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A well-told account of slaves' Revolutionary struggle for freedom

Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves, and the American Revolution, By Simon Schama, Ecco, 478 pp., illustrated, $29.95

Crispus Attucks -- African-American hero, patriot leader in the Boston Massacre, and first American casualty in the war of independence -- is a well-known name from the Revolutionary era. But what, historian Simon Schama wonders, about Newton Prince , a black barber who testified on behalf of British troops after the bloodletting? Or Thomas Peters , an African prince and North Carolina slave who fought on the British side in a regiment called the Black Pioneers? These are but two of the names on a long list of black loyalists Schama feels are scanted by history for being on the ``wrong" side.

According to Schama, this is a backward way of looking at it, and in the enthralling (if sometimes over-the-top) ``Rough Crossings," he is determined to set things right. Schama takes us through the looking glass into a strange world of irony and contradiction, which should be the first place to start if you want to understand the American past. To a slave in Virginia or the Carolinas, a war for independence was no such thing: It was ``a war for the perpetuation of servitude." Schama isn't out to indict the slave-owning Founders for hypocrisy; rather, he wants to adjust our vision.

``Seeing the Revolutionary War though the eyes of enslaved blacks turns its meaning upside down," Schama writes; for a vast majority of slaves, ``it was the royal, rather than the republican, road that seemed to offer a surer chance of liberty." An ambiguously worded 1772 court decision in London had widely (if wrongly) been perceived on both sides of the Atlantic as ending slavery in England, and expectations ran high among Colonial slaves that their freedom was at hand. From Schama's startling, topsy-turvy perspective, King George III was not the mad despot of patriot propaganda but a beacon of freedom and hope.

Schama's pages are full of such unlikely tribunes, but also betrayals and setbacks, blood and courage, and relentless shifts of fortune as ex-slaves made a perilous odyssey from bondage into what they hoped was a promised land, first in Nova Scotia, then in Sierra Leone. If you are looking for utopian high-mindedness, ``Rough Crossings" will shock you. We get some of that -- the idealism of British abolitionists would play an important role in the resettlement of blacks after the war -- but there are few good guys in this saga. Most decisions affecting slaves were grounded in a savage pragmatism born out of military necessity. Cornwallis , the British general who surrendered at Yorktown, was no abolitionist. To focus on purity of motives, however, is to miss the point.

In 1775, when a desperate Lord Dunmore, the last royal governor of Virginia, proclaimed ``I do hereby further declare all indented Servants, Negroes or others (appertaining to rebels) free that are able and willing to bear Arms," he did not think he was striking a blow for freedom -- he needed manpower -- but that is exactly how the slaves understood him. (Slaves of white loyalists were not part of the bargain.) There is some debate about how many slaves fled, but at least 80,000 left plantations in the Southern theater. Most, of course, did not serve as soldiers -- there is another debate about just how many took up arms -- but as drummers, messengers, boatmen, musicians, couriers, woodcutters, and spies.

Others have told the story of black loyalists, but few have done it with such verve as Schama. He is a master of old-school narrative, though it must be said he has a weakness for purple flights straight out of the ``It was a dark, stormy night" handbook. Schama has a keen sense of moral ambiguity and never lets us forget that the British could behave savagely to their charges. Dunmore's proclamation created a titanic logistics problem up and down the Eastern Seaboard. British commanders left the sick to die, even shunting smallpox-ridden slaves away from the lines to infect rebel enclaves. It was a nasty business. Still, historian Gordon Wood is not wrong in his contention that ``before the Civil War, the British army was the greatest instrument of emancipation in American history."

The second part to Schama's book tracks the resettlement of some 3,500 black loyalists -- whom Sir Guy Carleton , the British commander, refused to turn over to the Americans during the peace talks in 1783 -- to Nova Scotia, and their eventual journey to Sierra Leone, where they would attempt an experiment in democracy with the help of British abolitionists. The story doesn't get any less grim. Nova Scotia proved to be a cold, inhospitable place where soil was unforgiving; many blacks, pressed into servitude by white loyalists, found their so-called freedom little different than the slavery they had left behind. Yet they found an able leader in Thomas Peters, whom Schama considers the ``first identifiable African-American political leader."

Schama overplays his hand a bit in his effusions, but his vivid account of the collision of the good intentions of white abolitionists and black agency, and the trials of building a free community virtually from scratch, caps off a book remarkable for its depictions of terror and excitement in the pursuit of freedom.

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