British slavery fell to 50 years of steadfast opposition

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April 03, 2005|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN BOOK EDITOR

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

By Adam Hochschild Houghton-Mifflin. 468 pages. $26.95.

Imagine a dozen largely unknown, somewhat eccentric citizens of little influence and modest means gathering in a cramped bookstore in lower Manhattan and resolving to achieve a congressional ban on all automobiles.

Such was the drastic scale of the task an eclectic collection of Englishmen set for themselves in a London print shop late in the afternoon of May 22, 1787, Adam Hochschild, the magnificent storyteller, says in his mesmerizing and enriching Bury the Chains. Joined by passion and idealism, the men determined that against all probability, they would bring an end to the essential linchpin of British international commerce in that epoch: the slave trade.

The automobile analogy is apt. Even if there are legitimate reasons to ban cars - environmental, traffic congestion, oil dependency - cars are so deeply integrated in modern life that hardly any sane person would contemplate embarking on such a quixotic campaign today. In the 18th century, slavery was just as ingrained in human experience. Hochschild, author of the acclaimed King Leopold's Ghost, points out that in the 1700s, three-quarters of the world population was in bondage of some sort, and few among the rest could imagine a functioning global economy without slave labor. That view certainly was prevalent in Great Britain, the world's preeminent power, particularly in regard to operation of its vast Caribbean plantations. Sugar was supreme then, the most valuable commodity in Europe, and it made the West Indies - not the 13 Colonies, not all of Canada - the most desirable of all British dominions. Abolishing slavery, the foundation of that economy - nothing could have seemed more preposterous at mid-century.

And yet, in barely 50 years - a shockingly short amount of time - the British did precisely that, outlawing the slave trade and freeing slaves everywhere in its empire, which ultimately doomed slavery everywhere. The reversal, Hochschild writes, was a watershed in the history of social activism, "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."

The campaign the abolitionists waged was primarily one of public conscience-raising, forcing the British to confront the brutality and inhumanity with which they were complicit. For a modern audience, the techniques they used are surprisingly familiar. Publicity, direct mail, book tours, investigative reporting, political emblems, petitions, boycotts - all figured in the campaign, many of them surfacing for the first time.

With the narrative dexterity of a novelist, Hochschild makes vivid the moral fervor, courage and perseverance that were essential for victory, as well as the sweeping historic imperative for freedom. Events on one continent conflated in another: the French Revolution on the West Indies, slave revolts in the Caribbean on public sentiment in England. Even if few initially linked the ideals of the Enlightenment with abolition, it was inevitable that furor over the Rights of Man would ultimately focus attention on the clearest example of oppression.

While Hochschild illuminates grand historic forces, his portraits of the individuals who undertook the seemingly impossible (some of them present at that seminal first meeting), are full-bodied, complex and frequently moving: John Newton, the former slave ship captain who finally repudiated his past; Granville Sharp, musician and cranky pamphleteer; widely respected William Wilberforce who for decades carried the lonely fight in Parliament; and Olaudah Equiano, the one-time slave whose eloquent autobiography became a best-selling testament to the cruelties of bondage.

All of them deserve history's credit (as do the eternally steadfast Quakers), but Hochschild reserves the most sacred place in his account for Thomas Clarkson, a somber, darkly clothed, red-headed youth who abandoned a career in the pulpit to become abolition's only full-time organizer and whose indefatigable efforts to expose the horror of slavery quite literally moved a nation to action. Despite mountainous odds, numerous setbacks and threats to his personal safety, Clarkson held fast to faith that justice could prevail. It is the optimism that animates those who are Clarkson's descendants in spirit, those who fight for human rights today.

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