Bury the Chains

Prophets And Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves

by Adam Hochschild

Hardcover, 468 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, List Price: $26.95 | purchase

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Title
Bury the Chains
Subtitle
Prophets And Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves
Author
Adam Hochschild

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Paperback, 468 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $16, published February 10 2006 | purchase

Purchase Featured Book

Title
Bury the Chains
Subtitle
Prophets And Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves
Author
Adam Hochschild

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

Book Summary

The author of King Leopold's Ghost offers a stirring account of the first great human rights crusade, which originated in England in the 1780s and resulted in the freeing of hundreds of thousands of slaves around the world. Reprint.

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Excerpt: Bury The Chains

INTRODUCTION: TWELVE MEN IN A PRINTING SHOP

Strangely, in a city where it seems that on almost every block a famous event or resident is commemorated by a blue and white glazed plaque, none marks this spot. All you can see today, after you leave the Bank station of the London Underground, walk several blocks, and then take a few steps into a courtyard, are a few low, nondescript office buildings, an ancient pub, and, on the site itself, 2 George Yard, a glass and steel high-rise. Nothing remains of the bookstore and printing shop that once stood here, or recalls the spring day more than two hundred years ago when a dozen people—a somber- looking crew, most of them not removing their high-crowned black hats—filed through its door and sat down for a meeting. Cities build monuments to kings, prime ministers, and generals, not to citizens with no official position who once gathered in a printing shop. Yet what these citizens began rippled across the world and we feel its aftereffects still. It is no wonder that they won the admiration of the first and greatest student of what we now call civil society. The result of the series of events begun that afternoon in London, wrote Alexis de Tocqueville, was “absolutely without precedent. . . . If you pore over the histories of all peoples, I doubt that you will find anything more extraordinary.” To understand how momentous was this beginning, we must picture a world in which the vast majority of people are prisoners. Most of them have known no other way of life. They are not free to live or go where they want. They plant, cultivate, and harvest most of the earth’s major crops. They earn no money from their labor. Their work often lasts twelve or fourteen hours a day. Many are subject to cruel whippings or other punishments if they do not work hard enough. They die young. They are not chained or bound most of the time, but they are in bondage, part of a global economy based on forced labor. Such a world would, of course, be unthinkable today.
But this was the world—our world—just two centuries ago, and to most people then, it was unthinkable that it could ever be otherwise. At the end of the eighteenth century, well over three quarters of all people alive were in bondage of one kind or another, not the captivity of striped prison uniforms, but of various systems of slavery or serfdom. The age was a high point in the trade in which close to eighty thousand chained and shackled Africans were loaded onto slave ships and transported to the New World each year. In parts of the Americas, slaves far outnumbered free persons. The same was true in parts of Africa, and it was from these millions of indigenous slaves that African chiefs and slave dealers drew most of the men and women they sold to Europeans and Arabs sailing their ships along the continent’s coasts. African slaves were spread throughout the Islamic world, and the Ottoman Empire enslaved other peoples as well. In India and other parts of Asia, tens of millions of farmworkers were in outright slavery, and others were peasants in debt bondage that tied them and their labor to a particular landlord as harshly as any slave was bound to a plantation owner in South Carolina or Georgia. Native Americans turned prisoners of war into slaves and sold them, both to neighboring tribes and to the Europeans now pushing their way across the continent. In Russia the majority of the population were serfs, often bought, sold, whipped, or sent to the army at the will of their owners.
The era was one when, as the historian Seymour Drescher puts it, “freedom, not slavery, was the peculiar institution.” This world of bondage seemed all the more normal then, because anyone looking back in time would have seen little but other slave systems. The ancient Greeks had slaves; the Romans had an estimated two to three million of them in Italy alone; the Incas and Aztecs had slaves; the sacred texts of most major religions took slavery for granted. Slavery had existed before money or written law.
One measure of how much slavery pervaded the world of the eighteenth century is the traffic on the Atlantic Ocean. We usually think of the Atlantic of this period as being filled with shiploads of hopeful white immigrants. But they were only a minority of those carried to the New World. So rapidly were slaves worked to death, above all on the brutal sugar plantations of the Caribbean, that between 1660 and 1807, ships brought well over three times as many Africans across the ocean to British colonies as they did Europeans. And, of course, it was not just to British territories that slaves were sent. From Senegal to Virginia, Sierra Leone to Charleston, the Niger delta to Cuba, Angola to Braziil, and on dozens upon dozens of crisscrossing paths taken by thousands of vessels, the Atlantic was a conveyor belt to early deathhhhh in the fields of an immense swath of plantations that stretched from Baltimore to Rio de Janeiro and beyond.
