Rough Crossings

Nadeem | | Saturday, September 29th, 2007

I was fortunate enough to see Rough Crossings at The Birmingham Rep last week. The play was adapted for the stage by Caryl Phillips and was based on Simon Schama’s book of the same title.

In summary the play tells the tale of a group of slaves who join the English army during the American war for independence – on the basis that the English have offered them their freedom from slavery and a new home in England. However at the end of the war the English, who are retreating, abandon the ex-slaves in Novia Scotia which is a harsh place where they suffer much hardship and death. One of their number (Thomas Peters) travels to London to fight for better conditions for them and to try to English to honour the promises they had made. John Clarkson, one of a group of anti-slavery campaigners, agrees to help him. Clarkson sets up the Sierra Leone Company and the Novia Scotia settlers are assisted to move back to Africa and settle in what is aimed to be a society based on democratic principles. However when they arrive in Sierra Leone they discover that the lands promised to them have not yet been acquired from the locals and the English who were sent in advance are both corrupt and prejudiced, which leads to disputes between Peters and Clarkson’s about the nature of the latter’s leadership of this colony.

The play at its core is about the nature of what it means to truly be free, to Peter’s that means self-determination and its this that creates the tension between him and Clarkson who Peter’s views as a white moses leading them freedom.

There is no doubt in my mind that Schama’s book ( which I have since started reading ) is a revisionist examination of the American War of Independence which touches on some important issues about the founding principles of the United States … for example if the War of Independance was fought for freedom and it was such a wonderful thing, why did all these black people want to fight for the British? They did so because they knew that the American Republic was grounded in hypocrisy. Where the play succeeds is that it examines these issues through characters and relationships. As a result the characters are complex and don’t easily fit into cliches or the kinds of stereotypes I suppose we are used to seeing when dealing with such an emotionally charged subject … I guess what I’m trying to say is that they aren’t polarised … they’re not just black or white.

In order to develop these characters the play switches from scenes depicting the struggle of the abolitionist movement in England with scenes depicting the struggles and hardship suffered by the blacks during the war of independence in America, yet I did find it disturbing that the abolitionists solution to the problem of ending Slavery wasn’t to free the slaves and give them lands here in England the attitude that seemed to prevail was … its right that they should be free but that doesn’t mean we want them living next door to us.

The play showed two attempts to create a colony in Sierra Leone the first failed when one of the Black Slaves, wanting to be rich, wealthy and powerful, like the white men he saw in England and America conspired with local tribes to sell his fellow emancipated slaves back into Slavery. This resulted in the destruction of the colony. This was largely because the abolitionists only considered that their mission was to commission some boats, and gather some wealth so that they could ship the slaves to Africa and leave them to sort themselves out, they have their own little democracy, they never considered that these people would need protection or some kind of oversight … does this sound familiar to anyone?

The second expedition led by Clarkson promised self determination for the Slaves but with protection from England the Sierra Leon company.  Clarkson believed that they couldnt simply abandon the slaves to fend for themselves, that their responsibilities to these people ran deeper than that. Yet whilst this new colony thrived , it was still, largely, whites ruling over blacks. It’s the dynamic between Peters and Clarkson at this point in the play that was so captivating … and finally led to Clarkson to ask the question

how do you balance benevolence with authority?

It was a wonderful, captivating and moving production which is well worth watching. I believe the play is now touring around the UK, I thoroughly recommend seeing it.

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