Sunday, June 8, 2008

Simon Schama: Rough Crossings: A Review

Historians like to tell stories, true stories that spring from the materials that have survives from the past. Putting the events together in a seamless web of narrative involves great intellectual and physical effort. And when you read a really good historical work based on exhaustive archival research you get the feeling of drifting into another world altogether. That is why someone said:The past is a foreign country. The twentieth century has seen a number of great historians: Fernand Braudel,Lawrence Stone, Bernard Bailyn, Theodore Mommsen and Simon Schama. Of these Theodore Mommsen won the Nobel Prize and still remains the only historian so honored. He was a historian of the Roman Empire who shifted the focus of research from the Empire to the Provinces. He wrote in a polished and sophisticated style that probably was considered literary by the Literature Committee of the Alfred Nobel Foundation. Thomas Mann was also a good writer and his son Golo Mann has certainly inherited his father's gift for words. The stories that historians tell about the past are regarded as true stories because the characters spring from a whole skein of written and unwritten evidence, not testimony. Unfortunately is a moment of self destruction probably even of self delusion, historians began neglecting the basic features of the craft in favor of abstractions like "models" "causation" "hypotheses" personification of historical epochs as "feudal" "capitalist" etc.The result was a general impoverishment of the art of history writing. Then came Hayden White who even said that history is only a "construct" like any other discourse.The sad state of affairs did not last long. Historians soon realised that a discipline that has been around for nearly 3000 years cannot be swept aside from the intellectual heritage of mankind. The craft of writing history not only involves a commitment to truth, no matter how elusive it may be but also the ability to write in a style free from the vacuous jargon that clutters the pages of several journals. One historian who has stood apart is Simon Schama.Trained in the University of Cambridge Simon Schama teaches at tColumbia University. He is the author of Landscape and Memory and Embarrassment of Riches.He has just published another excellent book, Rough Crossings.The American War of Independence is usually seen as a gigantic struggle against oppression and an epic saga of liberty and freedom. This patriotic interpretation cannot be cynically set aside for the simple reason that all the participants in that struggle, Washington, Jefferson, Adams and Franklin were all influenced by the dominant intellectual ideas of the time that we now collectively call the Enlightenment. Yet the principle of human equality was not present in the minds of those patriots and leads to an obvious paradox: The Americans fought for their freedom and the Slaves in the US at that time fought on the side of the British. This point is ably brought out by Simon Schama in this book. After the defeat of the English and after the surrender of Cornwallis many of the slaves who fought on the side of the British escaped to Nova Scotia in Canada. In fact conservative English judges who were called upon to deliver judgement on the status of slaves who escaped in British ports ususally set them free while liberal ideologues were less forthright in accepting the theory of mono genesis. Simon Schama has documented in great detail the lives of several slaves who faught and died in the American War of Independence.It is a tragic fact of history that the triumph of the rebels meant postponing the freedom of the African American population. This book is worth reading.

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