Popular views of the American Revolution usually overlook one aspect of it that sharply contradicts the idealized image of a struggle for liberty against oppression. For the one fifth of the population that was African-American, freedom meant escape from slavery but not independence from Britain; those seeking emancipation were more likely to find it in places under British control than in territory held by white American revolutionaries. During the war thousands of slaves—estimates run as high as 80,000 to 100,000, or nearly a fifth of the total slave population—deserted their masters at least temporarily. Some simply vanished into the woods, swamps, and mountains of the South. But vast numbers crossed over behind British lines where those willing to join the struggle against the rebels were being offered their freedom as a reward for service to the Crown. Some of those who went to join the enemies of American independence were also inspired by somewhat misleading rumors that the British had abolished slavery. In a landmark legal decision of 1772 Lord Mansfield had decided that slaves brought to England could not be taken back to the colonies by their masters or sold for export. This ruling undermined slavery in Britain and soon led to its disappearance; but it did not affect black bondage elsewhere in the empire.1
For the British, welcoming and emancipating runaway American slaves was clearly a pragmatic policy and not an expression of principled hostility to slavery. Loyalists under British protection were permitted to keep or recapture their slaves, and hundreds of thousands of Africans would continue to toil in Britain’s Caribbean colonies for another half-century. Moreover, those who fled to the British side were not always well treated or cared for. Large numbers died from disease (especially smallpox, against which, unlike many of the British soldiers, they had not been vaccinated); others were simply left behind to face possible recapture and return to slavery when the British were forced to evacuate their troops by sea. But despite the perils and uncertainties that confronted them, approximately ten thousand slaves sought refuge with the British in Virginia alone after the royal governor, Lord Dunmore, proclaimed freedom for those willing to fight in November 1775. Thousands more came from the Carolinas and Georgia. At the end of the war, between 15,000 and 20,000 escaped slaves remained under British protection in the port cities that had not yet been evacuated, namely New York, Charleston, and Savannah.
In the peace agreement that ended the war a clause was added at the last minute giving the Americans the right to reclaim property that had fallen into British hands. When George Washington, who himself had lost slaves, appealed to Guy Carleton, the British commander in New York, to return the fugitives under his control to their owners, he was rudely rebuffed. Carleton argued that the runaway slaves who had been promised freedom by the British could no longer be considered property and that it would be dishonorable to permit their reenslavement. As a result of this policy roughly nine thousand freed slaves accompanied the last British forces to leave what was now the independent United States of America.
What happened to them subsequently is a complex and ultimately tragic story, one in which the former slaves made heroic efforts to gain freedom and dignity. Some of them were taken to England where most found themselves begging and starving in the streets of London. Not only were there very few jobs open to them but they did not even qualify for the relief offered destitute Englishmen under the Poor Laws, since they had not been born in an English parish. Seeing their plight, Granville Sharp, the founder of the British antislavery movement, who had recently helped to launch a campaign to abolish the slave trade, drew up a plan for colonizing them in Sierra Leone on the “Grain Coast” of West Africa. In 1787, 411 potential colonists, mostly black men but including a surprising number of white wives, set sail in three ships accompanied by a naval escort. Three hundred seventy-seven of the settlers survived the voyage, but of these 122 died in very short order, victims of disease and harsh climatic conditions. Those who survived experienced difficulties dealing with indigenous chiefs who had their own claims to the land the former slaves occupied and hoped to own.
Meanwhile a larger group of escaped slaves had been resettled in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick as part of the Loyalist population that found refuge there after the Revolution. But the blacks discovered that most of the land promised them remained in white hands, and the best many of them could do was become tenants of the white landowners under terms that resembled indentured servitude or debt peonage. In 1791 the Nova Scotian blacks sent one of their leaders, Thomas Peters, to London to seek help from British humanitarians. Peters managed to induce the patrons of the Sierra Leone colony to invite the discontented blacks in the Maritime Provinces of Canada to emigrate there. This plan promised better economic opportunities for the emigrants and a healthy infusion of population for the struggling colony.
