Thursday, December 29, 2005

Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves by Adam Hochschild

When twelve men, mostly Quakers, met in a print shop in London on May 22, 1787, slavery was an accepted fact of life. There had always been slavery. All the great empires had had slaves, and Great Britain was keeping a tradition. Without slaves in all of its colonies, especially in the rich sugar plantations of the West Indies, there would be no British Empire. There would be no great halls and wealthy families in London without slaves working from before sunrise until after sunset in the sweltering sugar cane fields in St. Domingue and Jamaica. Liverpool would not be a great port city. English men and women had to have their sugar, coffee, tea, and tobacco. According to Adam Hochschild in Bury the Chains, the idea of ending slavery was very radical thinking.

Of course, before the movement began in the print shop, there were individuals who had had conversion moments. Granville Sharp was shocked by the story of a captain of a slave ship who had thrown 133 slaves overboard because he had miscalculated the provisions for the Atlantic crossing and did not want to risk losing the rest of his "cargo." Sharp wrote letters to government officials and newspapers trying to get the captain tried for murder. One of these, perhaps in a copy, reached the Anglican minister Peter Peckard, who after delivering a sermon on the topic chose the question for the important Cambridge Latin essay contest "Is it lawful to make slaves of others against their will?" Twenty-five-year-old divinity student Thomas Clarkson won the contest with an essay arguing that slavery was not legal. His conversion moment came soon after as he was basking in the glow of having won the contest. It occurred to him that he had to act on what he had written. He became one of the twelve men.

The campaign to stop the British slave trade preceded the campaign to emancipate the slaves in British colonies. Central to that effort was authorship. Clarkson and others wrote pamphlets decrying the slave trade, they wrote and delivered speeches at Quaker meeting houses and other sympathetic venues, and they wrote to lobby Parliament, where they gainned the support of William Wilberforce. Clarkson reworked his essay into a book. Former slave Olaudah Equiano wrote a best selling book about his experiences on slave ships. Much of working class England, a population oppressed by terrible working conditions, poor pay, and the threat of naval impressment, was quick to support an end of the slave trade. Parliament, however, was filled with plantation owners, whose "property" was threatened by the movement.

It took until May 1, 1807 to ban the slave trade. It was 1838 before the slaves in the British Empire were emancipated. In Bury the Chains, Hochschild tells the story of the men and women who worked tirelessly to end slavery. He also shows how their efforts sparked other movements for expanded suffrage, labor rights, women's rights, and reform of Parliament. American abolistionists appear late in the book to study their British mentors. Hochschild also tells how the promise of slavery's end failed to improve the lives of the former slaves. The plantation owners were compensated for the loss of their slaves, but no aid was given to the ex-slaves. Most became poor share croppers.

The story of Bury the Chains should inspire contemporary activists facing great odds against reform. It should also warn them that changing the law is not sufficient. This is an important part of history few Americans know. Every public library should have this book.

Hochschild, Adam. Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005. ISBN 0618104690

1 comment:

Dan Trabue said...

"Central to that effort was authorship. Clarkson and others wrote pamphlets..."

But don't you know that merely writing essays, letters to the editor, to our representatives, etc accomplishes nothing? ...or, seeing as there is no longer slavery, maybe it does help.

Thanks for the reminder.