Thursday, December 20, 2012

A Book About Those Who Stayed Loyal to Britain During and After the American Revolution.

Our book club met on Wednesday, November 12th to discuss Liberty's Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World by Maya Jasanoff. The manager at Barnes and Noble had told us we could not use their store due to the holiday season, but the owners of the Kensington Row Bookshop kindly stepped in and provided meeting space.

The book focuses on the colonial loyalists who sided with Britain in the American Revolution. The discussion brought out the fact that the Revolution was a rather brutal civil war North America. Revolutionaries demanded oaths of loyalty to the revolution, mobs used tar and feathers (in one case mentioned in the book lighting the tar thereby causing permanent disability). One must assume old grudges were settled violently on both sides. Property of loyalists was expropriated by the revolutionaries. Thousands of British loyalists were driven into New York, Charleston and  other cities held by the the British forces.

American history as taught in the schools emphasizes that the British troops included not only people from the British Isles, but German military unites rented for the war by the British government. The book notes that there were also American loyalist units. There were Creek and Iroquois Indians fighting on the British side as there were Indians fighting with the revolutionaries. As the American revolutionaries successfully resisted defeat by the British, the French and Spanish eventually joined in war against Britain.

When the war ended there were many loyalist who went into exile. They included English loyalists, Mohawks, and freed Blacks. In addition, many loyalist slave owners took their slaves with them. Jasanoff believes that an estimate of 75,000 refugees may be justified by the existing records. (I wonder whether some uncounted loyalists took refuge to the western wilderness, including Indian refugees. Might others have sought refuge before, during or after the war by simply leaving for Europe, the Caribbean, or Spanish America?)

The largest portion went to what is now Canada. the Mohawks established themselves as part of the Canadian Iroquois community and their leader Joseph Brandt is now considered a Canadian hero. The Whites significantly increased the White population of Canada and eventually used their political power to reduce the liberties that had earlier been given the French Canadians by the British Parliament.

The British in Canada were overwhelmed by the needs of feeding and housing the refugees, whose number was large with respect to the existing population of European-Canadian residents. The promises made to the refugees were not (perhaps could not be) fulfilled. There were also what now appear to be inequities. The Blank freemen were provided smaller land grants than their White counterparts, and aristocrats were better treated than commoners. There was a riot in which the White refugees drove Black refugees out of their separate settlement burning their huts.

Some of the loyalists returned to England, and they and their descendants in some cases moved on to other parts of the empire. The British broke new ground by initiating a policy of reimbursing loyalists who had property confiscated by the revolutionary United States. A commission was created to record claims and where possible to substantiate them. Pensions were provided to some refugees, large for the formerly rich, small for the poor. Eventually many refugees received reimbursements for their losses. Of course the well connected aristocrats did better than others.

Some refugees were sent to east Florida. We had recently read The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam by Barbara W. Tuchman. Tuchman devoted a section of that book to the follies of the British government that led to the American revolution and to its success. This book suggested the follies continued. Thus the British ceded Florida to the Spanish in the treaty ending the war. The Spanish announced that the British loyalist refugees could stay if they became Catholics and swore loyalty to the Spanish king, but many refused and had again to emigrate as refugees.

Many refugees went to British colonial Islands: Jamaica, Barbados and the Bahamas. The book points out that the Bahamas to the east of Florida and in the Gulf Stream are quite different ecologically than the Caribbean Islands. The plantation culture in the Caribbean Islands was economically very successful. The refugee loyalists immigrating to the Bahamas were much less successful.

The Bahamian story is again a march of follies. An American revolutionary force invaded, meeting little and ineffectual resistance by local militias, and then withdrew. The Spanish then took Nassau, and were in turn defeated by a tiny force of irregular American loyalists from Florida, discovering only later that the Spanish had ceded the Islands to Britain in the 1783 treaty ending the war.

The British offered freedom to any slaves who escaped their masters and joined the British military forces. When after the war, Washington and other slave owners demanded the return of their escaped slaves, the British responded that their honor demanded that the promises made to those Black now be kept. Thus a relatively large number of freed Blacks were among the refugees. Some of these eventually helped found Sierra Leon as a state for freed former slaves and their descendants. However, there were also slaves who were taken as property by white loyalists refugees. One of these was instrumental in a slave revolt in the 19th century in the Bahamas. (The willingness of slaves to take up arms against their masters shown in these times must have fueled the fear of slave revolts long after in the South.)

The loss of the North American colonies was a blow to the self image of the British and the government officials who were responsible were quickly replaced. The new cabinet apparently learned many lessons from the experience, and colonial administration was improved. Britain, of course, went on to rule the Indian subcontinent for a century and a half. It colonized much of Africa. It also revised its colonial administration of Canada, Australia and New Zealand. (One of the odd stories told in the book is that an American loyalist refugee in England advanced a plan to settle a community of his fellows in Australia, but revised that plan to substitute prisoners from the overcrowded prisons of the British Islands. That plan was accepted, leading to a history told in another book read in the past by the club -- The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia's Founding by Robert Hughes,

We have become inured to the suffering of millions of refugees from wars and their aftermaths, especially for the club members old enough to recall the aftermath of World War II. That in no way reduces the fact that there was great suffering among the loyalist refugees of the Revolutionary War. Many were forced out of their homes, lived with difficulty in overcrowded and poorly supplied towns held by the British during the war, and then were exiled. One of the lessons of the book was that the rich and aristocratic survived much better as refugee loyalists than the poor -- no surprise that.

Fifteen club members showed up for the discussion, not all of whom had been read the book. None the less, the discussion was lively. It appeared that those who had read the book found it interesting and well written.

Jasanoff had broken new ground in her exhaustive research for the books, since she was able to search materials located in the many countries that had received the refugees. She was able to use records from the British government of the transport of the refugees, their resettlement, and the reparations committee. Refugee families were separated in the aftermath of the war, as were people with long established friendships, and some the correspondence among these people survives and was used in the research. Thus the author was able to draw on first hand accounts of the lives and feelings of the refugees.

There was strong agreement among club members that the book explained aspects of the Revolution we had not recognized, and explained them well.

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