When freedom was the "peculiar institution"

Adam Hochschild talks about how the abolitionist movement caught fire -- from the high seas to the kitchen pantry -- and changed the world forever.

Published January 19, 2005 11:41PM (EST)

One of the great pleasures of reading history is being introduced to a new date, a day in the life of the past that helped shape who we are today. Adam Hochschild's new book, "Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves," begins on May 22, 1787, when a dozen men met in a printing shop in London. They were trying to figure out how to persuade the rest of the country that slavery, a system that had been the norm for hundreds of years, was morally wrong. The meeting marked the beginning of British abolitionism, the first real human rights campaign and what would become the template for the activist movements that followed it. There was no precedent for what they set out to do, and yet, within 51 years, this group managed to eradicate slavery from the largest colonial empire in the world.

Hochschild chronicles the movement over that half-century, from the printing shop meeting to the eve of emancipation, when a group of slaves in Jamaica threw their shackles into a coffin and, quite literally, buried the chains. Between these events were spirited fights in Parliament and pamphleteering campaigns and lectures to edify the public. There was the first real mass boycott (excluding the Boston Tea Party), in which women employed in the domestic realm refused to buy slave-grown sugar, and fringe religious movements challenged the authority of the (slave-owning) Church of England. Add to this the waves of bloody slave revolts in the West Indies, and you begin to have a series of events of which Alexis de Tocqueville pronounced: "If you pore over the histories of all peoples, I doubt you will find anything more extraordinary."

"Bury the Chains" starts by marveling at that extraordinariness and then setting to the task of uncovering the hows and whys of it, focusing the story on the key activists involved. But the process of abolition, Hochschild writes, was "a ragged and untidy epic," and his book reflects that untidiness. Teeming with anecdotes and incidents in several countries, filled with characters who pop up for a few paragraphs only to disappear from the story until years later, "Bury the Chains" isn't the smoothest read, but it is amazingly thorough. Rather than simply inform, Hochschild makes it his duty to impress upon the reader just how many people, ideas and tactics the abolition movement needed to be successful. It's a worthy reminder of the effort it takes to change the world.

Thankfully, the book is also entertaining. The characters are wonderfully weird, for abolitionists, almost by definition, were oddballs. Granville Sharp, for instance, who spent much of his activist life trying to create a Utopian society of ex-slaves in Sierra Leone, was a musician whose family played on a barge, serenading the country as they floated by. And there are enough tales of high seas adventures, dramatic courtroom arguments, and heart-rending descriptions of slave conditions to fill several novels.

Hochschild, a co-founder of Mother Jones magazine and a commentator for NPR, is no stranger to the history of race relations, or to liberal activism. He has written five previous books, including "King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa." And in his memoir, "Half the Way Home," he recalls his troubled relationship with his father, the head of a multinational firm that owned mines in southern Africa. The importance of remembering is one of the strongest themes running through his books, and he makes a point in his work of restoring to us what has been forgotten. Hochschild talked to Salon by phone about some of those lost bits of our collective past.

Your previous books have been about apartheid, Stalin and colonial Africa. How did you come to write about the first abolition movement?

I got into it indirectly, because I first thought I was going to do a biography of John Newton. I've always been interested by people who change sides, and there's something so fascinating about the idea of this guy who had been a slave ship captain, who later became an abolitionist, who wrote this hymn ["Amazing Grace"] that's everybody's favorite hymn, and so forth. So, I started reading up on his life, and then I quickly discovered that Newton's life didn't fit the pattern I'd wanted it to have, so to speak, in that he didn't leave the slave trade out of conviction. He left it for medical reasons, and he never said a word about slavery for more than 30 years after that. And all this time he was becoming a minister and starting to write hymns, he had his savings invested with his former employer, a guy who owned all these slave ships. He never actually said a word about slavery until this great movement began, when someone I'd never heard of named Thomas Clarkson came to see him and said, You know, Reverend Newton, you have to say something. So then I began to wonder, who was this guy Thomas Clarkson? Maybe the movement was the story. So that's how I came into it backwards.

