Simon Schama: Over the rainbow

After two decades of US success, Simon Schama repays his hosts with a book about the slaves who chose British freedom. Boyd Tonkin meets the prince of paradox
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You would no more bother to parody most historians (however ineptly) than you would mimic the average actuary. With Simon Schama, the case is altered. His exuberant literary voice (in the dozen books that have sold over a million copies in Britain alone) and quirkily charismatic screen presence (in three History of Britain seasons that drew up to four million viewers to BBC2) have made over the don into a brand. Like all the best brands, the Schama style boasts a unique flavour. The scholar-artist mines the archives and then hammers out a form of historical storytelling that marries jewel-like colouring of character, place and period with the iron grip of a strong-pulsed narrative.

A shameless virtuoso of history as literature, Schama admits that "I'm always accused of making it up". He doesn't - except, perhaps, in the jeu d'esprit of his 1991 book, Dead Certainties. When, in his pages, it pours, or it freezes, or it scorches, or it blows, he can cite you chapter and verse. And the weather of history does all that - and more - over the rainbow-hued landscapes and seascapes of London, New York, Georgia, Carolina, Nova Scotia, the storm-churned Atlantic, and the humid jungle clearing that became Freetown, Sierra Leone, in his book Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution (BBC Books, £20).

Unlike most brand leaders, Schama has no manipulative slogan; save the conviction that historians and their readers should shun conformity and credulity. "Pouring trouble on oily waters, that's what we're here for," he says, downstairs in the airy, clutter-free flat he uses on family and filming visits to London from his home in the Hudson Valley. "Historians are supposed to be mischief-makers. We're the enemies of complacency."

With Rough Crossings, Schama may well - at least in the US - shoot right off the mischief-making scale. This book turns much conventional wisdom about the American Revolution on its head. It concerns the "black loyalists": the multitude of slaves in the 1770s and 1780s who, lured by the promises of freedom made by the British, fled American rebel masters in their scores of thousands to rally to the flag of King George. Especially in the South, that ever-so-righteous war for liberty against British tyranny begins to look more like a brutal slavers' insurgency to enforce control over human chattels.

"The evidence just can't let you reach any other conclusion," says the magus of mischief. "Whatever we think about American and British behaviour, the blacks themselves voted with their feet, in overwhelmingly greater numbers, for the King - however deluded they may be."

Interspersed with the story of the British abolitionists, Rough Crossings tracks the hard path of the former slaves who kept faith with the crown. It follows them, and their stalwart British backers, through the hopes, hardships and betrayals of an epic journey out of the new slave-owners' Republic, into a Nova Scotian wilderness settlement, and then - astonishingly - back over the Atlantic to the "free and virtuous black society" built in Sierra Leone under the heroic if neurotic eyes of the visionary first governor, John Clarkson (younger brother of Thomas, leader of the anti-slavery campaign).

The book, a true tale written with more creative force and fire than 99 per cent of the year's "literary fiction", is studded with the immensely moving voices of the freed slaves themselves and strewn with nuggets of dazzling detail. So we learn (in one of my favourite gems) that, in Sierra Leone in 1792, "the first women to cast their votes for any kind of public office anywhere in the world were black, liberated slaves who had chosen British freedom".

Schama made his own less-than-rough crossing when he moved from Oxford to Harvard in 1980, and then to Columbia University in 1993. Now a "University Professor" there, he can teach the courses that he chooses in the art history he loves. He's also making a new BBC series in the triumphant wake of A History of Britain - about turning-points in the work of great artists - and writing the books that made up half of a seven-figure print-and-screen deal struck with the Beeb in 2003.

Although still an occasional essayist for the New Yorker (which he loves for its "real family feeling"), he no longer writes the art reviews collected in Hang-Ups. At the height of Schama's multi-platformed plate-spinning act, he was also "trying to be a husband and a dad - and I was about to lose it completely". So the column went, while the teaching shrank, and the children grew: one at college, one a trainee journalist on the New Republic. Still, Schama's comparatively quiet life sounds like most people's mega-decibel frenzy.

Rough Crossings will not reduce the volume much. This revisionist bombshell of a book seems a curious present to offer the United States to mark Schama's quarter-century of success across the Atlantic. You can understand why, a short while ago, he felt "very relieved to have his Green Card replaced". Yet it comes out of his long-cherished design "to do a book that was coloured by the fact that I'd spent about half my life in America - in gratitude and deep scepticism, both alienated and utterly immersed, as someone who likes both cricket and baseball". Inevitably, the aftermath of 11 September hastened this project, but "my recoil instinct was to make it as little like a 'Special Relationship' book as possible".

Rather than dangle another bland hand across the sea, Schama wanted to focus on the sharp edges and raw wounds of Anglo-American history. He is drawn to "post-divorce custody battles"; to "a history of arguments" - over the meaning of freedom, of beauty, of art. "Britain and America are like a couple who are irreversibly divorced, but who kind of fancy each other still. There is something in each other's political and literary bloodstreams that bonded them together."

So Rough Crossings does count as a spiky sort of tribute to Schama's adopted home. "I was very concerned that it not replace American self-congratulation with British self-congratulation," he says, noting that the British often broke their word and sold ex-slaves down the river (not merely a metaphor, alas). He adds that "What's shocking is not that we [the Brits] betrayed them; what's shocking are the moments of genuine integrity," when the duffer Whig aristocrats who led King George's armies kept promises of freedom and protection to the fugitive slaves. In an ocean of opportunism, these points of honour shine: "The message here is - don't forget little moments that are really moments of extraordinary grandeur."

As for US readers, Schama hopes that his cliché-busting story of (some) virtuous Brits and (some) hypocritical Patriots will offer an alternative to the "consolatory" history they love, about "the wisdom, nobility and foresightedness of the Founding Fathers. All of which is true, but is used somehow as a balm against self-interrogation. That gets up my nose - it really does." Yet when he curses the "epidemic of respectability" that has cowed US liberals in the wake of the Iraq débâcle, he sounds more angry native than cool outsider. So does anything about his second homeland still feel alien?

Well, he did think that going to lecture to Mormon students in Utah would prove his Old European otherness, but he loved their company and their discussion. "And I came back and Ginny, my wife, said 'You're wearing that smile. They've got you' - because her sister is a Mormon. 'You've been captured by the pod people'."

That sounds unfeasible, at least for as long as this "missionary for pessimism" continues to rain cheerfully on the American parade with embarrassing evidence of a past that was never black-and-white. "It's not a proper history if it doesn't make these moves in the face of every possible orthodoxy," he says - as close as we might ever get to a corporate catchphrase for the Schama brand. "Everything I do is allergic to position statements. I just wanted to write it out in shades of grey." With Rough Crossings, grey has never looked and felt so colourful.

Biography: Simon Schama

Born in 1945, the son of a textile merchant, Simon Schama was brought up in London and Southend and went to Haberdashers' Aske's School. He studied history at Christ's College, Cambridge, and became a fellow there and at Brasenose College, Oxford. He moved to Harvard University in 1980 and, since 1993, has taught history and art history at Columbia University. His books include Patriots and Liberators (1977), The Embarrassment of Riches (1987), Citizens (1989), Dead Certainties (1991), Landscape and Memory (1995), Rembrandt's Eyes (1999) and the trilogy that partnered his A History of Britain TV series (2000-2002). His art criticism is collected as Hang-Ups, and Rough Crossings will be published on 8 September by BBC Books. Simon Schama (CBE, 2001) lives with his family in the Hudson Valley, New York.