Saturday, June 19, 2010

Hypocrisy Exposed (2005)


Book Review from the December 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

Simon Schama: Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution. BBC Books

Forget Schama the TV historian - this is a solid piece of research into a sordid piece of British and American history from the late 18th and early 19th century. The European colonists in America rebelled against their British rulers, leading to the Declaration of Independence in 1776.

This was the period of slavery and the slave trade, and many black slaves (and 'free' blacks) saw through American protestations about liberty and supported the loyalist (i.e. British) side. Some black people fought on the patriot (American) side, though slaves were excluded from the American army and giving arms to any black people was anathema to many, especially in the south.

But once Britain had been defeated, the question arose of what would happen to these black 'loyalists'. Some escaped slaves were recaptured by their owners, but most managed to avoid this dire fate and were given certificates by the British commandant of New York, stating that they were free to go where they wished (i.e. they were no longer slaves and subject to the orders of their owner).

In 1783 many loyalists, both white and black, were shipped off to Nova Scotia to start a new life. But the 3,500 black settlers there were subject to appalling discrimination, being always last in line for such things as food supplies and allotment of land. Consequently, many of the former slaves travelled (in some cases, returned) to Africa, specifically to what later became Freetown in Sierra Leone.

Under the initially somewhat paternalistic regime of the Sierra Leone Company, they attempted to establish a settlement of their own where they could produce their own crops and trade with local chiefs. In principle, everything was run democratically, with each head of household having a vote, including women. Says Schama, 'the first women to cast their votes for any kind of public office anywhere in the world were black, liberated slaves who had chosen British freedom'.

But this freedom was illusory: in 1800 the black residents of Freetown rebelled against mistreatment but were savagely put down, by a Company army partly consisting of Maroons (former Jamaican slaves who now fought on the British side). Two of the leaders were hanged.

Schama effectively exposes the hypocrisy of the rulers on both sides. The British government scoffed at the Americans' pretensions to freedom while owning other human beings, and Americans condemned a system where the poorest inhabitants of British cities were little better than slaves. He also brings out the courage and tenacity of slaves and ex- slaves who fought for some dignity in their lives.
Paul Bennett