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August 1, 2010

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American colonists in London

IN the decades before the Declaration of Independence, thousands of American colonists visited London. Wealthy Southern plantation owners and New England merchants, husbands and wives, children and slaves all arrived in what was thought to be the most exciting city in the world. Some went shopping for exquisite silver, fashionable furniture and the latest books; others traded their goods and engaged in political arguments in noisy coffee houses. A sojourn in London was part of the education of the sons (and sometimes daughters) of wealthy colonial families because, as one contemporary observed, "more is learnt of mankind here in a month than can be in a year in any other part of the world."

Julie Flavell's "When London Was Capital of America" illuminates this fascinating chapter of London's - and North America's - past, showing how the metropolis functioned as a magnet for colonists from across the Atlantic (including the West Indies) who sought accomplishment, opportunity and commerce. An American-born scholar who is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society, Flavell has unearthed a host of stories that bring alive a previously neglected aspect of the colonial experience.

Among her subjects is Henry Laurens, a Southern plantation owner who would play a prominent role in the American Revolution as president of the Continental Congress. Arriving in London in October 1771 along with two of his sons and a slave, Laurens, like other members of South Carolina's elite, was eager to emulate the English. His children, he insisted, were to be educated in the best possible way, which meant they had to visit Europe. In London, he was part of a close network of old friends and relatives from the American South.

More beguiling, however, is the story of Laurens's slave, Scipio, who began calling himself Robert Laurens as soon as he stepped ashore, eager to be rid of what was clearly identifiable as a slave name. He wanted, Flavell suggests, "to be taken seriously in England."

With 15,000 black inhabitants, London had the greatest urban black population in the empire. Some had recently arrived from Africa, some were colonial slaves and others were Londoners born and bred. Some were desperately poor, but others met at parties, balls and taverns. Most worrying for colonial slave owners was the fact that the "market value" of house slaves dropped by about half once they had been to England. (They were spoiled, it was felt, by London's easy ways.) As Robert ran errands for his master, he enjoyed a greater freedom than ever. For the first time, he also received money for his services: tips for dropping off a letter or for serving guests. "Money does him no good," Henry Laurens moaned, rightly fearing that he was losing control.

Robert would have seen and heard about elegantly dressed black servants like Soubise, a favorite of the Duchess of Queensberry, who had become a flamboyant dandy. The temptation to stay in Britain must have been overwhelming: in early 1774, just as Henry Laurens was planning to return to South Carolina, Robert committed a burglary and was imprisoned for 12 months. "Detained at His Majesty's pleasure," Flavell explains, Robert was "where Henry could not get him." Henry Laurens departed from England without his slave. Robert left prison a free man and remained in Britain.

Flavell tells the stories of less well-known visitors like Robert Laurens, as well as those of more prominent figures like Benjamin Franklin. (Though Franklin's life in Britain has been recounted before, Flavell places it in the wider context of the American experience in London.) Among the other characters who add to the flavor of this ambitious book is Stephen Sayre, the enterprising son of a Long Island farmer who arrived in England intent on finding a wealthy wife. One likely prospect, met on a quick business trip to the Caribbean, was a beautiful married woman with an ailing husband. But waiting until the husband "popped off" proved too time-consuming. Sayre then proceeded to court an elderly duchess, a connection, he noted, that would "greatly gratify my ambition." Yet he was reluctant to marry her, still hoping for a younger victim. Again and again, he connived to enhance his fortunes through romance, even as he tried to make money as a merchant and banker. He did achieve a certain minor celebrity: he was the first American to be imprisoned in the Tower of London, for an alleged plot to kidnap King George.


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