You point out in the book that, at the time, three-quarters of the world was in bondage, and, as Seymour Drescher said, "freedom, not slavery, was the peculiar institution." It seems extraordinary that there were even 12 people who were able to see beyond that and find each other in order to start this movement.

This was an extraordinary group of people. It's not that there was nobody in England who was willing to speak against slavery. There were scattered people, not just in England but in other countries as well -- a few intellectuals, a few theologians. But they were awfully scattered; there was no sense of belonging to a worldwide movement. And I think that most people would have written them off as complete crackpots. A smaller number would have said they were well-intentioned but hopelessly idealistic. The whole Atlantic economy was based on slavery. Sugar was the oil of the 18th century in terms of being the most valuable commodity and the commodity that determined the geopolitics of the day, the nature of the wars, the territory that got traded at the end of the wars, and so forth. And this was all produced by slaves. It would be as if all oil was produced by slaves today, and it required millions and millions of slaves to produce all that oil. Then I think you would find people who were opposed to slavery being considered idealistic, even worthy perhaps, but totally impractical because we could never do without oil.

One of the similarities to our own time that you point out in the book, is that in the 1700s the world was really globalized, and therefore to succeed the abolitionist movement really had to be a global, not a local, one. Which is the same difficulty we face with activist movements today.

I think that is true. The powerful argument used by the pro-slavery people was if England abolished the slave trade, other people would just get that business, especially France. And that was a very convincing argument, especially to members of Parliament who were wavering on that issue. The other thing besides sugar that dominated the 18th century was this longtime rivalry between Britain and France, who were fighting wars all the time. No one wanted to do anything that would give the advantage to French commerce and let their slave ships get the business. So that did make it very important that this be an international movement, and I think the fact that it really wasn't one was something that made it a much harder path for the British abolitionists to hoe. They had some supporters in the States, but these were almost entirely in the northern states where there were very few slaves anyway. And, of course, a lot of the northern states, right after the American Revolution, moved to abolish slavery. But that wasn't a very significant thing because there was no move to abolish slavery in the American South. And there were six other European countries with slave colonies at that time in which there was no movement to speak of at all. So, it would have gone much faster if it had been a global movement, but it didn't, and so in a way I think it makes the actions of this group of people even more remarkable.

So much of the story is one of religious dissent -- Quakers and Methodists coming up against the Church of England, for example. And the missionaries in the slave colonies taught equality in the eyes of God. But, ultimately, at the end of the book, you say that it wasn't scripture but human empathy that drove the movement. Surely we can't discount the role of religion so easily?

It's a very paradoxical situation, because in England, throughout the whole lifespan of the movement, it was a time and place where everybody was deeply religious, or thought of themselves as deeply religious. The concept of someone who was secular or atheist or agnostic, at least in a visible way, was almost nonexistent. Everybody was characterized as Quaker or Anglican or Methodist or whatever. Yet at the same time, one thing that made this movement remarkable was that it was the first major social movement where people from these different religious groups, in effect, formed a coalition to work for something. What was paradoxical was that what they were working for was an aim that was totally secular. It was freeing the slaves. There had been previous religious activism on issues of religious freedom; the Quakers had agitated about not having to pay taxes that supported the Church of England, and there were things like that. But this movement was purely secular.

I think my point about people being moved by human empathy rather than religious argument, what really convinced me of that was, if you look at the distribution records of the different abolitionist tracts, there's such a striking difference. The early tracts tended to quote extensively from the Bible, to make their arguments about God's will. They didn't find many readers. Then there began to be a series of things: John Newton wrote a pamphlet at the urging of the committee; the former slave-ship doctor Alexander Falconbridge did a pamphlet about his experiences on slave ships; a lot of Equiano's autobiography told the life experience of a slave -- these were the books and pamphlets that caught on and were able to reach a really wide audience. And then the absolute all-time bestseller of any kind of anti-slavery literature was this curious little document called "Abstract of the Evidence," which was an abridgement and summary of quotations from the various pieces of eyewitness testimony given before Parliament. And even though at least one or two compilers of this document were themselves clergymen, they never quoted from the Bible; there was no religious argument. It just quoted from West Indian laws and testimony before Parliament. And that was the thing that became an all-time bestseller. So I think inadvertently [the abolitionists] stumbled on the fact that what people responded to was not biblical argument but being confronted with the actual experience of what slavery looked like in practice.

