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
discrimination and wretched conditions in Nova Scotia, sailed to Africa, where Granville Sharp had established a free black settlement in Sierra Leone. It was run, however, on authoritarian and strictly commercial lines. Fugitives from bondage, who had hoped that this final exodus would take them to a land flowing with milk and honey, were soon denouncing Freetown as ‘A Town of Slavery’. William Wilberforce declared that they were ‘as thorough Jacobins as if they had been trained and educated in Paris’. But their grievances, which led to a quickly crushed insurrection in 1800, might have been summed up in the patriot slogan: ‘No taxation without representation.’
This is not to suggest that the loyalist experience of exile was homogeneous – f ar f rom i t . As Jasanoff demonstrates through a wealth of individual testimony, much of it culled from remote archives, some of the émigrés became builders of the British Empire. Both Sir David Ochterlony and Colonel William Gardner extended the Raj in India, where they ‘went native’ in spectacular f ashion – the for mer reputedly paraded round Delhi every evening with his thirteen Indian wives, each r iding a separate elephant. Other loyalists found it hard to put down roots anywhere, a few pursuing madcap adventures in Florida, many more seeking their fortune in the death trap of Jamaica, and one or
EGGHEADS GO EAST THE EMPEROR’S CODES: BLETCHLEY PARK’S ROLE IN BREAKING JAPAN’S SECRET CIPHERS
By Michael Smith (Dialogue 352pp £9.99)
THE CODEBREAKERS OF Bletchley Park have become the stuff of legend, a stirring tale of the triumph of British brains over Nazi brawn likely to warm the heart of even the most indifferent patriot. For there, positioned halfway between the ivory towers of Oxford and Cambridge, and a mere hour’s train ride from London, a hotch-potch assemblage of pencil-wielding eccentrics and absent-minded academics outwitted the might of the Third Reich, broke its codes, and shortened the Second World War by as much as two years. If the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, Britain’s victory in 1945 was sealed in the prefabricated huts hastily erected in the grounds of a Victorian mansion. So delightfully amateurish was it all, so goes the chuckle, that the head of MI6 even had to dip into his own pockets to pay for the building. Well, up to a point, Lord Copper, up to a point. There’s truth in the legend, but also a lot of tosh. The recently published official history of MI6, for example, neatly dispatches two even ending up in Botany Bay.
Fur ther more, no c l ear patter n of imper i a l r u l e emerged from the vortex that threw out the loyalists. In colonies of conquest, notably in Asia and Africa, Britain relied ultimately on coercion. In colonies of settlement, such as Canada, resistance to the mother country led to liberal reform and to the emergence of virtually independent dominions. As Jasanoff points out, the loyalists, who adopted ideas of self-deter mination which had inspired the American patriots, helped to widen cracks in the foundations of the British Empire.
This book is a model of its kind. It amply fulfils the promise of Maya Jasanoff ’s prize-winning debut Edge of Empire (2005) and it establishes her as one of the ablest historians of the younger generation – she was born in 1974 and now teaches at Harvard. Her ideas are original. Her research is impeccable. Her writing, though somewhat lacking in brio, is efficient and happily free of jargon. She is perhaps inclined to see the characters in her story as epiphenomena, convenient illustrations of a thesis rather than idiosyncratic creatures of flesh and blood. But she evidently sympathises with the maxim that history is the sum of innumerable biographies. And she has vividly illuminated a hitherto shadowy page of the past. To order this book for £24, see LR Bookshop on page 10
the myth of its chief personally paying for Bletchley Park by revealing that the funds actually came from its own straitened coffers. Numerous academic monographs have shown that by the end of the war there was little amateurishness in either the operations or the organisation of the codebreakers’ world. War is a ruthless driver of modernisation. So vital was the work of the Bletchley Park boffins that bumblers who obstructed change were roughly pushed aside.
There is another side, too, of the codebreakers’ story that tends to be overlooked. This is the breaking of Japanese codes that forms the subject of Michael Smith’s engrossing book, first published in 2000 but reissued now by Dialogue. Part of the explanation for this neglect lies in the fact that much of their work took place in scattered imper ia l outposts such as Hong Kong, Singapore, Colombo, Mombasa and Brisbane rather than in Britain itself, and piecing together a coherent narrative from such geographically dispersed places is difficult. It’s also the case that the official files on the Japanese codes were amongst the last to be released. More important, however, is that the tr iumph over Japanese codes has generally been attributed to the Americans. Indeed, in 1940 a high-powered team of United States army codebreakers defeated the vital Japanese ‘Purple’ (diplomatic) cypher, and from then on a vital stream of ‘Magic’ intelligence flowed to the Allies. Perhaps its best pay-off came not where it might have been expected – in the Pacific – but in Europe. Hiroshi Oshima, the Japanese military attaché in Berlin, frequently met with top Nazi leaders and passed
LITERARY REVIEW February 2011