Tuesday, March 12, 2013

"The Slaves' Gamble" by Gene Allen Smith (2013)

When the War of 1812 broke out, the slaves being held by the American colonists were faced with a very serious choice. Should they stand by their owners (which was/is a horrible way to describe another human being) or, rather, should they align themselves with the British, forming a devastating rearguard action which surely would have altered the course, and fate, of the war in favor of the British. They were promised their freedom in return. And who could blame them if they chose that course of action? Freedom is a very seductive incentive.

It is really very hard to draw any firm conclusion as to the intentions of the slaves during the war. While some of the stories recounted in this fascinating book about a long overlooked chapter of American history would indicate that the slaves were looking to the British for salvation; as with the slaves who fled Washington, unwittingly forming a “rear guard” for the British soldiers; other stories show that many African-Americans; both slave and freedmen; stayed the course with their fellow countrymen.

As a matter of fact, the largest obstacle which faced the British Army as they converged on Washington was the presence of an artillery battery manned by both black and white sailors, who had scuttled their ship and then hauled the guns overland to Washington in defense of the capitol. If the white militias had not run from their posts, Washington may not have been burned.

Filled with the flavor of the era in which the events took place, the author has done a magnificent job in telling the story of historical figures, who, until now, may have ended up lost in the dust heap of history. My favorite character in this whole ensemble has got to be George Roberts, an African-American who worked aboard the privateers who were running the British blockade. Aboard the Sarah Ann, cruising off the Bahamian coast, he was taken prisoner with 5 other men; all chosen at random; by the British, who accused them of being from English citizens. The ships owners in Charleston vouched for him and he was released, and in 1814 became a crew member on the privateer Chausseur until April of 1815, after the war had ended the previous December.

The story of the Chausser would make an excellent book all upon its own merit. For 8 months that ship lurked off the coast of the British Isles, raiding, sinking and capturing a total of 17 ships, impacting the British where it hurt most; in the pocket. At one point Captain Boyle of the Chausseur had a notice posted upon the door of Lloyds of London, which drove up shipping rates. He also declared the British Isles to be under blockade; which indeed they were! Its stories like this which bring history to life, giving it the human dimension which helps to keep it from being lost. While it’s easy to forget the dates of any particular exploit; authors such as Mr. Smith, make certain that the events themselves will live on forever.

Another aspect of this book which was educational, as well as entertaining; was that the burning of Washington by the British was not done out of sheer cussedness; which is how we all learned about it in school; but was, rather, done in retaliation for the Americans having previously burned down part of Quebec.
In the final analysis, the slaves were pawns in the struggle between the Americans and the British. The choices which they were forced to make placed them on both sides of the conflict, whether they wanted to be, or not. It would be another 4 decades before African-Americans would get another chance to prove themselves in battle for a country which treated them as chattel. And even that war would not free them from the bondage of their color. That would come later, as men and women began to see one another in terms other than the shade of their skins, and instead by the things they did. These men and women all contributed something of value to a struggle which still continues today.

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