|Island Notes: Jansenoff Liberty Exiles|
|Wednesday, 30 May 2012 12:59|
I have just read an exceptionally scholarly book about the Loyalists from the American Revolutionary War by Harvard Professor Maya Jansenoff entitled ‘Liberties Exiles’. Once started, I found it difficult to put the book down. The book follows the plight of the Loyalists who came to the Bahamas and helps to explain why they were so exasperated with their situation here. This was because many of the Loyalists were first settled in British Florida before it reverted to Spanish rule and then were forced to leave again, this time for the Bahamas – a country that had already absorbed a great many Loyalists. Understandably most of the newcomers blamed the imperial government for their problems. I could not help asking the professor about some things that often seem to be glossed over in re-telling the history of the time. Unhappily I did not receive a response to the letter that follows.
Dear Professor Jansenof
I enjoyed reading your book about ‘Liberties Exiles’ For me it was particularly interesting since I am a Bahamian citizen and have many friends among the descendants of the people you wrote about. Your knowledge of the subject and scholarship is impressive but as you may imagine I have some questions and comments. Incidentally I have an enduring interest in the Bahamas having written books that touch mainly on the lighter side of its history.
My first comment on your book that seems to me to be fundamental to the history of the American Revolution concerns the oft repeated phrase that the colonists were fighting ‘tyranny’ (that you too repeat without further comment). That would surely make King George III into a tyrant…I wonder, is this not an overstatement? (Perhaps we have changed our definition of tyrant since the Eighteenth Century: Ghaddafi, Hitler and Saddam Hussein were certainly tyrants but poor old sick George III…mmm?) Many British colonial administrators were doubtless corrupt and even inept (and doubtless unhappy about being away from home among callow colonials in an increasingly hostile environment) but I question if they too could be dismissed as ‘tyrannical’. The whole subject matter of this first civil war in America I suggest, surely hinges on this point? I am sure you would concur that the ‘Sons of Liberty’ and their followers were only a small minority at the start of the ‘troubles’. Then, as in most independence movements, the ringleaders (with rare exceptions) had much to gain politically, socially and financially by ridding themselves of people they considered arrogant ‘outsiders’ even though they admit (in the Declaration of Independence no less) they shared with the British ‘common blood’. Once set in motion the imperative to carry revolt to revolution was paramount for them since, if they failed, they would have been considered traitors and would almost certainly have been executed. I recall Franklin’s remark that went something like ‘we better hang together for, if we don’t, we shall certainly hang separately’. The revolt eventually led to excesses of ‘official’ propagandistic lying (by Washington among others) and extreme cruelty (tarring and feathering) that on the whole, according to my reading at least, was not matched with the same brutality by the British side.
A major discontent of the colonists - often not emphasized enough in my opinion - is that the metropolitan government was at this time being urged to take a stand against slavery (witness the Somersett case 1772 that confirmed slavery to be anathema in Britain). This action, the colonists feared with good reason, might be shortly extended to the colonies. Also, as we know, the British were strongly in favour of Indian rights and their territorial integrity (though of course they had the understandable motive of hoping for a continuing alliance with the Indians against their enemies especially the French). The colonist’s hypocrisy of proclaiming the ‘inalienable rights of man’ while condoning slavery and conniving to steal the land of the native Americans I believe cannot be emphasized strongly enough. Incidentally I was also surprised you did not mention Dr. Church (the New England Loyalist) - or did I miss a mention of him somewhere?
Lastly, given that the Loyalists who chose to leave their homeland were denied reparations for their immovable property from the United States it is perhaps understandable that the imperial government would not deprive them of one of their few ‘moveable’ assets they possessed…that is to say, their slaves. Thus, almost certainly as an indirect consequence of the American Revolution, the inhuman institution of slavery persisted for nearly another 50 years in the British Caribbean Region (until 1834).
Again I must say how much I enjoyed reading your book and would be interested to hear your comments on my observations.
Peter Barratt MCP ‘61
As a footnote you may be interested to know that in the 1970’s Freemasonry was introduced into Abaco when a Lodge named for Carleton was started by a majority (I recall) of black Bahamians mainly from Grand Bahama. I had the pleasure to be present at the inauguration of the Lodge.
© Peter Barratt
Island Notes is contributed weekly by Peter Barratt, an architect/town planner formerly in charge of the development of Freeport, and author of a number of books including FREEPORT NOTEBOOK, GRAND BAHAMA, and BAHAMA SAGA. He has some very interesting notes on the early history of Freeport but, he admits himself, he should have taken a correspondence course in poetry writing. Barratt's books are available in Grand Bahama at Oasis drug store, the Rand Nature Centre, Bahamian T'ings and the Garden of the Groves shops. In Nassau his books are available at most bookshops on the island.
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