Great Britain may have lost a nasty battle with its upstart American colony, and later suffered the indignity of watching its empire crumble. But it still owns the legitimate bragging rights for having put a stop to slavery earlier than any competing world power.
While we Americans sometimes like to think that we invented liberty, we tend to forget that our British forebearers beat us to the punch in one historically crucial way: by ending the pernicious trafficking in humans. Britain's courts ruled slavery illegal as early as 1800, and Parliament abolished it outright in 1834, more than a generation before Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.
For British-born historian Simon Schama, author of the new book Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves, and the American Revolution, there's an interesting tale woven into the larger story. While the new American nation embedded the black man's partial humanity into its Constitution and took another century to set him free, John Bull took the opposite tack, going so far as to boldly attempt to right past wrongs by establishing colonies of former American slaves, first in Nova Scotia and later on the African continent, in Sierra Leone.
For Schama, the irony that powers the tale is this: "To see the embryo of the first authentically free African-American society one has to look to the Union Jack." The story he tells of the British effort at granting emancipated slaves their full measure of freedom will be largely a new one for most American readers – and in many ways also a dispiriting one. The British ships that will take the former slaves from North America to Africa are loaded down with a psychic weight heavier than any ballast on Earth.
"What John Clarkson [the project's initiator] had designed was an inter-racial, floating Christian republic: bound for freedom, glory and the merited blessings of God. The journey was not just about an escape from bondage ... it would be an experimental voyage of social transformation."
The sponsors of the plan grandly imagined that the happiness of every black person in the world ultimately "turned on the outcome of the great venture at Sierra Leone."
Alas, like most exercises in social engineering, this experience was ultimately disappointing. As many as 65 of the former slaves perished during the voyage, and when they reached Africa, things got even worse.
Schama is easily the most famous historian in Britain, now riding a wave of attention for his popular 15-part BBC television history of his homeland, "A History of Britain." Though the Oxbridge transplant now teaches at New York's Columbia University, he's probably best known in this country for a series of luminous and learned articles in The New Yorker, commissioned by his fellow Brit Tina Brown, and also for some of his previous books, including "Citizens," an examination of the French Revolution, and "Rembrandt's Eyes," a biography of the painter.
This book, however, surely won't be remembered as his best work. Historical writing is always a balancing act between literal accuracy and forceful and stylish narration, but Schama often skirts the edge of believability in small but important ways. He describes minor scene- setting details that he couldn't possibly know more than two centuries after the fact. It serves as an ongoing annoyance to the close reader.
But that's not to say there isn't plenty of gorgeous writing from this most elegant of stylists. Schama excels at description. When he writes of 18th-century Halifax, Nova Scotia, for example, he tells us that the young city was "the sleeping princess waiting for the kiss of Empire ... it was like most other eighteenth-century commercial towns in the British Atlantic empire: greedy, gossipy and parochial, with eyes much bigger than its stomach."
For students of history, there are also some wonderful new tidbits of knowledge. Even those widely read in this era might not have known that Jefferson tried to include an attack of slavery in the Declaration of Independence (only to have it stricken by his colleagues). [Editor's note: The original version misidentified the document in which Jefferson tried to include an attack of slavery.]
In the end, these Colonial-era idealists met a bitter fate. Freetown, the last best hope for a race, turned out to be all too much like most places where imperfect humans band together in society. What its founders "had managed to do was to create, out of one of the most passionately loyal and patriotic people ever to follow the Union Jack, a contentious little America in West Africa: contentious and articulate, indignant over what they held to be illegitimate taxes, interference with their Churches, high-handed arbitrary governance and incompetent military defense. It had been a recipe for rebellion before."
And as a reason to finally shut down this experiment in racial progress, it proved to be compelling enough.
• John Ettorre is a writer and editor in Cleveland.