Liberty’s Exiles

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Liberty's Exiles: How the Loss of America Made the British Empire by Maya Jasanoff, book reviewWhen I came across Liberty’s Exiles: The Loss of America and the Remaking of the British Empire by Maya Jasanoff, I was attracted by the pretty cover and what sounded like an interesting subject matter. I didn’t really think any deeper about the choice of book than that. Despite my wide reading on history, particularly British, this was a subject I knew nothing about, and in a time period which has never really captured my interest – the eighteenth century. So this was a step into the unknown for me, and attempt to broaden my knowledge of world history.

Liberty’s Exiles is the story of those who had remained loyal to Britain and the crown during the American revolution of the 1770s. Known as loyalists, when the patriots emerged triumphant and Britain lost the thirteen colonies in America which became the formative United States, these people were no longer welcome in what they saw as their own country. For while they were loyal British subjects, they were also Americans. Liberty’s Exiles charts their journeys to new homes throughout the empire, with most of them being uprooted more than once.

These loyalists included people from many backgrounds, from the rich white landowners to their black slaves. There were also many poorer white Americans in their numbers, and many former slaves who had won their freedom by fighting for the British. All these people had ideas about their rights as British subjects more in common with the ideas of the patriots than with those in Britain, which caused difficulties for them and for the British government.

Liberty’s Exiles focuses on a number of individuals and families in order to tell the wider story of the loyalist diaspora following the revolution. These include men and women, both black and white. The detail included by Jasanoff is quite incredible, and it is clear that a vast amount of research has gone into her work to be able to paint such a vivid picture. Her writing is clear and easier to follow, but I did find Liberty’s Exiles harder going than most other history works which I have read – possibly due to my lack of knowledge on the subject, and everything being new to me.

The stories of the refugees are very moving. While there were some who stayed in one place once they left the United States, all of our protagonists travelled many times before being able to settle. They encountered problems everywhere they went, and were unable to put down roots. Some lost children and family members, which is to be expected given the conditions of the time, but it is hard to read about these further hardships after these people had already lost their homes and possessions and sailed into the unknown.

The time during which these events took place was one of change for the black slaves and free subjects of the British empire. Slavery had been abolished in Britain, and would soon be abolished throughout the empire. The abolitionist movement was gaining pace, and a large number of slaves and their families gained their freedom following the revolution. Yet these free black loyalists still struggled to have rights in the places they moved to, as it was hard for the white loyalists and the authorities to see them as free. They also caused resentment by providing cheaper labour than white workers – having never been paid before, they worked for very low wages. What struck me reading about these slaves and former slaves was that while the 1770s seems a long time ago, it was the 1860s before slavery was abolished following the American Civil War, the black civil rights struggle continued well into the late twentieth century, and it was only in the last few years that the US Senate apologised for slavery and subsequent discriminatory laws. The struggles that these slaves and free blacks suffered through would have been easily understood by African-Americans alive over the course of the last half century, despite the difference in the times they lived in.

Another aspect of American history covered in Liberty’s Exiles which caught my attention was that of the Native Americans, or Indians. More often than not these nations allied with the British who were more understanding towards them and offered land and freedom to them, but subsequently abandoned them when the going got tough. While it is good to know that the British empire was more conciliatory towards the Indian nations than the Americans, I find it shameful that they were so easily left behind, particularly as given my scant knowledge of these Indians, I believe they were driven from their lands and few remain today.

I found Liberty’s Exiles to be truly fascinating, but what I didn’t expect was that I would come away wanting to know more about American history. It’s not something which has ever particularly interested me, perhaps because it is such a young country. But I find I want to know more about the formation and growth of what is today one of the world’s greatest powers, and I want to know more about how the Indians fared during this growth as the American frontier pushed further west.

Liberty’s Exiles is not a light read, and is sometimes upsetting, reading about the hardships these loyalists faced for having supported their country and empire. But it is one which is well worth reading. It gives an understanding of the British empire in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as well as how it and the United States moved on from the revolution.

Liberty’s Exiles: The Loss of America and the Remaking of the British Empire by Maya Jasanoff
Published by Harper Press, February 2011
Many thanks to Harper Press for providing a review copy of Liberty’s Exiles.

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Liberty's Exiles: How the Loss of America Made the British Empire
by Maya Jasanoff

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Written by eilidhcatriona

A Scottish lass in her late twenties living in London. A prolific reader always interested in something new.

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