In 1787, a printer, a lawyer, a cleric, several merchants, and a musician first gathered in a London printing shop to pursue a seemingly impossible goal: ending slavery in the largest empire on earth. In BURY THE CHAINS: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves (Houghton Mifflin; publication date: January 7, 2004), Adam Hochschild, author of the acclaimed and award-winning King Leopold's Ghost, crafts a taut, thrilling account of their fight. Their crusade soon became one of the most brilliantly organized citizens' movements of all time and resulted in the freeing of hundreds of thousands of slaves around the world.
At this point in the eighteenth century, anyone who advocated ending slavery in the British Empire was regarded as either crazy or hopelessly idealistic. Slave labor in the British West Indies, for instance, had turned sugar from a rare luxury for the wealthy into something found on millions of European dinner tables. British ships dominated the slave trade, carrying roughly half the African captives who crossed the Atlantic. Previous attempts to counter this huge and powerful industry by starting an antislavery movement in the world's largest slave-trading country had gone nowhere. As Hochschild writes, "A latent feeling was in the air, but an intellectual undercurrent disapproving of slavery was something very different from the belief that anything could ever be done about it. An analogy today might be how some people think about automobiles."
But led by Granville Sharp, a prominent musician and self-taught lawyer, this group of men combined fiery devotion with cool practicality. Along the way, they perfected most of the tools activists still rely on today, from posters and mass mailings to boycotts and lapel pins. Britons began discussing slavery in London debating societies, provincial pubs, urban coffeehouses, and their homes. Antislavery pieces were published in books, newspapers, and pamphlets. "Few countries in any age," Hochschild notes, "have seen a social movement of such scope erupt so suddenly." Within five years, this handful of men spawned antislavery committees in every major town and city in the British Isles; more than 300,000 Britons were boycotting the chief slave-grown product, sugar; and the House of Commons had passed the first law banning the slave trade.
The fight to end slavery was by no means easy. The House of Lords, salted with slave owners, refused to pass the bill banning the slave trade, so at its peak this pioneering human rights movement seemed about to die. But the movement's leaders masterfully stoked public opinion over the following decades, lifting to celebrity status such striking personalities as Olaudah Equiano, an eloquent ex-slave who embarked on the first true book tour (promoting his autobiography), and a divinity student named Thomas Clarkson, who became, although the phrase did not then exist, one of the first great investigative journalists. Clarkson earned praise from many of his peers. Samuel Taylor Coleridge once called him a "moral Steam-Engine," and Jane Austen, praising another writer, wrote, "I am as much in love with the author as ever I was with Clarkson." Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man . . . the Reformation, of Luther; Quakerism, of Fox; Methodism, of Wesley; Abolition, of Clarkson . . . All history resolves itself very easily into the biography of a few stout and earnest persons."
Britain finally banned the slave trade in 1807, and slavery itself came to an end in the British Empire in the 1830s, long before it did in the United States. There were parades and celebrations in the British Caribbean on the day of victory, August 1, 1838. In the yard of one Jamaican church at the stroke of midnight, a Baptist missionary named William Knibb and his congregation placed an iron collar for punishing slaves, a whip, and chains in a coffin and inscribed on it, "Colonial Slavery, died July 31st, 1838, aged 276 years."
As with King Leopold's Ghost, Hochschild has once again given a little-celebrated historical watershed its due at last. BURY THE CHAINS follows an incredible grassroots movement that introduced powerful tools to effect social change and that has influenced civil rights movements ever since. This book is a reminder of how a strong social movement and a devoted few can awaken a nation's conscience and change history.
A Conversation with Adam Hochschild
Q. Bury the Chains is about the antislavery movement in the British Empire. The Atlantic slave trade and slavery are long dead, and so, for that matter, is the British Empire. Why should we care about all this now?
A. This piece of history has huge relevance for today. It was the first time in human experience that a large number of people in one country became outraged, and remained outraged, for decades over the plight of others people of another color in another part of the world. Proslavery lobbyists were upset and bewildered when they saw this happening. I find something tremendously moving about this. For surely any long-range hope for the human race lies in better developing our capacity for such feelings.
Q. Where did you get the idea for this book?
A. Like many books, this one started out as something else. I'm always intrigued by people who change sides, and so I originally set out to do a biography of John Newton, the onetime slave ship captain who later wrote "Amazing Grace" and other hymns. This seemed like such a remarkable change of heart. But then I discovered that during the time he was writing those beautiful hymns, Newton said not a word against slavery. He kept silent for more than thirty years after leaving the slave trade, and then spoke up only because an antislavery movement was rising all around him, and some fellow I'd never heard of named Thomas Clarkson had come to see him. So gradually I realized that the movement was really my story and the fiery Clarkson was my major character.
