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Promises of Freedom

Simon Schama

     ... historian, author, critic, broadcaster. Bestselling, prizewinning author of Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution, Rembrandt’s Eyes, The Embarrassment of Riches, Citizens, Landscape and Memory and more, Dr. Simon Schama is University Professor of Art History and History at Columbia University. “A History of Britain,” his 15-part television series, was nominated for an Emmy and has two companion volumes; his BBC/PBS 8-part series, “The Power of Art,” is also accompanied by a book. Since 1994, he has provided art criticism and cultural essays for the New Yorker, and regularly contributes to New Republic, Guardian and the New York Review of Books.


Many avenues lead to freedom, Simon Schama observes, offering one that may surprise you: Who embodied freedom in 1776 colonial America?  Yes, it's "George'" but if you were a slave, it was KING George, not George Washington. Professor Schama says the latter George was protecting the slaveholding world in the summer and autumn of 1775 when he called Lord Dunmore "that arch-traitor to humanity" for presuming to free the slaves. (Ask a Massachusetts farmer and the more predictable answer applies.)

There's plenty of hypocrisy to go around on the subject of slavery, Dr. Schama assures us. So don’t swoon over the humanitarianism of the British who promised freedom to the slaves and indentured servants of Patriots (no Loyalist slaves need apply). It was done out of military desperation. And while some of those freed in Charleston and Savannah were horrifyingly sold back into slavery, Professor Schama calls the vast numbers of slaves who responded to this offer one of the great exodus stories of American history.

Don't look to The Spirit of the Age or the Great Man theory for slavery's demise in Great Britain or the eventual hard-won rewards achieved by the 3,000 freed slaves living as full citizens in New York City under British protection at the end of the War of Independence. Dr. Schama's heroes are just the kind that move him most -- backing into their roles in history, coming crab-wise into a moment to have a most extraordinary effect on everything that happens afterward. Consider three:

Granville Sharpe, a dreamy son of a minor clergyman from the north of England, totally insignificant with a boring job and excited only by obscure issues of Biblical scholarship. And Jonathan Strong, a brutally beaten slave. They both fit the mold.

Strong crosses Sharpe's path, Sharpe responds with compassion and years later Strong again needs help. One thing has happened that Dr. Schama says changes history -- Jonathan Strong has learned to read and write. Add a critical writ of habeus corpus, strong beliefs in the fairness and justice of the English Common Law and a life-altering "Road to Damascus" moment for Sharpe. He becomes the "legal eagle" who, with only a handful of other British Abolitionists, force a very unhappy Lord Chief Justice to say in 1773 that slavery was illegal in Britain.

Finally, there's Thomas Peters, a former British sergeant who became the first identifiable African-American politician. After unrelenting hardships, disappointments and grievous material suffering in Nova Scotia where they'd received bitter disappointments instead of the land they'd been promised, Mr. Peters was chosen as speaker-general for his people. Mr. Peters' ability to turn anger into tenacity finally persuaded London to do what Nova Scotia and New Brunswick had refused to do -- providing the definitive turning point in the lives of those 3,000 former slaves -- deliver them to Sierra Leone where at last freedom was theirs.  Thern they had to keep it.


[This Program was recorded May 22, 2006, in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.]

Conversation 1

Simon Schama remembers being thunderstruck learning about 3,000 freed slaves at the end of America’s War of Independence, living under British protection in New York City. He recreates the amusing moment, Prince Andrew and all, for Paula Gordon and Bill Russell.

Conversation 1 RealAudio8:27

Conversation 2

Reinforcing the undeniable importance of history, Professor Schama looks at a variety of views of history, from cheerleader to the mirror-images preferred by totalitarians to the truly democratic, self-critical and cautionary history begun by Thucydides. He champions an education that offers students self-strengthening wisdom through complication, then suggests other areas readers of Rough Crossings might want to explore.

Conversation 1 RealAudio10:21

Conversation 3

One of the great exoduses in all of American history is the extraordinary mass of slaves running as hard as they could to take up the British offer of freedom in return for service, Professor Schama says. Military desperation, not humanitarianism, prompted this offer which was extended only to indentured servants and slaves of Patriots, not Loyalists, he points out. He contrasts British intentions to the powerful blowback effect of the idea of slaves getting guns. The larger colonial mindset is considered, as are the fates of those slaves who accepted the offer -- from resold into slavery to genuine freedom. He tells the story of Washington being shamed out of enforcing Article 7 of the Treaty of Paris for the 3,000 in New York City.

Conversation 1 RealAudio13:05

Conversation 4

Ideas of freedom arise again, as Professor Schama shows desperation, anger, tenacity and great material distress among those 3,000, coming together, he believes, as the strong sinews of what will become characteristic of the African-American community. Christening the episodes, “The Birth of Their Nation”, Dr. Schama presents a striking series of “firsts” as these former slaves respond to bitter betrayals, eager for everyone to know how the first identifiable African-American politician achieved his goals. King George, not George Washington, embodied freedom for the Black community in 1776, Dr. Schama says, and reminds us of the many avenues to freedom.

Conversation 1 RealAudio14:02

 Conversation 5

Professor Schama says his heroes are people who back crab-wise into their role in history and especially move him. He describes one -- Granville Sharpe, a dreamy late-born son of a minor clergyman changes everything that happens afterward -- and the riveting story of how Mr. Sharpe’s interactions with Jonathan Strong concluded with slavery begin declared illegal in Britain before the War of Independence began.

Conversation 1 RealAudio6:21

Conversation 6

Professor Schama describes his life as a teacher and writer, his ever-greater involvement with television, and how it all came to be.

Conversation 1 RealAudio5:35


Thanks to Michael Bishop for acting as the neighborhood lending library.

Additional Links:

Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution is published by Ecco and The Power of Art which accompanies Professor Schama's 8-part BBC/PBS series by the same name is also published by Ecco.

Among Professor Schama’s many other books are Rembrandt’s Eyes published by Knopf, The Embarrassment of Riches, Citizens, Landscape and Memory and more.

David Reynolds has written a revealing biography of the quintessential American abolitionist John Brown.

Historian Richard Slotkin's novel Abe informs the debate about whose ideas of "freedom" had the greatest impact.  

In two books (Ancestor Stones and The Devil that Danced on the Water), Aminatta Forna tells stories of Sierra Leone where several thousand of the slaves who escaped to the British Army eventually settled.

In American Patriots: The Story of Blacks in the Miltary, Gail Buckley tells the stories of African-Americans who fought for America, beginning with the Revolutionary War, inspite of  Americans' frequent ingratitude.

In his biography of George Washington, His Excellency, historian Joseph Ellis shows how problems with the plantation system in the American colonies contributed to the Revolutionary War.

Among his many achievements, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has resurrected The Bondwomans Narrative, the long-lost novel of a female slave.

In the ongoing discussion Dr. Schama proposes about the relative contributions of the British and the Americans to the achievement of  freedom, Doris Kearns Goodwin's story of the political Lincoln (Team of Rivals) provides insights to his commitment to democracy and to making democracy work in a partisan context.

Darlene Clark Hine tells the story of Black Women in America beginning in 1619.

And, of course, there is Cornel West's marvelous meditation on democracy, Democracy Matters.

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