Simon Schama…

Regards Things and Emotes at Them

That title made me chuckle. The video is pretty darned funny too if you’re familiar with Professor Schama’s work (Amongst other things, he wrote the wonderful book Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution which I cannot recommend highly enough — it’s a thoroughly engrossing read, especially if you’re interested in the taxation and trade policies of the Ancien Régime. Seriously). But I digress. The fellow who edited this compilation of film clips intended it as lighthearted send-up of his recent BBC film The American Future describing the “formulaic” art direction as: “Simon goes somewhere and looks contemplative.”

The musical track, if you’re interested is: Lied Der Grossmutter – Robert Volkmann; Je Te Veux – Erik Satie; and Opus 20 – Dustin O’Halloran.

Update: Speaking of Schama, here he is at Google (Mountain View, CA) in 2007 giving a highly animated talk about his most recent book Rough Crossings (which I haven’t read, but it’s on my list now).

From the review by Publisher’s Weekly:

Has there ever been a patch of history more celebrated than the American Revolution? The torrent is endless: volume after volume about the glory of 1776, the miracle of 1787 and enough biographies of the Founding Fathers to stretch from the Liberty Bell to Bunker Hill and back again. The Library of Congress catalogue lists 271 books or other items to do with George Washington’s death and burial alone. Enough!

By contrast with the usual hagiography, distinguished historian Schama has found a little-known story from this era that makes the Founding Fathers look not so glorious. The Revolution saw the first mass emancipation of slaves in the Americas—an emancipation, however, not done by the revolutionaries but by their enemies. Many American rebel leaders were slave owners. To hit them where it most hurt, Britain proclaimed freedom for all slaves of rebel masters who could make their way to British-controlled territory. Slaves deserted their horrified owners by the tens of thousands.

One, who used his master’s last name, was Henry Washington; another renamed himself British Freedom. The most subversive news in this book is that the British move so shocked many undecided Southern whites that it actually pushed them into the rebel camp: “Theirs was a revolution, first and foremost, mobilized to protect slavery.” Even though they lost the war, most British officers honored their promise to the escaped slaves. The British commander in New York at the war’s end, where some 3,000 runaway slaves had taken refuge, adamantly refused an irate Washington’s demand to give them back. Instead, he put them on ships for Nova Scotia. And there, nearly a decade later, another saga began.

More than a thousand ex-slaves accepted a British offer of land in Sierra Leone, a utopian colony newly founded by abolitionists, which for a few years in the 1790s was the first place on earth where women could vote. Sadly, however, financial problems and the British government’s dismay at so much democracy soon brought an end to the self-rule the former slaves had been promised.

Ah, the things they never teach you in school…

10 Replies to “Simon Schama…”

  1. I haven’t read that one. “Citizens” is just great though. I made it sound kind of dull in the post, but it’s anything but — a massive and sweeping book that’s consistently interesting and frequently compelling. Hard to go wrong with subject matter like that — it’s kind of a “perfect storm” of violence, ideology, economics and more colourful characters than you can shake a stick at. I don’t have it anymore (lost in one of my many moves), but I always keep any eye out for a copy when cruising the used book stores.

  2. As Nathan Furm (Martin Short character from SCTV) used to say:

    “What makes you think I wouldn’t know that?” (about British emancipation of slaves)

    Of course, most Canadians think that Abraham Lincoln eradicated slavery from North America – and why not? That is what the popular media imparts …

    I read Schama’s “Citizen’s” the year if came out- Mum & Dad gave it to me in hard cover. Great Book and I think the seminal English work on the French Revolution.

  3. My parents were educated in Canada during the 1930’s and back then students learned Imperial, or British history as a precursor to the study of Canadian history – which makes eminent sense since Canada was a collection of British colonies and the British experience was in so many ways, and for so many people, OUR experience.

    After WWII, attempts to “Canadianise” the teaching of Canadian history meant that the teaching of British History (and French History) as a precedent was largely eliminated.

    And of course in the 1960’s Secondary Schools started offering “American History” in the upper grades – presumable to feed the Canadian “Baby Boomer” fetish with the United States (and largely borne with the advent of television).

    So for me, this is not news as my Parents and extended Family made sure that the British facts of pre-Confederation & Canadian history were not lost to the winds of political correctness.

    History DOES matter, but so often in Canada it is sacrificed to politics and popular culture.

  4. I don’t recall being taught any British history in school and precious little about American history for that matter. The focus was mostly Canadian, but was widely regarded by all of us as “boring” in the extreme. Sad to say…

  5. Red, I attended high school in Ontario in the ‘sixties and we got more than a dollop of British history. Throughout the five years, I was taught things British beginning with the earliest Roman outposts. The English and History curricula were intertwined; from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Dickens, we learned about the societies that bred the great writers. And the wars. Let’s not forget the wars. (Civil and otherwise.) And plagues and fires and all the rest of it.

    I can honestly say that we studied more British history than Canadian. (And I still have a few textbooks.)

  6. Maybe the curriculum had changed by the 70s when I was in high school. Or it could be my faulty memory. And to be honest I skipped out a lot and was stoned most of the time. My History 12 teacher, Mr. Urquhart (funnily enough) used to just tell me to go and have smoke or something and “not waste my time” because I already knew all the material. Missed 45 days of that class and got an A+. Heh.

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