- Epic Journeys of Freedom: Runaway Slaves of the American Revolution and Their Global Quest for Liberty
Among American audiences—academic and general readers alike—the historical fact that most of the “founding fathers” owned slaves is common knowledge—or at least it should be. However, thanks to the controversy surrounding Sally Hemmings, popular attention is usually focused on Thomas Jefferson. With a masterful command of primary source materials, engaging narrative, and epic sweep, Cassandra Pybus’s Epic Journeys of Freedom: Runaway Slaves of the American Revolution and Their Global Quest for Liberty tells the story of Harry Washington, held in bondage by George Washington on Mount Vernon, as well as other enslaved men and women who aligned themselves with the British during the American Revolution, fought the British to reunite their families and to win their freedom, and for their troubles ended up in various ports of the British Empire—Nova Scotia, Sierra Leone, and New South Wales.
Harry Washington’s story represents irony at its worst. A hostler by trade, Washington escaped from George Washington’s stables by offering his services to British troops. He subsequently was evacuated from Charleston in 1782, first to New York, then to Nova Scotia. At every turn, Washington and other freed people fought the prospects of reenslavement by Patriot slave owners roaming northern cities to capture any freed person, whether they previously had held the freed person in bondage or not. Pybus shows a rare picture of former slaves fighting vehemently, in the face of every challenge, to resist every indignity and injustice that had defined their lives as slaves and to define their own freedom. Washington was one of more than one thousand freed people who abandoned freehold land grants in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick for the opportunity to resettle in the “Province of Freedom,” Sierra Leone. He was one of many settlers who engaged in a protracted struggle with the British government and the Sierra Leone Company to uphold promises for land ownership and self-determination and to fulfill the settlers’ vision of freedom. About forty of them were either executed or banished as a result of their efforts to realize their revolutionary ideals.
Pybus also tells the story of Caesar, an impoverished servant in London (which she describes as “the site of highest concentration of the black diaspora in the 1780’s” ) who was convicted of stealing and sentenced to deportation to the convict settlement in New South Wales. The New South Wales settlement was plagued with desperate starvation, brutality, and privation; Caesar was brutally punished and imprisoned on several occasions for stealing to supplement the painfully inadequate provisions provided by the settlement company. He was not alone. Penalties for stealing food [End Page 226] became increasingly draconian, and Caesar ultimately was killed by bounty hunters.
By putting names and faces to the significant numbers of freed people who aligned themselves with the British in the American Revolution and by providing fascinating and detailed narratives of what became of them, Pybus’s study exposes the narrowness of the revolutionary ideology of American slaveholders and British abolitionists alike. By focusing on the Revolutionary War, its ideals, and its aftermath for the lives of enslaved Africans and freed African Americans, Pybus’s narrative will expand the average reader’s conception of the African diaspora and demonstrate the global impact—and significance—of this phenomenon. [End Page 227]