Peters returned to Nova Scotia in the company of Lieutenant John Clarkson, on leave from the Royal Navy and brother of the prominent abolitionist William Clarkson. Between them, Peters and Clarkson recruited about 1,200 emigrants—roughly half of the entire black population of the Maritime Provinces—and in 1792 they set sail for Sierra Leone in thirteen ships. Despite severe storms on the Atlantic all the ships arrived and so did most of the passengers. As governor of the enlarged colony in its first year, Clarkson was generally fair and efficient, but his tendency to be paternalistic made some of the ex-slave inhabitants crave more freedom and self-government than he seemed willing to grant.
Before long, he had an angry confrontation with Thomas Peters, who may have felt, with some justification, that he was the Moses-like leader who had initiated and inspired this exodus and resettlement and should therefore have been accorded greater recognition and responsibility. After Clarkson returned to England in 1793, his successors proved much more authoritarian and contemptuous of the settlers’ desire for self-government than he had been. The result was dissatisfaction, unrest, and eventually open rebellion by some of the settlers against the rule of the Sierra Leone Company. By the late 1790s the colony had lost most of its original humanitarian character and had become, for the most part, a commercial venture directed from London rather than the example of black self-government that Granville Sharp originally had hoped for.
The three books under review all deal with these events, with differences in emphasis and in the amount of detail devoted to particular episodes. The backgrounds of the authors and their more general concerns as historians influence how they approach the common subject of blacks and the American Revolution. Cassandra Pybus is an Australian based at the University of Tasmania, who specializes in the history of African-Americans and the African Diaspora. Her Epic Journeys of Freedom concentrates on the personal histories of the runaway slaves and provides an unexpected Australian twist to the story. Simon Schama is an Englishman now teaching at Columbia whose historical interests have been remarkably varied, ranging from the history of Dutch art to the French Revolution. He has not previously written about African-Americans. His Rough Crossings is preoccupied with the interaction between some of the leading figures of Britain’s humanitarian movement and the runaways as a group. Gary Nash, a professor emeritus at UCLA, is a leading historian of the United States, specializing in the Revolutionary period. His primary concern in The Forgotten Fifth is with the experience of African-Americans in the Revolution itself and immediately afterward; he is less interested than the others in what subsequently happened to those who left with the British in 1782.
Epic Journeys of Freedom is a well-written and engaging narrative history that also happens to be the fruit of prodigious research. To trace the lives of individual runaway slaves (thirty of whom receive particular attention both in the text and in a biographical appendix), Pybus explored archives and manuscript collections in four countries on three continents—the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, and Australia. From them she was able to piece together enough biographical information to recover the essential (and often inspiring) life stories of people who would otherwise not be part of the historical record.
We learn, for example, that David George was born a slave in Virginia, and ran away as a boy only to be enslaved by Indians; he was given by them to an Indian agent, fled to the British in 1779, was evacuated from Charleston to Nova Scotia in 1782, and joined the exodus to Sierra Leone in 1791. Within the community of migrating ex-slaves he was a religious leader. While still a slave he helped found the first black Baptist church in the United States. Later he established and ministered to Baptist churches in Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone. Religious activity in general is a central theme of Pybus’s account. More than anything else, it was Methodist and Baptist Christianity of an intensely emotional and evangelical kind that provided a sense of community and solidarity to people who were struggling for self-determination under very trying circumstances.
Of special interest among her cast of characters is one who became a fervent Methodist and also bore a distinguished surname. Harry Washington was born in Africa, became the slave of George Washington in 1763, escaped to the British in 1776, and served during the war as a corporal in one of the black units established by the British military authorities. After the war, he was evacuated first to Nova Scotia and then to Sierra Leone. In 1800, he was a leader in an abortive struggle for “settler independence from the Sierra Leone Company.” (Had he succeeded he might have become the George Washington of the republic of Sierra Leone.) As punishment for his seditious activity he was exiled from the colony proper and became the leader of an exile community.