Q. Why did such a vigorous antislavery movement appear in Britain when it did?
A. There are three reasons, I think. First, 1787 and '88, when the movement started with such a bang, was a very exciting moment politically. It was midway between the American and French revolutions, and a lot of heady ideas about human rights were in the air. Second, England embodied a huge contradiction. With a vigorous free press, a thriving civil society, the rule of law, trial by jury, and an elected House of Commons, it was by any measure the most democratic place in Europe. Yet Britain had a lucrative overseas slave empire and its ships carried roughly half the slaves taken across the Atlantic. It was only a matter of time before that contradiction became too blatant to ignore. Finally, millions of young men in Britain feared becoming victims of a different kind of brutal, involuntary forced labor: naval impressment. The widespread resistance against this set the stage for the antislavery movement.
Q. You speak of this as being a pioneer protest movement. How so?
A. Today, when any kind of political or human rights movement wants to mobilize its supporters to put pressure on those in power, think about the tools it uses. A regular newsletter, print or electronic. A lapel button for people to wear. Posters. A consumer boycott. The practice of systematically grading legislators on how they stand on a certain set of issues. The very idea of having a national organization for a particular cause, not part of a church or political party, with local chapters. Every single one of these tools was either invented or used widely for the first time by the antislavery movement during five extraordinary years, from 1787 to 1792. In the handwritten minutes of the London antislavery committee, it's thrilling to find these people stumbling onto each of these techniques, one after another, and realizing how powerful they are.
Q. Your principal figures seem like characters out of a novel Granville Sharp with his musical barge, the shocked James Stephen in a West Indian courtroom, Thomas Clarkson almost killed by slave ship officers on a Liverpool pier. It's hard to believe you didn't make anything up.
A. Not a word. There's a source note for every quotation, and for thousands of other details I can tell you where they come from. History to me is as fascinating as any novel, and here it has provided me with characters far more interesting than I could ever invent. It's curious to me that we are accustomed to reading suspenseful narrative histories of certain things: the Founding Fathers, the Civil War, World War II. But when you write about lesser-known events, people often think you must be embellishing the facts, because the real story couldn't possibly be that dramatic. In this case it was.
Q. If you could project yourself two hundred years back, what particular time or place in your story would you have liked to witness?
A. There are two. One is on the streets of Bristol in the summer of 1787, when the traveling activist Thomas Clarkson rode his horse into town and spent many weeks prowling the docks and pubs, talking to sailors, fuming with rage as he saw how the slave trade was organized. It was a great moment of moral revelation for him; his eyes opened, and they never shut. The other place I would have liked to be is in the Baptist chapel in Falmouth, Jamaica, just after midnight on August 1, 1838. That's when slavery in the British Empire came to an end. The newly freed slaves took some chains, a whip, and an iron punishment collar, placed them in a coffin, took it out into the churchyard, and buried it. That's where the title of the book comes from. And incidentally, on that day the eighty-three-year-old Clarkson was still alive to enjoy the news.
Q. Where did you do your research?
A. One of the joys of writing about the Brits is that they never throw anything away. Letters, diaries, government documents. When Judgment Day comes and God is trying to decide what to do with us all, He merely has to send a messenger to the Public Record Office in London to find most of the necessary data. Many more valuable papers and documents are in the British Library and also in London's Quaker library. Some of this material has been put on microfilm over the years, and there's a ton of academic studies on the subject. So I actually was able to do most of my research at my home library, at the University of California at Berkeley. Plus, I spent a few days poking through the ruins of slave plantations in backcountry Jamaica, walked the parts of London and Bristol that figured in the story, and found the place where Thomas Clarkson got off his horse, sat down by the side of the road, and decided to dedicate his life to ending slavery. In years past, I've also visited four or five of the old slave-trading depots on the West African coast.
Q. By now you've done one book about slavery, another about the Congo, a memoir, a book on South Africa, and one about the Russians and Stalin will you ever settle on a particular subject and made it your specialty?
A. I'm glad there are specialists, because I learn a lot from them such as the fine historians of slavery whose work I drew on for this book. But for me the pleasure of writing is in exploring new territory. I can't imagine not having the excitement of learning about a time and place that is new to me. In the last few books I've changed countries and centuries each time. I have no idea what comes next, but it certainly won't be a book on any of the subjects I've already written about.