked it
This is an interesting history of the transport of blacks from Nova Scotia to a supposedly new home in Sierra Leone, following the end of the American Revolution.
These were blacks, mostly slaves, who fought for the British in the revolution, in return for promises of their freedom and protection by the British government.
When the British lost the war these blacks and thousands of white loyalists were taken to Nova Scotia. In Nova Scotia all the promises to the blacks were ignored and they were t
Jim B
Mar 27, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
If you are interested in the Revolutionary War and think you know the story of what happened, Rough Crossings offers you a chance to see the war from an important but usually unknown angle, and to see the issue of slavery in the world history narrative instead of just the Founding Fathers' struggle with forming a union and coming to terms with slavery.

I was amazed that I knew nothing about the British and their appeal to American slaves during the Revolution. Our histories always focus on t
Theo Logos
The myths we create about our past to edify our young and swell our national pride are nearly always noble and simple. History is much messier, often complicating our myths with inconvenient facts that ruin their simplicity and muddy their nobility. Simon Schama's book `Rough Crossings' is a case in point. It is the story of the slaves of the American patriots who were not included in the liberty that their masters fought for, or in the stirring phrases of the Declaration of Independence - slave ...more
Nov 28, 2011 rated it really liked it
This book subverted my expectations. The author eschews explanation of the slave trade, so I am still looking for a good book about Britain getting rich off of rum, sugar and slaves. I really don't recall much time spent on the American Revolution either. The book ultimately becomes the story of two British men and the former slaves they encounter. First we meet Granville Sharp, a late 18th Century civil servant who takes up the cause of Jonathan Strong, a slave who suffered horrific treatment f ...more
Czarny Pies
May 27, 2014 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: Canadians, Americans, British
Recommended to Czarny by: Saw the BBC production
Shelves: american-history
This quickly produced book based on the BBC Television series is surprisingly good considering what it is. In his younger days, when he still was willing to work for his pay, Simon Schama was a good as any historian at diving into the archives and emerging several years later covered in dust with a brilliant manuscript in his hand. In recent years, Schama has been keeping his fingers clean and relying on his insight. In the case of Rough Crossings this approach works well enough.

Rough Crossings
Feb 25, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is book is a five for those who are fascinated by black history, or social political history of the late 1700s in Europe. Can't say I'd recommend it to the average reader, but for the historical reader it's great.

Covers the rise of concerns about slavery in Britain, the British use of black people as workers and soldiers in the American Revolution, and their subsequent emigration to first Nova Scotia, and then Sierra Leone.

Schama is, as usual, brilliant and the stories are varied: good men
Sep 10, 2009 rated it really liked it
Schama's argument - that the American War of Independence is turned on its head when seen through the lens of African Americans - is an interesting one. That is, whilst the white ex-European Founding Fathers argued passionately for liberty and freedom for all, what they actually meant was freedom and liberty for all white ex-Europeans. Indeed, much of the fight was to perpetuate the enslavement of African American slaves on the plantations in the South, because the British had already started to ...more
Mar 18, 2011 rated it did not like it
For such a fundamental topic in the founding of America, the execution leaves much to be desired. Schama shows that the British slave and anti-slave movements were essentially carried over to the colonies and to the United States, with relatively little change in manner or degree. While that notion might have interesting implications for a separate study, Schama is content merely to report the fact without comment.

That's a shame; his reporting is horrendously boring. His prose is stuffy, his cha
Mar 28, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Somehow I've not read Simon Schama yet. Now I have...and now I will have to live to be 125 to read his other books. He is a detailed, engaging author.

