FOR KING AND COUNTRIES
LIBERTY’S EXILES: THE LOSS OF AMERICA AND THE REMAKING OF THE BRITISH EMPIRE
By Maya Jasanoff (HarperPress 460pp £30)
IN THE HOT summer of 1775 a young man called Thomas Brown, who had recently emigrated from England to establish a large plantation near Augusta in Georgia, confronted an angry mob on the porch of his mansion. They demanded that he should throw in his lot with the American revolutionaries. He refused, saying that he did not want to fight his neighbours but that he ‘could never enter into an Engagement to take up arms against the Country which gave him being’.
torship of Napoleon, it could claim to embody a constitutional system of government dedicated to liberty, humanity and good order. Both the tr ial of Warren Hastings, who was charged with the misuse of his power in India, and the movement to abolish slavery, which won parliamentary approval in 1807, indicated that Britain was determined to occupy the moral high ground. Moreover Westminster governments, though they left Britain’s Mohawk and Creek allies in the lurch, were evidently keen to reward and compensate those exiles who had suffered for opposing the transatlantic rebellion. But most refugees were to be disappointed by the imperial bounty. And, as Jasanoff vividly recounts, they proved surprisingly troublesome as colonial subjects. Indeed, by a splendid irony, the loyalists of the diaspora turned out to have much in common with the patriots of the United States.
Half the loyalists were evacuated to Nova Scotia, where they were promised land. But the grants were slow to materialise and the newcomers, mostly townsmen – mer-
So they hit him over the head, tortured him into endorsing the ‘patriot’ cause and finally poured l i ghted p i t ch over h i s f e e t . Battered and burned, with two of his toes reduced to charred stubs, Brown not only sur v ived but e s c aped. He repudiated h i s coerced defection and became one of the most ruthless of the commanders loyal to the British crown. As Maya Jasanoff shows in this excellent study of the loyalists, America’s war of independence was a bitter civil conflict as well as a struggle to forge a new nation, a war of ordeals as well as ideals.
‘The Reception of the American Loyalists’, Benjamin West chants, printers, lawyers, barbers, tailors, shoemakers and the like, few of whom had any pioneering skills – found it almost impossible to hack a living from the frozen wilderness.
Indeed, dur ing the winter of 1784 the British authorities only averted famine by supplying further provisions. Yet the immigrants grumbled incessantly and engaged in drunken r iots, at least one of which was directed against free blacks and their remarkable Baptist p re a cher David George. The whites also invoked their natural rights and challenged official decis ions. A gover nment sur veyor,
Communities and f amilies were torn apart by the str ife. One clergyman described his flock as thirsting, panting and roaring for the blood of those who, like himself , had any af fection for Great Br i tain. And Benjamin Franklin virtually disinherited his son William for cling ing to the mother countr y. So as George Washington’s forces rode to victor y, about 75,000 United Empire Loyalists, among them thousands of slaves and former slaves, fled from the United States.
Some of them were escaping from patriot persecution. Others refused to renounce their allegiance to King George III and submit to the authority of a democratic republic. Still others believed that revolutionary America was doomed to collapse and sought fresh f ields of opportunity in the British Empire, which, after its defeat in the west, would triumph in the east.
The Empire, indeed, had much to recommend it. Ranged against regicide Jacobins and the aggressive dicta-
Harvard-educated Benjamin Marston, declared that their ‘curs’d levelling Spirit must be crush’d … or we shall be for reb[ellio]n soon’.
Similar disturbances occurred in other loyalist havens. Several thousand refugees sailed to the Bahamas, where they hoped to employ their slaves in cultivating new cotton plantations. But these did not f lour i sh and Governor John Maxwell was soon plagued by complaints about supplies, land allocation and political representation. The new settlers, he declared, were ‘the most tormenting, dissatisfied People on Earth’. They protested with handbills, petitions, demonstrations and assaults. In Nassau armed agitators besieged the chief justice’s house and a mob menaced the church with ‘Drums beating the Rogue’s March’. Such scenes were eerily reminiscent of the American Revolution.
Interestingly enough, the most insubordinate loyalists were those who had been most brutally subordinated. In 1792 some 1,200 former slaves, the victims of cruel
LITERARY REVIEW February 2011