Epic Journeys of Freedom: Runaway Slaves of the American Revolution and Their Global Quest for Liberty, By Cassandra Pybus, Beacon, 281 pp., $26.95
This book about the American Revolution begins with the story of a freedom-fighting Virginian named Harry Washington.
This Washington was a slave of the future president George Washington for 13 years -- until 1776, when he ran away to join the British. He became an artillery corporal, went to New York when Royal Governor Lord Dunmore's forces left Virginia, and served in Charleston before coming back to New York, the center of British operations, in 1782. After the war he was evacuated, with thousands of other white and black loyalists, to Nova Scotia, where black settlers did not meet an especially friendly welcome . Harry Washington later left with his family for the abolitionist-sponsored African colony in Sierra Leone, where he participated in another rebellion, this one against the paternalistic Sierra Leone Co ., whose directors refused to let the objects of their charity run their own settlement. Colonies are colonies, after all.
Australian historian Cassandra Pybus follows the black exiles of the American Revolution literally to the ends of the earth as they help found the Botany Bay colony and Sierra Leone. American readers may be most taken, though, with her unsentimental rendering of the Revolution at home. Tens of thousands of slaves fled to British lines and became an important factor on the southern front. This campaign is ignored by recent valentines to founding heroes such as David McCullough's ``1776" and David Hackett Fischer's ``Washington's Crossing." These books stay pretty close to Boston and Philadelphia, and one can't help but wonder if their breathless admiration for Washington has something to do with their narrow focus on the early, northern turning points of the war. Pybus also would have none of Fischer's contrast between a tyrannical British military machine and an American citizen army. Her British officers are gentlemen of their word. They broke the terms of the Treaty of Paris rather than return black fugitives to their owners.
A better antidote to Founders Chic is hard to imagine, at least for the first third of the book. But then the story goes global, and becomes something else altogether. The relatively few blacks who left the territorial United States make a compelling story, even limited as it must be to the shards that can be gleaned from imperial archives on three continents. But following them so closely comes at a price. These people are heroes not so much because they fought for their own liberty as because they kept going. They appeal to the cosmopolitan sensibility -- perhaps more so than those forced to make the most of being African in America. That merely national story can seem lack luster by comparison. The other black Washingtons will have to wait still longer to have their tale told so well.
And what of George Washington? Was he embarrassed by his slaves' flight to the enemy? Absolutely -- but not so much that he didn't try to recapture them. Pybus offers some other tantalizing tidbits. Thomas Jefferson actually exaggerated the numbers of slave runaways after the fact to justify Virginians' refusal to pay their prewar British debts.
Do these details tarnish our Revolution, or make it richer, more interesting, more recognizable ? This entry in the history wars wants to have it both ways. By insisting her runaways ``carried to the far corners of the globe the animating principles of the revolution that had so emphatically excluded them," Pybus lets us keep believing that it is the ideals that matter, not what side we're on.