J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Paying attention to black Loyalists

Sunday's Boston Globe featured an interview with historian Simon Schama on the occasion of his book Rough Crossings, about the experience of Loyalists of African ancestry before, during, and after the Revolution. It's interesting to compare the press this book is getting in the U.S. to what British reviewers had to say about it last fall. The North American media has focused on how it will rile American readers by supposedly breaking the news that most wealthy founders owned slaves and were upset at the prospect of losing them. In Britain, reviewers paid more attention to the book's latter half, which covers the Crown's broken promises to the black Loyalists in Canada and Sierra Leone. For instance, the Guardian's reviewer wrote

When the defeated British withdrew, thousands of former slaves found themselves herded on to British ships and relocated to Nova Scotia and London. Their miserable fate and protracted sufferings form the core of Schama's gripping new book.
The book's Amazon.co.uk page shows how the original publisher played up the post-Revolutionary story for British readers. But of course Americans have short attention spans for Canadian history and Sierra Leone, so the U.S. publisher's copy emphasizes the Revolution.

Rough Crossings is one fruit of a huge (by historians' standards) book-TV deal Schama made a few years ago. The Wikipedia article about him states:
In 2003, Schama signed a lucrative new contract with the BBC and HarperCollins to produce three new books and two accompanying TV series. Worth £3 million (around $5.3m), it represents the biggest advance deal ever for a TV historian. The only confirmed project lined up as part of the deal is a book and TV show provisionally entitled Rough Crossings, dealing with stories of migration across the Atlantic Ocean and including chapters/episodes on Pocahontas, freed slaves, and the Irish famine
Apparently Schama found enough material on black Loyalists to build a series and book about them alone.

Such a large deal puts pressure on the publisher and author to produce large sales, and one route to that is to declare that the book tells a story that's never been told before. To his credit, in the Globe interview Schama demurs, saying his work adds "almost nothing" to the record, only public attention. And in fact it's easy to find other authors writing about black Loyalists today:

1 comment:

Jscothammerquist said...

Thank you for a very interesting post. I am quite a fan of Simon Schama and have several of his books. I will be sure to look for this one as well as some of the others mentioned.