What about the movement's two leaders, Thomas Clarkson (the organizer of the printing shop meeting) and William Wilberforce, the Parliament member who worked within the government to eradicate slavery? You write that they liked and respected each other, and yet, as you say, this was a fight to change a worldview. Their values were so different, it's hard to believe they managed to stay united.

It's a little hard to translate into something comparable today, because there's no single overarching moral issue like slavery, which for two generations was such a prominent thing. But Clarkson and Wilberforce agreed very deeply on that, and that's what they worked on for the roughly 45 years they knew each other. Yet they disagreed on almost everything else. Clarkson, in terms of the politics of the day, was very much a radical; he was a sympathizer of the French Revolution -- even past the point where I think he should have been, when they started lopping off people's heads in large numbers. He was strongly in favor of more rights for women, universal education, labor unions and their equivalents -- democratizing impulses of all kinds. Wilberforce was very reactionary on all these things. He thought women should stay in the home, was terribly against the French Revolution and all it stood for. Yet I think that reactionary stance made him quite an effective spokesperson for the cause in Parliament, because of course Parliament was filled with conservative landowners whose politics were just like his.

One of the more surprising connections you make, that I don't believe is widely known, is that fear of the British Navy press gangs, who would kidnap men to make them serve their country, inspired the abolitionist fervor within England.

The press gangs didn't come to an end until after the Napoleonic wars were over. I was asking a question that many historians have asked for a long time, which was: Why did this movement happen in England? There was such a huge, widespread movement there, and there was nothing in any of the other six European countries that had slave colonies in the Americas -- France, Spain, Portugal, Holland, Sweden and Denmark. There was no movement even remotely equivalent in any of them. And every other explanation doesn't completely explain it. You can say that England industrialized first, but none of these other countries developed anti-slavery movements when they industrialized. You can say literacy rates were high in England, but literacy rates were higher in some of the other countries.

And then I began to think, what makes people empathize with other people of another color in another part of the world? Because that's what this movement was really about. It was the first time ever that a number of people got outraged and stayed outraged for many years about the plight of other people in a completely different part of the world. I think that's more likely to happen if you have something in common with those people. One thing that made England different from the rest of Europe was that, in a sense, a large number of British male citizens were at risk of impressment all the time. The British Navy could only rule the waves because it had a huge number of sailors, and in wartime, a huge number of people were impressed by these armed gangs of kidnappers who roamed the streets of all the major ports, and sometimes quite far inland as well.

Throughout the 18th century there was this remarkable history of resistance to the press gangs -- a resistance at every level of society: riots in the streets when the press gangs kidnapped people, mayors and magistrates in port cities refusing to cooperate with the navy, lawsuits where press gang officials got challenged, a great deal of material in the press. And the analogy that was often used was, this is no better than slavery. The idea that there was something outrageous about being kidnapped and, in effect, enslaved was an idea that was out there and was talked about long before the anti-slavery movement developed.

Also, there were a sizable number of British citizens who were kidnapped in other parts of the world. The historian Linda Colley has written quite an impressive book about this, pointing out that because England ruled so much of the world but did so with a relatively small army, because the country was so small to begin with, British soldiers and sometimes British civilians were always at risk of being taken prisoner. There, too, there was a sense that there was something outrageous, and that's where the hymn "Rule Britannia" comes from: "Rule Britannia, rule the waves, Britons never shall be slaves." Somehow all this stuff was in the public dialogue in a big way before people began asking themselves, why are we enslaving other people? Because of the amount of strong feeling about slavery when Britons were a target of it, I think that made it easier for the movement to gain traction.

Why, once Britain passed emancipation in 1838, did it take so long to happen elsewhere?