Pybus establishes her Australian connection by uncovering the fact that eleven of the convicts transported in 1787 to the new penal colony at Botany Bay in New South Wales were former slaves who had previously been evacuated from the United States. Since they were only about 2 percent of the initial convict population of the colony they had little chance to develop a collective identity. But Pybus follows the careers of some of them, especially the rebellious convict known only as Caesar. On several occasions, Caesar deserted the colony and tried to survive on his own in the wilderness or among the aborigines. Eventually he was shot and killed by a bounty hunter. Other black convicts fared better. John Randall served out his sentence, acquired a white wife and a land grant, and ended up as a successful farmer who also served as a constable.
Still, the eventual success of Randall and some other convicts should not be allowed to obscure the misery and deprivation of all the convicts, black and white, in the early years of the settlement. British humanitarians in the 1780s could have sympathy with slaves or even with blacks in general, but they ignored the atrocious treatment of those unfortunate enough to be convicted of a crime—often for what today would be considered a minor offense, such as petty larceny. The long voyage to Australia was more deadly than what Africans typically experienced in the Middle Passage. Pybus notes that “unlike slave cargo, the convicts had no value, so no attention was given to keeping them fit and alive.” In the colony itself food was often in short supply, especially during the early years, and mass starvation was narrowly averted.
Pybus does not pay much attention to the question of how Americans could fight for freedom and also own slaves. But one of most prominent spokesmen for the revolutionary cause, Thomas Jefferson, attracts her attention in a way that will not enhance his reputation. Statements Jefferson made after the war about the slaves from his own plantations who ran off to the British were misleading and self-serving. When, for example, he reneged on some debts owed to British creditors in 1786–1787, he excused his incapacity to pay by claiming that the redcoats had taken away thirty of his slaves, “even though he had lost eighteen at most.”
In Rough Crossings Simon Schama covers much of the same ground as Pybus (except for the Australian episode) but more from the vantage point of British humanitarians, especially Granville Sharp and John Clarkson, than from that of the runaway slaves themselves. He describes the collective experiences of the slaves clearly and sympathetically but particular individuals among them do not come alive to the same extent as they do in Epic Journeys of Freedom.
Schama’s book is divided into two parts; the first called “Greeny” (the nickname of Granville Sharp) and the second “John” (for John Clarkson). By centering on these leaders, who figure scarcely at all in Pybus’s account, Schama is writing as much about members of a white elite as he is about ordinary African-Americans. He mentions most of the runaway slaves who are included in Pybus’s biographical appendix, but only Thomas Peters figures prominently in his account, mainly because of his collaboration with Clarkson in organizing the migration from Nova Scotia to Sierra Leone. As always, Schama writes with verve and mastery, with many fascinating details, although sometimes the details become digressions that impede the flow of the narrative.
When Schama’s book was first published last year in the United Kingdom some reviewers thought it would make Americans very angry because of the way it debunks their national mythology of a virtuous and glorious revolution. At the beginning of the book, Schama reports that an ex-slave in Nova Scotia renamed himself “British Freedom,” thus expressing “a belief that it was the British monarchy rather than the new American republic that was more likely to deliver Africans from slavery.” Many African-Americans during the Revolution and for some time afterward regarded the British as the enemy of their enemy and therefore as their friend. “Whether the British deserved this reputation as the most racially broadminded among nations and empires is, to say the least, debatable,” Schama writes. But his only example of Britain’s indifference to enslaved blacks in North America is the extent of its sympathy for the Confederacy during the American Civil War. This later history, of course, should not negate a conclusion that at the time of the Revolution, almost a century earlier, the British were indeed more “racially broadminded” than white Americans. And this seems to be the judgment that Schama is implicitly making.
Concerning the relation of slavery to the motives of the American revolutionaries, Schama asserts at one point that “Patriot mobilization in the South” was driven by fears that the kind of slave rebellions that were occurring elsewhere in the Americas (as in Surinam and Jamaica) “might spread north.” This anxiety rather than “any solidarity with captive people elsewhere in the hemisphere” was the dominant motivation. Once the Revolution had commenced, “the most feverish nightmare involved the British actually fomenting black rebellion as a way of intimidating the Patriots.”
