Human Traffic Stopped
Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels In the Fight to Free an Empire’s
reviewed by L. P. Fairfield
On March 25, 1807, King George III of England formally ratified a Parliamentary Act abolishing the slave trade in the British Empire. That infamous trade had carried more than three million Africans to misery and death in the Americas since the 1580s. A prominent English lord asserted in 1807 that the Abolition Bill was “the most humane and merciful Act which was ever passed by any legislature in the world.”
To be sure, the Abolition Act in 1807 merely ended the slave trade in British vessels, not the institution of slavery altogether in the nascent empire. More than half a million slaves were still suffering on British sugar plantations in the Caribbean. Their final emancipation would not come until 1833. But the prohibition of the slave trade was a crucial first step in that direction.
As the two-hundredth anniversary of the Abolition Act approaches, University of California journalism professor Adam Hochschild has told us the story of British abolitionism winsomely and comprehensively. He focuses on the period from 1787 to 1833, when opposition to slavery became a permanent conviction among Englishmen.
A Winsome Story
Hochschild gives the Evangelical Anglican William Wilberforce his due, as the Parliamentary leader of the movement. But he gives equal treatment to lesser-known “prophets and rebels” as well. Anglicans Granville Sharp and Thomas Clarkson appear as dynamic workhorses who began gathering information and compiling anti-slavery petitions in the 1780s.
The faithful and largely anonymous London Quakers stood behind Sharp and Clarkson, praying and organizing and paying the bills. The brilliant maritime lawyer James Stephen joined the movement in 1805, and wrote the Abolition Act that finally passed. Hochschild weaves all their stories into a narrative that is gripping and convincing.
Some of Hochschild’s players appear in unfamiliar roles. The book’s first five chapters focus on the Reverend John Newton, not as the beloved author of Amazing Grace but as the young captain of slaving ships who was completely oblivious to the moral depravity of his occupation. His conversion to Christianity in his twenties made no difference. Only in 1788, at the end of his life, did Newton confess “that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.”
More influential than Newton on English public opinion was the Nigerian freedman Olaudah Equiano, whose autobiography in 1789 quickly became a bestseller. Equiano wrote vividly, conveying at first hand the nauseating stench of the densely packed slaves aboard ship in the mid-Atlantic, the searing wounds slashed by overseers’ whips on the Caribbean sugar plantations, and the death by scalding of the slaves who boiled the sugarcane in 24-hour shifts. Equiano gave slavery a human face in England, putting a moral edge on Josiah Wedgwood’s famous cameo (a slave in chains with the words “Am I not a man and a brother?”).
Hochschild’s story crisscrosses the Atlantic repeatedly, showing how the Caribbean slave revolts of the 1790s gradually persuaded Englishmen that slavery was not only immoral but far too expensive. While the war with France preoccupied the country at home, and Wilberforce’s abolition bills languished in Parliament, Haiti exploded in a frenzy of violence.
True, Haiti was French and the war there devoured French regiments by the score. France’s losses were England’s gain. But the English sugar plantations in Jamaica were only a day or two’s sail from Haiti, and news traveled fast.
Slaves rose in Jamaica and plantations burned. Between 1793 and 1801 England sent more troops to put down West Indian slave revolts than it had sent to fight the American rebels twenty years earlier. And fully half of them died: 45,000 out of 89,000 British troops in the eight-year campaign perished in battle against the slaves, or of wounds and disease. The revolutions in the Caribbean taught England that slavery was too expensive to defend.
Hochschild usefully asks why the anti-slavery movement crystallized in Britain first in the world, and took hold so quickly in the late 1780s. Individuals mattered, of course. Without William Wilberforce’s winsome eloquence, Thomas Clarkson’s tireless organizing, and James Stephen’s brilliant legal mind, the movement would have gone nowhere.
But background and context mattered as well. Britain in the 1780s was a compact nation, with rapidly improving transportation, swift mail service, and a free press. Libraries flourished in the cities, and coffeehouses abounded where literate people read newspapers and argued about what they read. The seedbeds where abolitionist ideas would later take root were ready.
Furthermore, Hochschild argues, an inarticulate humanitarian empathy already existed in late eighteenth-century Britain, ready to be applied to the issue of slavery. “The abolitionists placed their hope not in sacred texts,” he claims, “but in human empathy.” He fails to see that the Bible had shaped that human empathy—slowly and painfully but decisively—since the conversion of Britain in the early Middle Ages. But he does recognize the Christian roots of the abolitionists’ zeal, and acknowledges that they were “deeply religious.”
In addition, Hochschild argues that one particular issue prepared the English public to empathize with the West Indian slaves, namely, the press-gangs at home. England’s survival, above all in the desperate struggle against France, which lasted until 1815, depended on the Royal Navy’s dominance of the seas.
The navy depended on the kidnapping of thousands of Englishmen every year into virtual slavery on British warships. Hochschild suggests that the abolitionist movement subliminally appealed to the British sense that their own civil liberties were under attack, and compensated for their helplessness in the face of the press-gangs on which their national existence depended.
Bury the Chains does justice to the complexity of the British abolitionist movement, as well as to its Christian roots. How easy it is for us to forget that two hundred years ago, ideas of human rights and human dignity were very novel and very fragile. The Abolition Act of 1807 was—as Wellington said of the Battle of Waterloo eight years later—a near-run thing, a very near-run thing. But it happened.
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