Looking back today, what is even more astonishing than the pervasiveness of slavery in the late 1700s is how swiftly it died. By the end of the following century, slavery was, at least on paper, outlawed almost everywhere. The antislavery movement had achieved its goal in little more than one lifetime.
This is the story of the first, pioneering wave of that campaign. Every American schoolchild learns how slaves fled Southern plantations, following the North Star on the Underground Railroad. But England is where the story really begins, and for decades it was where American abolitionists looked for inspiration and finally for proof that the colossally difficult task of uprooting slavery could be accomplished. If we were to fix one point when the crusade began, it would be the late afternoon of May 22, 1787, when twelve determined men sat down in the printing shop at 2 George Yard, amid flatbed presses, wooden trays of type, and large sheets of freshly printed book pages, to begin one of the most ambitious and brilliantly organized citizens’ movements of all time.
A long chain of events, large and small, led to that meeting. Perhaps the most crucial moment came when Thomas Clarkson, a twenty- five-year-old Englishman on his way to London, paused, dismounted from his horse, and sat down at the roadside, lost in thought. Many months later, he would be the principal organizer of the gathering at George Yard. Red-haired, dressed in black, he was the youngest of those who entered the shop that day, perhaps ducking his head slightly as he came through the doorway, for he was a full six inches taller than the average Englishman of his time. In the years to come, his sixteen-hour-a-day campaigning against slavery would take him by horseback on a thirty-five-thousand-mile odyssey, from waterfront pubs to an audience with an emperor, from the decks of navy ships to parliamentary hearing rooms. More than once people would threaten to kill him, and on a Liverpool pier in the midst of a storm, a group of slave ship officers would nearly succeed. Almost forgotten today, he remains one of the towering figures in the history of human rights. Although we will not meet him until Part II of this book, he is its central character.
There are many others as well, most of whom were not at the meeting that day. John Newton was a slave ship captain who would later write the hymn “Amazing Grace.” Olaudah Equiano was a resourceful slave who earned his freedom, spoke out for others in bondage, and reached tens of thousands of readers with his life story. Granville Sharp, a musician, pamphleteer, and all-round eccentric, rescued a succession of blacks in England from being returned to slavery in the Americas. A London dandy named James Stephen fled to the West Indies to escape an intricately tangled love life, and then was transformed when some slaves he saw in a Barbados courtroom were sentenced to a punishment he found almost unimaginable. A colleague of his became the only abolitionist leader who ever crossed the Atlantic on a slave ship, taking notes in Greek letters to disguise them from the eyes of prying crewmen. Later in time, another key figure was a Quaker widow whose passionate stand against all compromise helped reignite a movement in the doldrums. And one was the leader of history’s largest slave revolt, which defeated the armies of Europe’s two most powerful empires.
The British abolitionists were shocked by what they came to learn about slavery and the slave trade. They were deeply convinced that they lived in a remarkable time that would see both evils swept from the face of the earth. Like anyone who wages such a fight, they discovered that injustice does not vanish so easily. But their passion and optimism are still contagious and still relevant to our times, when, in so many parts of the world, equal rights for all men and women seem far distant.
The movement they forged is a landmark for an additional reason. There is always something mysterious about human empathy, and when we feel it and when we don’t. Its sudden upwelling at this particular moment caught everyone by surprise. Slaves and other subjugated people have rebelled throughout history, but the campaign in England was something never seen before: it was the first time a large number of people became outraged, and stayed outraged for many years, over someone else’s rights. And most startling of all, the rights of people of another color, on another continent. No one was more taken aback by this than Stephen Fuller, the London agent for Jamaica’s planters, an absentee plantation owner himself and a central figure in the proslavery lobby. As tens of thousands of protesters signed petitions to Parliament, Fuller was amazed that these were “stating no grievance or injury of any kind or sort, affecting the Petitioners themselves.” His bafflement is understandable. He was seeing something new in history.
At times, Britons even seemed to be organizing against their own self-interest. From Sheffield, famous for making scissors, scythes, knives, and razors, 769 metalworkers petitioned Parliament in 1789 against the slave trade. “Cutlery wares . . . being sent in considerable quantities to the Coast of Africa . . . as the price of Slaves—your petitioners may be supposed to be prejudiced in their interests if the said trade in Slaves should be abolished. But your petitioners having always understood that the natives of Africa have the greatest aversion to foreign Slavery . . . consider the case of the nations of Africa as their own.” For fifty years, activists in England worked to end slavery in the British Empire. None of them gained a penny by doing so, and their eventual success meant a huge loss to the imperial economy. Scholars estimate that abolishing the slave trade and then slavery cost the British people 1.8 percent of their annual national income over more than half a century, many times the percentage most wealthy countries today give in foreign aid.
