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Book Review: Maya Jasanoff (2011), Liberty's Exiles: the Loss of America and the remaking of the British Empire, London: Harper Press

This is the second of a series of book reviews in which we ask an academic and a student to review the same work. Suggestions of books to review are welcome.

 

Maya Jasanoff (2011), Liberty's Exiles: the Loss of America and the remaking of the British Empire, London: Harper Press, 460pp
ISBN: 978-0-00-718008-0 (hardback)

 

Maya Jasanoff's Liberty's Exiles is an excellent book. In it Jasanoff defies simple characterisation, challenges overly deterministic views of history (both contemporary and recent) and absorbs the history of the revolutionary American republic into its wider oceanic context, while all the time telling a cracking good story.

Some academics (notably Stephen Howe and Linda Colley) have already critiqued and gently criticised the book on the grounds that its main device, the deployment of individual stories to illuminate the whole, is long established and indeed deeply entrenched. But this present reviewer sees no harm in the quick-moving and quick-witted sequence of narratives that Jasanoff employs. Indeed, quite the opposite: for if there is one cardinal virtue when trying to involve and interest students, it is the ability to reveal, incident by incident, what the author understands to be the 'true' nature of a moment or movement. Undergraduates and graduates can then dip in and out of the text, seizing on the concepts involved as well as diving into the individual lives of those (counter-) revolutionaries who shaped and reshaped the past.

Professional researchers' over-familiarity with the sources, and long, dogged pursuit of Atlantic Britons' internecine eighteenth-century disputes, are not always a good guide to those books that new readers – and students – will find useful. Jasanoff's previous book, on the 'ornamentalism' of Imperial collectors and antiquaries, was an enlightening, enlivening example of those meticulous techniques at work. Here, she paints on a wider canvas – and her work is just as coruscating. Undergraduates new to the British Empire, across the English-speaking world, can now track the sense of exile, loss and continuing loyalty that abided even after the sundering of Britain's North American Empire. They can now use this book as a gateway to further study – including to Jasanoff's previous work. That is no mean feat, in and of itself.

The text itself is a good example of powerfully sustained prose writing and argument: a good case study of efforts and effects to follow. Within these pages the stories proliferate, multiply and collide in a profusion of detail. John Cruden, former government commissioner of sequestered estates in South Carolina, eventually settling in the Bahamas after the Revolution, drawing up ever-more ambitious schemes of Imperial renewal before becoming lost in his own mania; William Augustus Bowles, a precocious adventurer who tried to carve a new British state out of Florida before his capture by the Spanish; the ex-slave and indentured labourer George Liele, who launched a series of Caribbean business ventures alongside his Baptist breaching: these men could be used as exemplars of the declining sense of loss, and the efforts towards renewal, that more old-fashioned texts would have had us call a 'second British Empire'.

Jasanoff has no such crude intent. Instead, what she calls 'the kaleidoscope of empire', which was not necessarily heading anywhere except in every geographical direction, comes vividly to life in her work. 'What', she asks, 'did all those losses, displacements, and overturned lives amount to in the end?' In her hands they become instances of the expansion of the new and even more aggressive military empire that was in later years to stand up to the challenge of Napoleonic France, 'the absence of mournful voices' speaking 'in its eloquent silence, to the loyalists' absorption into an empire able to quiet them'.

In future years it was to spread across the world, like the loyalists of which she writes themselves: to India, Africa, Australasia and the Pacific, in particular. It is testament to Jasanoff's work that Liberty's Exiles helps us understand just that diaspora, and just that momentary triumph.

- Glen O'Hara, Department of History, Oxford Brookes University

 

The subjects of Maya Jasanoff's 'Liberty's Exiles' have not been treated kindly by history: in popular memory, the British loyalist has been relegated to the role of ideological anachronism. Given that America's national identity is so indebted to the spirit of the Revolutionary, it was perhaps inevitable that its adversary would be characterised antithetically. The loyalist stereotype, Jasanoff explains, is of individuals belonging to a 'small conservative elite: rich, educated, Anglican, and with strong ties to Britain – qualities captured by the pejorative label "tory"' (p. 8). This highly intelligent, impeccably researched history – 'the first global history of the loyalist diaspora' – challenges such assumptions with clarity and precision.

