The abolitionist movement was, Hochschild says, "first sustained mass campaign anywhere on behalf of someone else's rights." in history, as such he considers it to be the ancestor of all modern mass campaigns. The story of the abolition campaign takes in the leading lights of the movement whose personalities and eccentricities are brought to life vividly, as well as the supporters throughout the country who individually had little influence ( most of them could not vote ) but whose mass boycotts of slave produced sugar sent a powerful signal as did the petitions on a scale that parliament had never witnessed before. The role of women was remarkable for the era.
The other side of the debate, the pro slavery forces, are also heard although thankfully not caricatured although some of the propaganda they put forward were so preposterous that it is hard for a 21st century man not to laugh out loud, such as the idea of rebranding slaves as 'assistant planters'.
Before any of this though 'Bury the Chains' begins by discussing the conditions of slaves themselves so as to avoid the danger of viewing the horrors involved in the abstract as well as to put in context the importance of slavery in late 18th century Britain's economy and how readily it was taken for granted. It was unthinkable to outlaw the practice. Towards then end of the book the major slave revolts are also covered.
The key abolitionists were William Wilberforce, James Stephen, Granville Sharp, Olaudah Equiano and John Newton all of whom merit longer treatment than I can provide here, however if one man is seen in this book as indispensible to the cause it was Thomas Clarkson.
Clarkson was recruited to the cause when as a young man he entered and won an essay competition set up by Sharp. Whilst he initially just wanted to win the competition once he began to think about slavery, wiping it from the face of the Earth became his driving force for the rest of his life. As the organiser of the campaign he travelled up and down the country for years on end to mobilise support and gather evidence against the trade. On more than one occasion this put him in tremedous physical danger from thugs hired by the slaver interests. It was Clarkson who more than anyone can claim credit for transforming the movement from a small clique into an irresistable force, simple items such as diagrams of the condition of a packed slave ship or the tools of the trade such as thumb screws and leg irons horrified people across the land. The mass campaign pioneered many of the techniques that are still used by campaigns today, badges, leaflets, posters, petitions, letter writing campaigns and public rallies.
Hochschild was by profession a radical left wing journalist, the founder editor of American political magazine Mother Jones, and it is of little surprise when allusions or comparisons to modern left wing causes are made. Or that he so obviously admires the radical elements within the campaign rather than the more conservative or evangelical christian elements. Yet it is a sign of the quality and integrity of his writing that although he makes his points he doesn't shy from providing enough information for someone to draw their own conclusions.
If there is a better account of the abolitionist movement in 18th century Britain then I have not seen it. This is both an accessible book but richly informative giving both the grand narrative of abolition with countless stories within that.