Ending Slavery in Britain: a Shifting View of History The slave trade was abolished in the British colonies 200 years ago this year. The film Amazing Grace commemorates the event. Writer Adam Hochschild discusses the birth of the abolitionist movement in Great Britain.
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Ending Slavery in Britain: a Shifting View of History

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Ending Slavery in Britain: a Shifting View of History

Ending Slavery in Britain: a Shifting View of History

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This year is the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the British slave trade. It took another 60 years and a civil war to abolish slavery in the United States. A new movie, "Amazing Grace," that comes out next week, tells the story of some of the leaders of the anti-slavery movement in Great Britain.

Historian Adam Hochschild is the author of "Bury the Chains," about the birth and evolution of the anti-slavery movement in Great Britain. He joins us now from member station KQED in San Francisco. Mr. Hochschild, thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. ADAM HOCHSCHILD (Historian): Good to be here.

SIMON: And you've seen the film, which I understand principally tells the story of William Wilberforce, who was a member of the British parliament. How accurate is the movie?

Mr. HOCHSCHILD: Well, it's a good movie dramatically, but I would say it makes some serious historical distortions. People have been in a way disputing for well over 100 years just how to tell the story of the abolition of the slave trade and then slavery itself in the British Empire.

And the way the story traditionally has been told is to give the lion's share of the credit to William Wilberforce, who was a member of parliament and who doggedly, very idealistically, led the battle against the slave trade and then slavery itself in parliament for some 35 years.

In recent years, though, historians have paid much more attention to two other things. One is to the enormous popular movement in Britain, really unprecedented historically before that time, which put a huge amount of pressure on parliament and allowed Wilberforce to do what he did.

The other thing is the role of slave rebellions in the West Indies, which were especially crucial in getting slavery itself abolished, 'cause there a massive slave revolt in Jamaica just before parliament finally voted in 1833 to abolish slavery itself.

SIMON: Without in any way detracting from William Wilberforce's achievements, what are some of the other names we should know?

Mr. HOCHSCHILD: Well, I think the most important is Thomas Clarkson, who was the fiery traveling organizer of the anti-slavery movement. And Wilberforce said that reading an early essay of Clarkson's was a very important influence on him in making him aware of the injustice of slavery in the first place. Another person who I think is terribly important is Olouda Eqiano(ph), a former slave who earned his own freedom, was literate, was living in England at this time. Wrote a remarkable autobiography which became a bestseller.

As he traveled around the British Isles for five years talking about this book, he was really the first face that tens of thousands of British people had to put on the idea of slavery. They'd never seen an ex-slave before in many of the places that he went to.

SIMON: Let me ask you about a man named John Newton.

Mr. HOCHSCHILD: Newton was of course the composer of everybody's favorite hymn, "Amazing Grace." And in his early life he was in the slave trade. He made one voyage as a first mate and three as a captain on transatlantic slave ships. But he had his conversion to evangelical Christianity before he became a slave ship captain. In fact, he used to hold services on shipboard.

Then he left the sea, became a very famous evangelical preacher and hymn writer. And some 30, 35 years after leaving the sea, after this large popular movement had finally erupted very spontaneously in England, he finally spoke out in a rather limited way against the slave trade, wrote a pamphlet, testified twice, mentioned it once or twice in a sermon and then never said another word about it for the remaining 20 years of his life.

SIMON: It is irresistible, I think at least for me from now on to hear "Amazing Grace" sung and to recall those lyrics, was blind but now can see, and not think of this many who used to be a slave ship captain who then became an abolitionist.

Mr. HOCHSCHILD: But one thing you should also remember is that when John Newton was writing all those beautiful hymns - and there are many others besides "Amazing Grace" that are still sung today - he still had all of his savings invested with his former employer who still had a fleet of slave ships sailing the ocean.

SIMON: Mr. Hochschild, help us inhabit the time a bit by understanding the revolutionary nature of the anti-slavery argument.

Mr. HOCHSCHILD: It's amazing how widespread slavery was and how much almost everybody took it for granted. In the late 18th century, which is the period we're talking about here, the 1780s, roughly three quarters of the people on Earth were slaves, indentured servants, serfs in Russia, or peasants in China or India, in debt bondage to land owners; it was so deep that it tied them to a landowner as much as any slave was tied to a plantation owner in the American South.

And it was assumed that life had always been this way. People took it for granted. Then along came the era of revolutions. And in the late 1780s, which was midway between the American and the French Revolution, there were a lot of ideas about human freedom in the air. And for the first time in England, people began questioning the idea of slavery.

In 1787, which incidentally is two years before Wilberforce gave his first speech in parliament on the subject, a very skillful, well-organized, determined group of 12 people came together in a London Quaker bookstore and a printing shop and started a committee devoted to ending first the slave trade and then slavery itself in the British Empire.

They were extremely well organized. And over the next five years, they pioneered all sorts of methods, which are still used by activist groups today. The idea, for example, of having a committee, an organization, in the nation's capital that is communication with chapters in principal cities around the country. Very unusual thing at that time, but we take it for granted today.

The idea of using what were the new media of the day, a poster. They came up with this poster of a slave ship, and I'm sure your listeners have seen it. It's that very familiar diagrammatic top-down view of a slave ship that shows the slaves' bodies packed together almost like sardines. It's on the cover of half the books about slavery.

This was done by one of the local subgroups in the town of Plymouth in 1788. As soon as the group in London saw it, they realized what a powerful propaganda instrument it was. They ran off 8,000 copies and put them up in pubs all over Britain. It was the world's first widely distributed political poster.

They came up with the first logo that I think so far as we know was ever designed specifically for a political organization that shows a kneeling slave in chains surrounded by the legend, Am I not a man and a brother? Their supporters around the country rather spontaneously in 1791 came up with the idea of boycotting sugar because sugar was the principal product grown by Caribbean slaves. And more than 300,000 people in Britain stopped eating West Indian sugar.

SIMON: To what degree did the abolitionist movement in Great Britain start a fire that began to burn around the world, including the United States?

Mr. HOCHSCHILD: There were scattered abolitionist committees in the U.S. at this time. But it never became here the sort of widespread popular movement that it was in Britain. They were all in communication with each other. But the British were really the leaders. And later on, when the question came to be not the abolition of the slave trade, which happened in 1807, but of British slavery itself, which happed in the 1830s, the American abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, came over to London and sat in with the British abolitionists in the London coffee houses as they plotted their strategy in parliament.

And the American newspapers printed large sections of that parliamentary debate. Britain was really leading the way here. And when Thomas Clarkson, who I think is the greatest hero of the British movement, this fiery traveling organizer who essentially worked on the issue of slavery for most of his very long lifetime - the last foreign visitors whom he received before dying at the 86 in Britain were Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison from the United States, who came to pay their respects.

SIMON: Mr. Hochschild, thanks so much.

Mr. HOCHSCHILD: Good to be with you.

SIMON: Adam Hochschild, he's the author of "Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire of Slaves."

(Soundbite of song, "Amazing Grace")

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