James Corbett David. Dunmore's New World: The Extraordinary Life of a Royal Governor in Revolutionary America--with Jacobites, Counterfeiters, Land Schemes, Shipwrecks, Scalping, Indian Politics, Runaway Slaves, and Two Illegal Royal Weddings. Early American Histories Series. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013. viii + 270 pages. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8139-3424-2.
Reviewed by Timothy C. Hemmis (University of Southern Mississippi)
Published on H-War (August, 2015)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
A Fresh Look at Lord Dunmore
American history is full of characters who led extraordinary lives that have largely gone unnoticed by scholars, and Lord Dunmore is no exception until now. James Corbett David’s Dunmore’s New World is the latest examination of the controversial royal governor of Virginia. Well written and interesting, David’s monograph retells the troublesome life of Lord Dunmore. The three-time royal governor lived a life full of strife and is remembered mainly for his failed governorship of Virginia during the American War of Independence.
In the first chapter, “Family Politics, 1745-1770,” David recounts the Murray family history in relationship to the failed Jacobite Uprising in Great Britain. The fifteen-year-old John Murray, the future 4th Earl of Dunmore, and his brother William Murray joined the rebel Jacobite army to help restore “legitimacy and ‘Honour’ of the Stuart cause” (p. 11). However, as David demonstrates, the history of young John Murray’s role in the rebellion is clouded and difficult to document. The future Lord Dunmore escaped the failed uprising mostly unscathed but his brother William was not so lucky. Their uncle used his connection to the king to obtain a pardon for William after he was brought to trial for treason, thus saving the family’s name from complete ruin.
The next chapter explores John Murray’s role as a colonial governor in the New World, first in New York and then in Virginia. As the New York governor, Dunmore faced “a widespread disregard for royal authority that surfaced quickly when local interests diverged from those of the king” (pp. 25-26). He quickly became involved in local politics, since he wanted to set up his “chief personal ambition—the establishment of an American seat for his family” (p. 38). Although he hoped to stay in New York, he received news from London of a new assignment: the governorship of Virginia, which he held from 1770 to 1771.
The third chapter deals with Lord Dunmore’s War and the West. Dunmore and the militia traveled to the frontier to fight the Native Americans who kept attacking Virginian settlers. His superiors in England did not like his actions because of the expense and risk; however, Dunmore was well connected to the American land speculation companies that promised a great return for their investors if the Crown and Parliament would repeal the Proclamation of 1763, which allowed British settlers into land reserved to Native people. David also explores Dunmore’s role in the fight for Pittsburgh. Both Virginia and Pennsylvania claimed this strategic frontier community. Dunmore even sent the militia to occupy Fort Pitt. David also gives an account of Cresap’s War against Native Americans, which led to the Ohio Valley’s entrance into war. All of these unauthorized activities on the frontier helped solidify Dunmore’s legacy in the annals of history, but these actions do not compare to his role in the American Revolution in Virginia.
The fourth chapter details Dunmore’s involvement in the American Revolution. Dunmore’s infamous removal of gunpowder from the Williamsburg magazine sparked resistance from colonists. The governor suggested, David notes, that it was to ensure that slaves would not have access to the powder. These actions led to Virginia’s involvement in the revolution. David illuminates that Dunmore was one of the few royal governors who stayed in America during the war. Moreover, the issuing of Dunmore’s infamous proclamation in 1775, which offered freedom to any slave who would fight for Great Britain, caused a further rift between colonists and the government. David claims that “Dunmore’s proclamation was arguably the era’s arch expression of imperial authoritarianism” (p. 104). In addition to examining Dunmore’s role in expanding the war into Virginia, David explores Dunmore’s floating town and the details of his life aboard ships, which he used as a mobile command center and safe area from which he could launch raids and remain out of reach. Eventually by 1776, Dunmore gave up hope and sailed for New York. He sailed away into obscurity.
The final chapter deals with Dunmore’s life after his failed governorship of Virginia. In 1781, Dunmore arrived in British-held Charleston, South Carolina, after the surrender at Yorktown. The earl wanted to continue the war by freeing all slaves and dragging out hostilities. Nonetheless, his plans were overlooked (maybe ignored) by the London administration that had no desire to continue the war. David argues that when Dunmore returned to England when American independence made his role as a royal governor and the continuation of his salary irrelevant, he “devoted much of his time ... to the cause of the American loyalists” (p. 136). He fought for their rights even to much of his own and exiled loyalists’ disappointment. Dunmore eventually returned to the New World again, this time as the governor of the Bahamas. The Crown “invited loyalist refugees to settle” on the islands (p. 140). David reveals a forgotten history of the Bahamas and the loyalists who sought refuge there after the American War of Independence. Slavery and the free black population of the Bahamas created a new powder keg of violence, especially since many of the loyalists wanted to bring their slaves to the islands to start growing cotton. David shows that Dunmore was in the midst of a new crisis in the Bahamas, stemming from the presence of a large population of free blacks he had liberated in the colonies, as well as loyalist slave owners who wanted to re-enslave them . Additionally, Dunmore had to deal with the defense of the island against smugglers and foreign nations. Thus Dunmore had a tremulous tenure in the Bahamas. The earl returned to England in 1798, ending his time in the New World. He spent the rest of his days in financial disarray in Kent until 1809 when he passed away.
David’s biography of Dunmore shows a complex character filled with ambition and lapses of frustration. David demonstrates that there is still room for biographies in modern historiography. This lively account of Dunmore’s life illuminates his pivotal role in the history of America and the British Empire. This well-written monograph provides a wonderful glimpse into the world of Lord Dunmore and would be beneficial for Atlantic World historians and history buffs alike.
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Timothy C. Hemmis. Review of David, James Corbett, Dunmore's New World: The Extraordinary Life of a Royal Governor in Revolutionary America--with Jacobites, Counterfeiters, Land Schemes, Shipwrecks, Scalping, Indian Politics, Runaway Slaves, and Two Illegal Royal Weddings.
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