I think there are various reasons. In the U.S., of course, I think it was because people knew it would split the country. But in England, there was not only this experience with impressment, there was something else more important. England was not a democracy, because less than 5 percent of the population could vote. Nonetheless, in much of the rest of Europe, nobody could vote at all. Even by the middle of the 18th century in England, Parliament was more important than the king. Even though most people couldn't vote, they nonetheless lived in a culture of democracy, where electoral campaigns were extremely public -- pamphleteering, parading, denunciations in the press. And there was quite a well-developed set of protections under the law -- trial by jury, free speech, absence of censorship. This also was totally unlike most of the rest of Europe.

One of the most effective activist tools you discuss was the sugar boycott, which was spearheaded by women. And the second half of the movement, the one to end not just the slave trade but slavery itself, was activated by women -- a fact that has been more or less written out of history.

This was fascinating to me, because one of the problems you face writing about history is that the most interesting stuff there are usually no records about. Women played virtually no role in British public life at this time. And then there are these little fascinating clues that they began to do so during the anti-slavery movement. One of the ones I mention was in 1788, when the movement caught on for the first time. One of the ways we know it caught on was that suddenly in the records of the topics of debates staged by the London debating societies -- which were commercial enterprises and a big form of public entertainment -- in the month of February 1788, all of a sudden, the debates on record in London are about slavery or the slave trade, whereas in previous years it had only been an occasional topic. And then in one of these debates -- and unfortunately, these damn newspapers don't give you the names -- a newspaper reported that a remarkable occurrence happened: A lady stood up and took the anti-slavery side in the debate, and this lady impressed everyone with her eloquence and force. And the following week another debate society proprietor announced that the same lady held forth on anti-slavery at his debating society. Unfortunately, we don't know who this eloquent lady was, but we know she was there. One scholar I read said she believes this was the first time on record that, outside of a church or church meeting, an English woman was on record as speaking in public. Well, I guess you also have to make an exception for Queen Elizabeth I, who had spoken in public also! Still, it was an amazing thing.

And then there was another thing that I quoted in the book, from a letter to a newspaper from an anonymous man who'd returned home from a trip and was alarmed to find that none of the women in his household had bought any sugar. And then, in the 1820s, along comes this very forceful Quaker pamphleteer, Elizabeth Heyrick, whom I really liked a great deal from reading her pamphlets. Sadly, we know nothing else about her, because there are no materials for a biography, and hardly any of her letters survived; there isn't even a picture of her. But this movement was something that I think brought women into public life, and it raised other issues. By raising the question of why should some people be enslaved and others be free, it raised the question, why should some people be allowed to vote and others not? Why should men have certain rights and women not? There's no way you can begin raising one of these questions where it doesn't rapidly go to the others.

You maintain such an optimistic tone throughout the book -- at the end, when you write about the virtual slavery that awaited emancipated slaves in the British colonies, and all the fights for labor rights and suffrage and independence still to be fought, you ask, "Could any of these battles have been fought at all if the first and greatest, against slavery, had not been won?" That's true, and yet here we are, 170 years later, and we're still fighting types of bondage -- sex slavery, child labor -- around the world.

It's especially hard to be optimistic in a United States that has just reelected George Bush. But I think one thing that doing the research for the book made me realize was that any fight worth fighting is a long-term proposition. You look at these folks who fought slavery, and they thought in five or 10 years they would get this job done. They thought within a couple of years they could get Parliament to ban the slave trade and then slavery itself would wither away quickly after that. Of course, they were wrong. From the date of that first meeting, it was 51 years before slavery was banned in the British Empire, and even then the ex-slaves were living in conditions that were not much better than slavery after that. But it was still a huge step forward, and I think that even in the grimmest moments we experience today, whether it's restrictions on civil liberties in the U.S. or the horrors of the war in Iraq or any number of things we could point to, I remind myself that little over 200 years ago more that three-quarters of the people on earth were slaves, serfs or bonded laborers of one sort or another. Even when there are moments when there's backsliding, I still think we have made some progress.

By Priya Jain

Priya Jain is a freelance writer in New York.

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