Schama reinforces this argument by claiming the slaveholders were often skeptical of the Patriot cause until they learned that “British troops would liberate their blacks, then give them weapons, and their blessing to use them on their masters.” This belief led them to enlist in a Revolution that they could define (in anticipation of the Confederate cause in the Civil War) as a defense of slavery. Yet something more than this must have been involved, since the substantial minority of slaveholders who remained Loyalists were assured by the British that they could keep or recapture their slaves, and to a considerable extent they were able to do so. Many of the slaves owned by Loyalists ended up after the war on the sugar plantations of Jamaica or Barbados. By some calculations slave owners incurred a greater risk of losing their human property by joining the Revolution than by staying out of it.
One could make a comparison of British and American slavery and attitudes toward the institution on the eve of the Revolution that would put the Americans in a somewhat better light. It is far from clear that there were more abolitionists in Britain in 1775 than in the American colonies. At that time there were only Granville Sharp and a few Quakers.2 The future United States also had antislavery Quakers (most notably Anthony Benezet, who was an inspiration for Sharp and other pioneers of the British movement) and James Otis, the Boston revolutionary. Although slavery is always cruel and degrading, it is at least arguable that the kind of slavery practiced by the British in the Caribbean was normally harsher than what existed in the North American colonies. No American virtue can be claimed from such a comparison, for the differences were clearly the result of different crops, climate, and other factors.
But it is also true that the American slave population had attained a natural rate of increase by the time of the Revolution, which helps to explain why some colonies, including Virginia, called for the suspension of slave importations and felt aggrieved when the British government refused to acquiesce. The natural increase suggests that conditions on the American plantations were healthier than those that existed in the West Indies where slaves had to be imported in large numbers to replace those who had been worked to death before they could reproduce.
If slavery was not under attack by Americans during the Revolution itself, this was perhaps because raising the issue would have impeded cooperation in the struggle for independence between colonies heavily dependent on slavery and those that were not.3 But after the war there was a period of about twenty years when there was substantial criticism of slavery and efforts were made, even in parts of the South, to put it, as Abraham Lincoln said, “in the course of ultimate extinction.” While the Northern states had begun gradually to abolish slavery, even in Virginia the hold of the institution seemed to be weakening.
Schama makes much of the British having freed ten thousand Virginia slaves during the Revolution, a fact that deserves emphasis. But he does not also say that, as the result of new legislation facilitating manumission, twice that many slaves were voluntarily freed by their masters between 1782 and 1800. As everyone knows, George Washington freed his slaves in his last will and testament. Robert Carter, who is mentioned by Schama as a planter who made desperate efforts to keep his slaves from absconding to the British, freed all 509 of them by a deed of gift in 1791.4 Another notable emancipator was Richard Randolph, who not only provided in his will of 1796 for the emancipation of all ninety of his slaves, but also provided them with four hundred acres of land on which to live.
To gain insight into how close the United States came to abolishing slavery in the period immediately after the Revolution and why the effort did not succeed, we can turn to Gary B. Nash’s The Forgotten Fifth: African Americans in the Age of Revolution. The book is based on three lectures given at Harvard in 2004. The first describes the large-scale movement of blacks to the British side during the war, and does so more concisely than Pybus and Schama, but with comparable force and effectiveness. Nash describes the black flight as “the greatest slave rebellion in North American history—one almost too shocking for the American public to contemplate even now.”
Whereas Schama makes the British the instigators of this rebellion, Nash suggests that slaves themselves took the initiative; some of them had already gotten in touch with the British and offered to fight the rebels in return for their freedom when Lord Dunmore’s proclamation of November 1775 made it an official policy. More than the other writers, Nash pays attention to blacks who did not leave with the British. He describes the emergence immediately after the war of new black leaders and organizations committed to making the ideals of the Revolution—“the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”—apply to them as well as whites. In the long run, the ideology of the Revolution would prove to be a crucial asset for African-Americans in their struggle for equality.
