Slaves flee the Founding Fathers in search of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
When members of the Continental Congress drafted the Declaration of Independence, they failed to mention that it applied only to white, land-owning men. They also failed to realize the effect their patriotic rhetoric would have on a far more egregiously oppressed people: their own slaves. Australian historian Pybus (The Woman Who Walked to Russia, 2003, etc.) discusses how the ideals of the Revolution filled the hearts and minds of slaves throughout the country and prompted them to embark on their own quest for liberty. Ironically, it was the British who gave them their first, best opportunity by promising to emancipate slaves who helped subdue the rebellious Americans. The British defeat, however, muddied the road to freedom. Americans sought to reclaim their “chattel,” but the Brits salvaged their wounded pride by claiming the moral high ground and liberating as many slaves as possible. Pybus explores the arduous, twisting route these freed people took by focusing on a small group of runaways that included Harry, one of George Washington’s slaves. After the group found Nova Scotia and London inhospitable, they sought liberty within the confines of two experimental (and not particularly successful) colonies set up by the British in Sierra Leone and New South Wales. Throughout their exodus, religion sustained the runaways as they developed a fusion of Christian gospel and spirited, spontaneous exclamations of faith that recalled ancient African rituals. The narrative flow suffers occasionally from too intense a focus on the intimate details of the slaves’ daily lives to the detriment of their overarching quest for liberty and the role the American Revolution played in it. Nevertheless, Pybus injects much-needed humanity into an impersonal cache of historical documents by meticulously recounting the struggles and ultimate fate of individuals like Harry.
Impeccable research and occasionally brilliant insight make this journey well worth the trip.