- Negro Comrades of the Crown: African Americans and the British Empire Fight the U.S. Before Emancipation by Gerald Horne
Slavery, American Revolution, African Americans
Beginning with seminal scholarship by Benjamin Quarles, Betty Fladeland, and Robin Winks, and later R. J. M. Blackett and Don Fehrenbacher, historians have moved to place American abolitionism, and all of the U.S.'s racialized post-Revolutionary polity, into a global frame. Although Ibero America and the Caribbean (the "American Mediterranean," to borrow Matthew Pratt Guterl's fine formulation) are important to this transnational turn, the major impetus has been bringing back what should never have been left out—the subordinate position of the young republic within the British Atlantic world.
Gerald Horne's Negro Comrades of the Crown is a major addition to this scholarship, principally because of its author's vast erudition. Horne is a remarkable researcher and goes deeper than anyone before into the minutiae of Anglo-American diplomatic relations on this vexed topic. Uncovering every kind of archival record, obscure memoirs, letters, and travel narratives, he documents how, between 1775 and 1861, from Bermuda to British Columbia to the Bahamas, black men found refuge under the Union Jack. With great consistency, he shows, they were permitted to take up arms against (and take revenge on, he argues) the slaveholding "American republicans," especially when British commanders operated inside North America. Although some of this history is known, such as during the War of 1812, where slaves were recruited in large numbers in the Chesapeake and the Old Southwest borderlands, Horne winkles out many smaller instances of black colonial militias eager to take the King's shilling, or armed gangs protecting runaways who had reached British soil to whom Crown officials turned a blind eye. [End Page 353]
In that sense, the latter part of his title tells the reader exactly what this book intends: a catalogue of all the times when "African Americans and the British Empire fought the U.S. before emancipation." Its massive documentation, with 136 pages of notes, fulfills that goal, but its diffuse focus impedes the author's stated purpose, which is to show that the "alliance between London and Africans within the republic" constituted "the single most important threat to U.S. national security" (5). (That this perspective was shared by many of the leading southern politicians, from John C. Calhoun to Andrew Jackson, raises many questions: Was it empirically true, or at least reasonable, or rather an instance of "the paranoid style?" The impact of an African American fifth column inside U.S. domestic politics, including the politics of African Americans, lies outside the book's purview, however, which may frustrate readers seeking a deeper understanding.) On various occasions, the book's narrative spreads well beyond its stated parameters, to encompass all those of African descent who did—or, often, simply might have—allied themselves with the British imperial state against the United States. In these instances, the people Horne describes were not African Americans, but Afro Caribbeans, as in the West Indian regiments feared by southern American political leaders, or Afro Canadians (who, like the "Empire Loyalists," had roots in the republic, but embraced their Canadian identity), or, most confusingly, Haitians and even Mexicans not in any evident way connected to the British Empire.
A related issue is the question of motive. Drawing on recent scholarship by Christopher L. Brown, among others, Horne attributes a mixture of ideological, diplomatic, and military impulses to British leaders, above all "a shrewd realization by elites" that emancipation, whether in their Caribbean colonies or the southern U.S., was in their interest (44). On this front he is on reasonably solid ground, although some may find his assertion of a consistent intentionality to British emancipationism to be reductive. He appears uninterested in the cultural nuances of Anglo- African alliances, which reflected many different worldviews, from military loyalty to imperial realpolitik, and certainly schadenfreude toward the Americans. After West Indian emancipation in...