Nash’s second lecture raises the fascinating question “Could slavery have been abolished?” Historians have generally assumed that the postwar flurry of antislavery sentiment and action was superficial and doomed to failure. Nash boldly suggests otherwise, arguing that the movement came very close to success and failed only because of a lack of astute and effective leadership on the part of those who were in a position to make a difference, namely the Founding Fathers. Most of them regarded slavery as an undesirable and troublesome institution and often seemed on the verge of doing something about it, but they were never quite able to take decisive action. Nash’s argument is original and suggestive, but to my mind not entirely persuasive. It can also be argued that the main obstacle to abolishing slavery in the 1780s and 1790s was not inept leadership but rather deeply rooted racial prejudice, the unwillingness of whites to contemplate an egalitarian biracial society. Nash attempts to deemphasize racism as a factor by pointing out that the dominant thought of the period held that the source of racial differences was “cultural environmentalism,” a doctrine that, unlike the biological racism of the nineteenth century, made blacks the potential equals of whites in capacities and attainments.
Nash is correct about the difference between late-eighteenth- and mid-nineteenth-century racial thinking, but does race prejudice really require an overtly racist ideology? No doubt theories of black inferiority enhanced the power of prejudice, but I would contend that a folk racism not only existed but exerted considerable influence even without an elaborate intellectual rationale. Nash himself refers to “the ocean of white prejudice” that would-be emancipators had to take into account. He also cites with approval the contention of Winthrop Jordan, the leading authority on American racial attitudes in the colonial and early national periods, that there was a “nearly universal” belief among whites that freeing the slaves would “inevitably lead to racial intermixture,” which would mean “that civilized man had turned beast in the forest.”
It is significant that Jefferson’s post-revolutionary proposals for gradual emancipation in Virginia were accompanied by a proviso that those emancipated had to be deported or “colonized” to some place beyond the nation’s borders. His assumption and that of many others who sincerely hoped to see the eventual demise of slavery was that whites and freed blacks could never coexist harmoniously in the same society (especially in cases where the latter were present in substantial numbers).
Nash’s last lecture, “Race and Citizenship in the Early Republic,” carries us into the nineteenth century and describes, among other things, the founding of the American Colonization Society in 1816, the organization that hoped to transport African-Americans to Africa and established the colony of Liberia for that purpose in 1819. For some of its early adherents the objective of this enterprise was not simply to get rid of troublesome free blacks but also to open the door to gradual emancipation. Sending away those freed would allegedly alleviate the racial fears aroused in the white population by the prospect of abolishing slavery.
Was the establishment of the Colonization Society a manifestation of the intensifying racism of the nineteenth century, as Nash suggests, or a carryover from post-revolutionary concerns about blacks, slavery, and the future of the republic? The best answer might be that it was both. It may be that Nash somewhat exaggerates the difference between attitudes toward slavery and race between 1780 and 1800 and those that prevailed during the next two decades. There certainly was some deterioration of the situation of free blacks in the North and a declining disposition to do anything about slavery in the Southern states. But in my view the decisive break with the post-revolutionary mentality did not occur until the 1830s and 1840s, when Southerners began to defend slavery as a “positive good” rather than a “necessary evil,” and a fully developed version of scientific racism became widely accepted and influential in both the North and the South.
August 10, 2006
On the Mansfield decision, see Steven M. Wise, Though the Heavens May Fall: The Landmark Trial that Led to the End of Human Slavery (Da Capo, 2005). ↩
This is the conclusion that one is likely to reach from a reading of Adam Hochschild’s recent and authoritative history of British antislavery, Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves (Houghton Mifflin, 2005). The movement to abolish the slave trade did not really get off the ground until the mid- to late 1780s when Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce assumed positions of leadership. ↩
I am indebted for this suggestion to Jill Lepore’s review of Pybus and Schama in The New Yorker, May 8, 2006, p. 78. ↩
On Carter, see Andrew Levy, The First Emancipator: The Forgotten Story of Robert Carter, the Founding Father Who Freed His Slaves (Random House, 2005). ↩