Sunday, June 04, 2006

The flag of liberty?

One of the most amazing things I've seen in a historical movie was in the film Amistad. Amistad portrays real court cases of 1839-40 where kidnapped Africans who succeeded in taking control of a slave ship and then landing in the United States were put in the position of justifying their rebellion and proving that they were free people.

Throughout the movie, the British -- who had abolished slavery throughout their empire by this time -- are shown as the good guys, while the Americans are depicted in a distinctly unadmirable light. The amazing scene I alluded to above is near the end of the film when a British naval vessel attacks a slave depot on the coast of Africa. It is preceded by a shot where the Union flag fills the whole screen, and the message is clear.

What amazed me is that any American director (it was Steven Spielberg) would do such a thing. Americans are a very flag-proud people, and that screen-filling shot was no casual gesture.

The contradictions of slavery in a "free America" are usually treated in connection with the immediate lead-up to the Civil War, but they disturbed American policy and conscience in the revolutionary period. American Quakers were among the very first Christians to assert that slavery was wrong (and then actually free their slaves); yet some of the most famous American patriots were slave owners and leaders of societies built on slavery.

This subject has not exactly been neglected by professional scholars, but it's likely to get a lot more attention in the near future, thanks to a new book on the subject by superstar historian Simon Schama, Rough Crossings (here reviewed in the New York Times). I call Schama a superstar because he is smart, treats interesting subjects (the French Revolution, the Dutch contribution to early modern Europe), and writes very, very well. I think it's safe to say that Schama will influence more people's awareness of the issue of slavery in revolutionary America than any recent historian.

Further links of interest: There is a Canadian site on the story of "Black Loyalists," many of whom ended up in Canada. It includes a summary of the role of Guy Carleton, early governor of British Canada, a man who doesn't come up in ordinary discussions of Canadian history (that I've noticed). He's a figure who represents well the interconnections between American, Canadian, Native, and imperial British history, in addition to his role in the issue of slavery.

Also, I've found on the Web one of my favorite documents of the era, a letter to a Massachusetts newspaper by a former slave, Caesar Sarter, written in 1774 to tell his rebellious neighbors that when defending their own liberty they should think of the Africans among them:
Would you desire the preservation of your own liberty? As the first step let the oppressed Africans be liberated; then, and not till then, may you with confidence and consistency of conduct, look to Heaven for a blessing on your endeavours to knock the shackles with which your task masters are hampering you, from your own feet. On the other hand, if you are still determined to harden your hearts, and turn a deaf ear to our complaints, and the calls of God, in your present Calamities; Only be pleased to recollect the miserable end of Pharoah, in Consequence of his refusal to set those at Liberty, whom he had unjustly reduced to cruel servitude.
This was written before the Declaration of Independence. Read the whole letter here (PDF).


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