Liberty’s Exiles: The Loss of America and the Remaking of the British Empire

Maya Jasanoff’s compelling new book explores the role of former American loyalists in Britain’s imperial expansion. Denis Judd follows their journey

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Reviewed by: Denis Judd
Author: Maya Jasanoff
Publisher: HarperPress
Price (RRP): £30

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This is a deeply researched and well-considered book that, without doubt, throws much new light on the development of the British empire (not to speak of the infant United States of America) in the immediate post-revolutionary war period. It is very well written, clear and crisp, and packed with an extraordinary amount of detail – often personal case studies in effect.

The theme of the book is a thorough examination of what happened to those tens of thousands of former American colonists who, rather than live in the new republic, chose to move elsewhere within the British empire, including to Britain itself. This was indeed an extraordinary global diaspora, with some of the character of a refugee crisis.

There is already in existence a very respectable number of studies of the American loyalist impact on, for example, places like New Brunswick and the Bahamas, including the migration of loyal blacks. Therefore the publisher’s blurb claiming that the book “tells, for the first time, the story of this… diaspora” is a trifle overblown.

For many years no competent historian has given credence to the old view of a first British empire that virtually collapsed in 1783 to be followed in due course by a second, brighter and better, empire.

In practice, it was continuity of aim and policy, and a burst of renewed imperial energy, that enabled Britain to shake off the trauma of the loss of the 13 American colonies and fairly rapidly to establish the largest empire in modern history.

In some ways, the independence of the United States allowed Britain to concentrate on extending its power in more tractable and often equally profitable colonial possessions further afield.

The subtle strength of this book (whose author is a Harvard-based historian) is that it scrutinises and pulls together a huge primary and secondary literature. It doesn’t merely present a compelling overview of the empire loyalist phenomenon, but also tells the stories of a large number of quite remarkable individuals as they remade their lives in ways they had not expected.

Thus, for instance, David George, a black Baptist preacher, gained his freedom as a loyalist, and led his followers to a new life in Sierra Leone.

Then there was the Mohawk Indian leader Joseph Brant, who managed to resettle his people under British protection in Ontario. We also meet Elizabeth Johnson, a young mother from Georgia, who moved between Jamaica, Nova Scotia and Edinburgh trying to find a permanent home and tragically seeing six of her ten children predecease her.

Liberty’s Exiles is also good at explaining the several benefits that the loyalist emigration brought to the British empire. Ironically, in the light of the recent revolution in America, one of these was the presence of loyalists used to the liberties and rights of their former colonies and therefore demanding similar treatment in their new ones.

Anxious to avoid another American-type uprising, the British authorities were within a few decades handing out responsible government to colonies in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and, a little later, South Africa.

Loyalists also played a vital part in urging and implementing imperial expansion.

As Jasanoff remarks: “Loyalists were both agents and advocates of imperial growth… As pioneer settlers in British North America, the Bahamas and Sierra Leone, they demonstrated the continued vitality of the Atlantic empire despite what has been described as the empire’s ‘swing to the east’…  championing schemes to extend British sovereignty into Spanish America, or around the western borders of the United States… The first serious proposal to colonize Australia was put forward by none other than an American loyalist.”

Indeed the author argues that the “spirit of 1783, so to speak, animated the British empire well into the 20th century – and provided a model of liberal constitutional empire that stood out as a vital alternative to the democratic republics taking shape in this period in the United States, France and Latin America”.

If one throws into this equation the fact that Anglo-American trade expanded very rapidly in the post-1783 era, it is tempting to view the American revolution as more of a blessing than a curse for the mother country. 

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Professor Denis Judd’s book Empire: The British Imperial Experience from 1765 to the Present, is due to be published in an updated edition later this year