The abolitionists succeeded because they mastered one challenge that still faces anyone who cares about social and economic justice: drawing connections between the near and the distant. We have long lived in a world where everyday objects embody labor in another corner of the earth. Often we do not know where the things we use come from, or the working conditions of those who made them. Were the shoes or shirt you’re wearing made by children in an Indonesian sweatshop? Or by prison labor in China? What pesticides were breathed in by the Latin American laborers who picked the fruit on your table? And do you even know in what country the innards of your computer were assembled? The eighteenth century had its own booming version of globalization, and at its core was the Atlantic trade in slaves and in the goods they produced. But in England itself there were no caravans of chained captives, no whip-wielding overseers on horseback stalking the rows of sugar cane. The abolitionists’ first job was to make Britons understand what lay behind the sugar they ate, the tobacco they smoked, the coffee they drank.
One thing more makes these men and women from the age of wigs, swords, and stagecoaches seem surprisingly contemporary. This small group of people not only helped to end one of the worst of human injustices in the most powerful empire of its time; they also forged virtually every important tool used by citizens’ movements in democratic countries today.
Think of what you’re likely to find in your mailbox—or electronic mailbox—over a month or two. An invitation to join the local chapter of a national environmental group. If you say yes, a logo to put on your car bumper. A flier asking you to boycott California grapes or Guatemalan coffee. A poster to put in your window promoting this campaign. A notice that a prominent social activist will be reading from her new book at your local bookstore. A plea that you write your representative in Congress or Parliament, to vote for that Guatemalan coffee boycott bill. A “report card” on how your legislators have voted on these and similar issues. A newsletter from the group organizing support for the grape pickers or the coffee workers.
Each of these tools, from the poster to the political book tour, from the consumer boycott to investigative reporting designed to stir people to action, is part of what we take for granted in a democracy. Two and a half centuries ago, few people assumed this. When we wield any of these tools today, we are using techniques devised or perfected by the campaign that held its first meeting at 2 George Yard in 1787. From their successful crusade we still have much to learn.
If, early that year, you had stood on a London street corner and insisted that slavery was morally wrong and should be stopped, nine out of ten listeners would have laughed you off as a crackpot. The tenth might have agreed with you in principle, but assured you that ending slavery was wildly impractical: the British Empire’s economy would collapse. The parliamentarian Edmund Burke, for example, opposed slavery but thought that the prospect of ending even just the Atlantic slave trade was “chimerical.” Within a few short years, however, the issue of slavery had moved to center stage in British political life.
There was an abolition committee in every major city or town in touch with a central committee in London. More than 300,000 Britons were refusing to eat slave-grown sugar. Parliament was flooded with far more signatures on abolition petitions than it had ever received on any other subject. And in 1792, the House of Commons passed the first law banning the slave trade. For reasons we will see, a ban did not take effect for some years to come, and British slaves were not finally freed until long after that. But there was no mistaking something crucial: in an astonishingly short period of time, public opinion in Europe’s most powerful nation had undergone a sea change. From this unexpected transformation there would be no going back.
“Never doubt,” said Margaret Mead, “that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” This book is about one such group. Their story is not a simple one, but a ragged and untidy epic that did not unfold in the orderly way they hoped for. It would sprawl across decades and continents, encompassing not just the long Atlantic traffic in slaves and the British slave colonies of the Caribbean, but also threads that stretched to unexpected places as far off as New York, Nova Scotia, and an improbable Utopian colony on the coast of Africa. It would be filled with dashed hopes and wrong turnings. It would become interwoven with great historical currents which, on that afternoon in the George Yard printing shop in 1787, no one foresaw: above all the dreams of equality unleashed by the French Revolution, and a series of ever-larger slave revolts that shook the British Empire and made clear that if the slaves were not emancipated they might well free themselves. The stage on which British slavery lived and at last died was a vast one. We must begin by visiting—through the eyes of future players in the drama of abolition—several corners of that world of bondage which, to a citizen of the eighteenth century, looked as if it would endure for all time.

Copyright © 2005 by Adam Hochschild. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.