Land of the free?

The initial inspiration for my upcoming release, A Dream Defiant, came several years ago when I read Simon Schama’s Rough Crossings: The Slaves, the British, and the American Revolution.

Rough Crossings Cover

The book introduced me to a side of the American Revolution I’d never encountered in the sanitized, idealistic version of that war presented in my school’s American History classes, nor even in the grittier, more nuanced takes I’d found in historical fiction as a teen and adult. Turns out that if you were a slave, fighting for freedom meant fighting on the British side. Lord Dunmore, the Royal Governor of Virginia, issued a proclamation in 1775 offering freedom to all slaves of revolutionaries who were willing to take up arms for the British side, and thousands took him up on his offer. While few of them were armed as soldiers, many supported the British war effort as laborers, scouts, spies, etc., and at war’s end about 3000 men, women, and children were evacuated to Nova Scotia. While the Americans argued for their return as stolen property, even in defeat the British honored their commitment to the former slaves who’d served their cause.

While many of these Black Loyalists ended up as colonists in Sierra Leone, I chose to make Elijah Cameron, the hero of A Dream Defiant, the son of two escaped slaves from Virginia who end up as clerk and cook to an officer of the 43rd Regiment of Foot. Elijah grows up in the regiment, serving first as a drummer boy and then as a soldier. He used to being conspicuous wherever he goes–and to proving he’s just as brave, clever, and capable as any other man in his regiment.

It’s history like this that makes me disinclined to idealize either America or Britain as they were 200 years ago. America gave you more freedom in the sense that the social hierarchies weren’t as rigid and you were more likely to have the right to vote–if you were lucky enough to be born a white man. Britain was farther along the path to abolition, but still had slaves in its colonies and wasn’t exactly a beacon of justice for the people of Ireland, India, or anywhere else under its sway. And if you were a woman, your lack of rights was about the same in either place.

Still, I write about the past rather than the present because I’m fascinated by the paths history took to bring us to the world we have today–and by the lives of men and women who found ways, whether great or small, to make their world a more free and just place.

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11 Responses to Land of the free?

  1. Isobel Carr says:

    Love this bit of history. It’s the basis for all the black servants in my series (uncle of the hero of book one was a British officer who took his pledge to the slaves who fought for him VERY seriously and now spends his retirement making sure they and their kids all have good positions).

    I took an entirely different tack with the free black Frenchman who’ll be getting his own book. Dominic is based on the Chevalier St-Georges, who I find utterly fascinating.

    I think it’s fantastic to see the dysphonia of the Georgian/Regency period coming out more strongly in the genre and I can’t wait to see what the future holds, book-wise for you!!!

    • I’ll be especially interested to read your free black Frenchman. A different thing, but I remember an aside in John Elting’s encyclopedia of the Grande Armee, Swords Around a Throne, which mentioned the French buying Sudanese slaves in Cairo and offering them their freedom if they enlisted as French soldiers. All I could think is that there’s a huge story waiting to be told there…

      • Evangeline says:

        That anecdote about the French formed the basis of their part in colonizing Africa later on the 19th century. For the French, those living in their African colonies had the choice/chance/opportunity to become “Frenchmen/women,” whereas the British, the Portuguese, the Germans, and the Belgians each had their own ways of viewing the colonized peoples (the specifics are all in a term paper I wrote for my African History course a few years ago…I’d have to dig it up to further explain). That said, the cost of being “French” meant they had to renounce their heritage, since being French did not include anything other than being French (and this remains a source of conflict between immigrants, formerly colonized people, and the native-born French in France of today).

  2. I too loved Schama’s book but I also recommend Adam Hochschild’s “Bury The Chain”s about the abolitionists, which is absolutely brilliant.

  3. Isobel Carr says:

    “There Are No Slaves in France” is also a brilliant read.

  4. I am always fascinated by the realization that history is never as bright and shiny nor as dark and ugly as it has been written. Who was it who said “History is written by the winners.” ? When it came to the slavery business no one’s hands were clean. And anyone who brings the truth about this dark side of human nature into historical fiction and historical romance has my admiration and my readership.

    • Thanks, Louisa. I’m currently researching 18th century New Orleans for one of my WIPs (I have *three*, which is a bit crazy-making), and everywhere I look I discover yet more gray areas and nuances that were left out of my education.

  5. Michelle says:

    I second that recommendation for Bury the Chains.

  6. diane says:

    Really fascinating topic. There is so much history we never learn about in school!

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