The subtitle of this book begins to give the reader an idea of what it is about...something vaguely alluded to in all the books I've read about the American Revolution. Slaves who came over to the British side and fought their American masters were guaranteed freedom. This gives a completely different complexion (ha) to the American Revolution. The
Apr 12, 2009 rated it really liked it
Schama unabashedly, and provocatively, studies the past from a moral viewpoint. In Citizens, he lengthily propounds the thesis that the French Revolution’s violence was inherent from the very start and was not a perversion brought about by Jacobin terror. In this book, he seeks to introduce a discordant note in the traditional narratives of the American Revolution: Yes, it was a step forward in the story of freedom, but, no, it was a step back for American slaves who rushed to British lines afte ...more
Jared Cook
Aug 14, 2007 rated it liked it
Shelves: history
Fascinating story. As a lawyer I wanted more detail on the legal cases, but the story was well-told. Perhaps it was because I read this on an ipad instead of in print, but toward the second half/last quarter of the book, it began to be a bit of a slog. It felt a bit disorganized, like we were jumping around in the chronology, but without a clear topical thread to follow either. Maybe that's Schama's fault--as an art historian, I think he has a tendency to get so caught up in the drama of the sto ...more
David R.
On the plus side, this book brings into focus a little studied topic (changes in English thinking about slavery from the 1770s to the 1830s and especially the foundation of the Free Sierra Leone colony) and puts into context such episodes as Lord Dunmore's War and the assault on the slave trade. Unfortunately, the author paints this one in such a way that American attitudes, behavior, and antislavery efforts are largely dismissed and English equivalents over-lauded (Schama spends little time on ...more
D.J. Cockburn
Oct 09, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Schama follows the fortunes of slaves who fought for the British against the Revolutionary United States through the conflict itself, their subsequent resettlement in Nova Scotia and their recruitment to a model colony in Sierra Leone. It follows the lives of vastly different people, from the loyalist militias of the War of Independence to the abolitionists who opposed slavery in Britain to the shipmasters who betrayed the loyalists by selling them back into slavery. In spite of its broad scope, ...more
Carol Dobson
Jul 25, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Well written and very insightful.It was very interesting that black people in the United States saw the British King as their enemy's enemy, and therefore their friend. Schama exposes the contorted logic of the 18th century, describing George Washington as calling Dunmore "that arch traitor to the rights of humanity" because he promised to free slaves, whilst those who kept them enslaved were heroes of liberty.
Schama not only writes in a detailed, factual manner, but he also is very descriptive.
Judith Johnson
Oct 16, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A long and fascinating read which never palled, and I feel I have been educated about a part of history of which I was hitherto ignorant. Many thanks to Simon Schama for what must have been a huge labour of love in writing this book. Sad that Professor Lisa Jardine, who he dedicated the book to, has passed away this week. May she rest in peace.
Mar 12, 2009 rated it it was amazing
A great book, that looks at the American Revolution from another side, that of enslaved African Americans that find their liberty with the British.

Reminds me of Dr. Johnson's saying "Why do I hear the whelps of Liberty from the Slave Drivers of Virginia"
Dec 09, 2018 rated it really liked it
While this book covers the abolitionist movement in the Britain in late 1700’s, it has American slavery in its heart. Namely, it centers around the little-known or at least seldom-discussed side of the American revolution which is the fight over African-American slaves. While the battles for independence took place, a possibility of abolishing slavery was not in revolutionary rebels’ minds. It was British officer who saw an opportunity: Lord Dunmore, a British officer and acting governor of Virg ...more
Jan 18, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I found this book very interesting and riveting. It follows the lives of loyalists American Slaves that ran away to fight for the British in exchange for freedom; including one of George Washington’s slaves. The British promised freedom to any slaves that would fight on their side during the Revolutionary War.

The book tells the story of heroic blacks and whites who fought after the War for the freedoms promised by the British for their freedom which were slow to nonexistent in coming to fruitio
This book takes some reading, especially as an outsider with less than an adequate knowledge of American history. It is a tour de force of the subject and proposes many interesting questions. I had no idea of many of the facts I read here, for example about the successful return of a some freed slaves to Africa and the recruitment of slaves to the British side in the War of Independence. I have often wondered how a person in the current period feels when looking back and knowing that their ances ...more
Reader Variety
Mar 02, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history-us
Interesting study of the fate of slaves during the American Revolution, why many of them escaped to fight for the British, and what happened to them afterwards (including those who made it to Nova Scotia, only to be shipped to what we now know as Sierra Leone).

Some good writing here on the Brit-Americans who went to Canada - "Is there anything in the world more pitiable and yet more unappealing than obstinate arrogance confounded by defeat. Every day those people salted their soup with rancour."
Oct 13, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: other-books
This book was a bit of a slog, only because there were so many people mentionned. The Dramatis Personae was helpful. I believe this is an important book that should be read because it reveals a history that is little known. Nothing about the history of slaves ever came up in history classes; and yet, it's so important to acknowledge. It also makes us understand why it's important centuries later to try and preserve the story of the African Americans who had been shunted across the Eastern Seaboa ...more
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Simon Schama was born in 1945. The son of a textile merchant with Lithuanian and Turkish grandparents, he spent his early years in Leigh-on-Sea in Essex. When his parents moved to London he won a scholarship to Haberdashers’ Aske’s School where his two great loves were English and History. Forced to choose between the two he opted to read history at Christ’s College, Cambridge. Here he was taught ...more

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