James Corbett David
Virginia, University of Virginia Press, 2013, ISBN: 9780813934242; 270pp.; Price: £26.95
University College London
Date accessed: 4 December, 2023
John Murray, fourth earl of Dunmore, the last royal governor of Virginia, features briefly in most accounts of the American Revolution. White slave-holders, in Dunmore’s colony and elsewhere, regarded him as a malign threat. George Washington, Virginia gentleman and planter, as well as commander of the Continental army, was among the many who denounced the governor as the devil incarnate. To the colony’s slaves, on the other hand, Dunmore must have seemed like a saviour. He was, literally, their liberator.
His fame (or notoriety) derives almost entirely from his proclamation of November 1775, in which he offered freedom to any slave, the property of a rebel, who would help to restore the authority of the crown. Dunmore himself recruited only a comparatively small number of slaves as soldiers, and they did him little good in the sense that he still had to retreat from Virginia and allow it to fall into the hands of his opponents. But his proclamation gave hope to many thousands more slaves than he recruited – both in Virginia and further afield. For the rest of the War of Independence, slaves throughout the rebel colonies took the opportunity to flee to British bases whenever they could.
Historians have puzzled over Dunmore. Was he a maverick, acting purely on his own initiative, out of a sense of desperation in an exposed position, with very little conventional military force at his disposal? Can we see his liberation proclamation as the product of a very particular concatenation of circumstances? Or was he, on the other hand, representative of a broader trend? Should Dunmore be seen as merely one example of the willingness after the Seven Years War of the British imperial state to look with a paternal and protective eye on non-British peoples in the empire – be they slaves, Amerindians, French Canadians, Irish Catholics, or even Bengalis?
James Corbett David makes a contribution to this debate, but seeks mainly to introduce us to a Dunmore who was more than a controversial governor of Virginia. His time at Williamsburg is thoroughly explored, but David ranges well beyond Virginia and indeed the American Revolution. Dunmore’s New World is a full biography of Dunmore, tracing his rise to a colonial governorship in New York from his questionable beginnings as a member of a Scottish aristocratic family tainted with Jacobitism, looking in depth at his experiences in Virginia, and then going on to follow his career to his death in 1809, aged 78.
Perhaps the most fascinating parts of David’s book relate to the post-American Revolution phase of Dunmore’s life, especially the period when he was governor of the Bahamas. Here he engaged in a good deal of wheeler-dealing – seemingly a characteristic activity throughout his adult life – designed to enhance his own wealth and status, but also demonstrated that his liberation proclamation of November 1775 was more than a flash in the pan. Dunmore in the Bahamas sympathized with the slaves, especially those brought to the islands by the new wave of loyalist migrants who arrived from the Southern mainland colonies after 1783. At the same time Dunmore antagonized the loyalist settlers, who wanted to establish a plantation economy in their new home, accused the governor of behaving in an arbitrary fashion in disregarding their interests, and lobbied vigorously for his replacement.
David sheds interesting light on Dunmore’s career in the Bahamas, but for those wanting more details of the earl’s relationship with the islands’ enslaved population, and even his struggles with the loyalists, Paul Shirley’s doctoral dissertation (1) remains indispensable. As Shirley’s supervisor, I should declare an interest. But I mention his dissertation not just to promote the work of one of my students (though it certainly merits wider notice), but because Shirley was able to track down material in the Bahamian archives that David appears not to have consulted. Shirley’s account is therefore fuller and a surer and richer guide to Dunmore’s role in the politics of the time. Shirley, furthermore, presents a broadly more sympathetic picture of Dunmore than does David, and skilfully places him in an imperial and Atlantic as well as a Bahamian context.
David, it has to be said, is rather less sure in his contextualization of Dunmore, not just in the Bahamas, but more generally. He is prone to slip up on details, suggesting, for instance, that the battle of Falkirk preceded the Jacobite invasion of England rather than took place after Prince Charles’s forces had retreated back to Scotland (p. 12). More oddly, he states that the British army campaigning in New York returned to winter quarters in England in November 1776 (p. 126); it did no such thing. The claim that Dunmore’s portrait painted by Reynolds in 1765 (reproduced in the book and on the cover) shows him wearing the uniform of the Scots Guards (p. 24) is also, sadly, wrong; the Scots Guards did not wear Highland dress. No work of historical scholarship, of course, is likely to be error-free, and none of these slips much matter; they certainly do no great harm to the book’s integrity. But they do highlight the perils and pitfalls that accompany the writing of any biography. The subject has to be placed in many different settings, requiring the biographer to acquire expertise in a wide range of literatures and to pick up knowledge in a number of sometimes arcane tangential fields.
Dunmore’s New World started life as a doctoral dissertation at the College of William and Mary, but David and his publisher seem to want it to be viewed as a cross-over book, which will attract more than just a scholarly audience. That at least is the impression created by the very long title, which packs in everything that might interest a general reader in a sensationalist tone unusual for an academic study. Or perhaps David and the University of Virginia Press are deliberately mimicking the style of 18th-century publications, which often had enormously lengthy and descriptive titles.
Whatever the explanation, David’s book, considered as a whole, provides an entertaining and enjoyable read. True, some passages, where he seeks to connect Dunmore’s life, or rather his rendering of it, to current scholarly preoccupations, come across as rather contrived, or even awkward. But the closer he gets to his subject, and the further from wider contexts, the more comfortable David seems to be. At these points, the prose becomes lively and engaging, and the story moves forward effortlessly. David seems to delight in the contradictions in Dunmore’s life – Jacobite roots, yet fiercely loyal to Hanoverian monarchy and the British Empire; royal governor and land speculator; slave liberator and slave-owner. The author also clearly enjoys regaling us with tales of Dunmore’s colourful character, about which there is undoubtedly much of interest that can be said. While Dunmore emerges in David’s account as far from likeable, there are aspects to him that are hard not to admire. On the make he might have been, and flawed in many senses, but Dunmore was a proud and loyal father, who was courageous enough to cross his monarch rather than endure a snub to his daughter, who had secretly married one of the king’s sons, much to George III’s anger. The passage detailing the confrontation between Dunmore and his king is one of the most riveting (and revealing) in the book.
David lays a lot of emphasis on Dunmore’s Scottishness, seeing this as a crucial shaping influence. I should not want to deny the importance of Dunmore’s background; but perhaps the key to understanding him, as David hints at various points in the text, is to recognize that he was an aristocrat, who embodied many of the qualities – good and bad – associated with his class. Confident in his own judgement, and ultimately convinced that he was right, he was as inclined to defy convention as follow it, yet with a true sense of noblesse oblige felt a duty to look after those who came under his care, whether they were tenants on his Scottish estates or slaves in Virginia and the Bahamas.
- Paul Shirley, ‘Migration, Freedom and Enslavement in the Revolutionary Atlantic: The Bahamas, 1783–c.1800’ (PhD thesis, University College London, 2012).Back to (1)
I would like to thank Stephen Conway for his thoughtful review and the kind words it includes. I am grateful to him for bringing to my attention the factual errors above, which I hope to have a chance to correct in due course. As he observes, biography often forces historians to traverse unfamiliar terrain, and missteps are all but inevitable. Given biography's value as a mode of microhistorical inquiry and its narrative power, I hope that such challenges do not deter young historians from experimenting with the genre and stretching themselves in the process.