Throughout 'Liberty's Exiles' it becomes clear just how unfounded such assumptions are. Rather than fulfilling an elitist stereotype, 'loyalism cut right across the social, geographical, racial and ethnic spectrum of early America – making loyalists every bit as "American" as their patriot fellow subjects' (p. 8). It is wiser, this history reveals, to recognise 'the visible points of convergence between apparent opposites' (p. 242). Those in positions of authority were often shocked by the 'curs'd Republican Town Meeting Spirit' that inhabited the new settlements once they had been filled by loyalist refugees; indeed, 'American loyalists could shockingly resemble American patriots' (p. 170).

The focus of the book is not limited to the experiences of individual loyalists in the post-Revolutionary world. Much of the book details the consequences of the American Revolution for an enduring Empire. It is apparent that the cultural and political ideas of the loyalists were to impact upon the Empire in a significant way. Jasanoff provides an interpretation of loyalist absorption into the post-Revolutionary Empire that is more allogamous than homogenous, citing the exportation of racial attitudes that accompanied the loyalists' mass transportation of slaves, the Baptist faith, and a 'discourse of grievance against imperial authority' (p. 11) that would leave a number of loyalists bitter, unsatisfied and on a path that would see their eventual return to the United States (p. 189).

The structure of the book neatly reflects its global perspective. It is divided along geographical lines with each chapter devoted to a different diasporic destination. While many of the loyalist refugees remained relatively close to their original homes, populating Nova Scotia and New Brunswick as well as the Bahamas and Jamaica, there were many more who arrived in destinations as far away as London, India, Sierra Leone and Australia. It was an unexpected surprise to see characters that occupied a previous chapter rejoin the narrative at a later time and in another place. This is a feature of the book that speaks to the 'recurring logic of dislocation' (p. 293): once the cycle of migration had begun, for some loyalists, it was difficult to stop. Elizabeth Johnston spent much of her life in transit: from Georgia to East Florida, on to Jamaica by way of Edinburgh, and eventually settling in Nova Scotia.

Johnston is one of several individuals whom Jasanoff introduces at the beginning of the book by way of a 'Cast of Characters' that effectively establishes Jasanoff's methodology. The experience of some sixty thousand loyalist refugees is condensed, focusing upon the lives of a few individuals, making this work of global reach satisfactorily intimate. As narrator, Jasanoff brings into vivid focus the geography these refugees occupied, providing a direct link between past and present: "mangrove thickets choke the Black River [in Jamaica] and its tributaries into an impenetrable maze of roots, a network of water and wood. If you pause for just a moment, the insects swarm into a tornado above your head, whine past your ears, and prick your fingers and wrists' (p. 260).

This is a book that is dense and challenging enough to reward readers with some background in the subject matter, yet accessible to a broader readership. The 358 pages of text are supported by a dizzying mass of resources that includes genealogies, letters, journals and memoirs, as well as official records such as those found in the archives of the British Loyalist Claims Commission. This work provides a vital contribution to the history of the American Revolution and that of the British Empire that is too often overlooked.

- Daniel Parr, School of Philosophical, Historical and International Studies, Monash University

 

 

To cite either of these reviews please use the following details: O'Hara, G. OR Parr, D. (2011), 'Maya Jasanoff (2011), Liberty's Exiles: the Loss of America and the remaking of the British Empire', Reinvention: a Journal of Undergraduate Research, Volume 4, Issue 2, http://www.warwick.ac.uk/go/reinventionjournal/archive/volume4issue2/oharaparr Date accessed [insert date]. If you cite these reviews or use them in any teaching or other related activities please let us know by e-mailing us at Reinventionjournal at warwick dot ac dot uk.