on 17 March 2006
This is history as it should be written. Meticulously researched and written like a novel. The book not only sketches the British campaign to abolish slavery but also gives a great insight into the slave trade in the British empire at its peak. It offers a re-assessment of the role of Wilberforce - traditionally the hero of the anti slavery campaign - who the author sees as a conservative religious zealot. I would have liked to know more about the slave trade in other countries - France, Spain and Portugal - but there is more than enough here to entertain, inform and inspire.
on 18 October 2007
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.
Margaret Mead once said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." This book is the story of those thoughtful, committed citizens, beginning with twelve men who met in a bookshop in London in 1787 to form a society committed to abolishing the slave trade.
The story of that campaign is really quite astonishing. The slave trade's demise was helped by the incredible organisation of those original twelve men, who effectively invented almost every aspect of campaigning that we know today - petitions, lectures, boycotts, public pressure, advertising, puff pieces in newspapers, fliers, posters, books. In less than a single lifetime slavery went from an institution that no-one questioned, the economic bedrock of the British Empire, a system in which fortunes were made and increased, to being abolished. When you think about it, that's incredibly fast. Think about the issues that excite us today - sweatshops, poverty, sex trafficking. Can you imagine any of those being solved within our own lifetimes?
I couldn't put this book down. It moved me to tears on more than one occasion, particularly Hochschild's final conclusion: "...one of the first great flowerings of a very modern belief: that the way to stir men and women to action is not by biblical argument, but through the vivid, unforgettable description of acts of great injustice done to their fellow human beings. The abolitionists placed their hope not in sacred texts, but in human empathy. We live with that hope still."
on 13 October 2008
This is a very engaging history about the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire. As author Adam Hochschild retells it, the realization about the evil of slavery came surprisingly quickly in Great Britain in the closing years of the eighteenth century. By the early months of 1787, most inhabitants of Britain (with the exception of the Quakers and very few other people) would have seen the slave trade as something natural, that had occurred in every civilization in human history. By the closing months of that same year, hundred of thousands of Britons had joined a boycott of sugar made in the West Indies plantations. It would take however until 1807 (mainly because of the French revolution and the subsequent Napoleonic wars) to outlaw the slave trade in the British Empire and until the 1830s to outlaw slavery itself (it would take even longer to end slavery in other countries like the Unites States and Brazil, of course) Why this turn of mind happened? Hochschild throws around some hypothesis (the inhabitants of Britain suddenly saw a similarity between slavery and the hated forced enlistments of British subjects into the British navy, he claims) but none of them is entirely convincing. The book is very interesting throughout, focusing on a few characters who become the protagonists of the struggle (like William Wilberforce, a very conservative man in other issues, but a commited if cautious fighter against the slave trade), the radical activist Thomas Clarkson (a man surprisingly modern in some of his beliefs but who could also be very naive), the former slave Olaudah Equiano, the repentant former captain of a slave ship John Newton, the defender of slavery Banastre Tarleton and prime minister William Pitt (a timid opponent of slavery). And there are also very interesting chapters dealing with the Haitian revolution, the first succesful slave revolt in history.
on 22 September 2015
In May 1787, Granville Sharp joined with Thomas Clarkson and nine Quakers, to form the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade. This is what England and Great Britain should remember with pride, far above the wars and the war-mongers, but those with the guts to show moral courage and know right from wrong.
Ah...what I wouldn't do to meet those 12 men in London in 1787. A statue of Thomas Clarkson is in Wisbech, visit it and marvel what moral courage homo sapiens can summon when they want to do good. We could do with Thomas Clarkson to help us with today...
A great book, easy to read. It takes you from the 1787 meeting all the way to the final abolition in 1833. Despite the groundswell of public opinion, Parliament still refused to ban slavery, until parliamentary reform removed many of its supporters. Despite this, it was still not clear that Parliament would act. Wilberforce wrote a last petition. The Parliamentary debate lasted three months. On the 26th July, 1833, the Abolition of Slavery bill passed its third reading in the House of Commons. A messenger rushed to Wilberforce's house. They told him that slavery in British colonies would finally be abolished. Just three days later, on 29th July, William Wilberforce died. Thomas Clarkson the "moral steam engine" died in 1846. And finally Abraham Lincoln and others freed US slaves in 1865.
It also describes the HORROR of slavery and what was done unto millions of human beings against their will.
on 22 September 2012
Adam Hochschild is a very gifted writer making aspects of our history so interesting when compared to what we were taught at school. "Bury the Chains" is a carefully researched work which gives a comprehensive account of the struggles to end the abomination of slavery. Also well worth reading is his other book "To End all Wars" which gives some interesting perspectives on the lead-up to that orgy of slaughter. Both books thoroughly recommended to the serious reader.
on 2 January 2006
Beautifully written. A shocking tale, but not one without hope, in that it reveals how a small band of individuals managed to help change the course of history.
on 1 May 2016
Another well written and researched book by Houchschild (if you haven't read The Ghost of King Leopold, do it now). The author tells this harrowing, yet at times uplifting, story with dignity and panache. Amid the horror of slavery, he manages to tastefully insert humour both through his wonderful writing style and the use of bizarre antidotes, which both helps to build the characters within, and keeps the reader's interest through the most gruesome stories. While some level of judgement is inevitable, Houchschild does his best to put forward the facts,and leaves the reader to make up their own mind on who the heroes and villains are, and leaves them pondering, like he did in The Ghost of King Leopold, why humanity continues to inflict such atrocities on each other.
Slavery was around well before Britain got involved. This tells the story of British involvement which is quite shocking and the struggle to abolish it. The struggle was a hard one as they were faced with a Government and the Church who were fairly happy with the status quo. Britain can be ashamed of being involved at all but should stand tall and proud for leading the fight to abolish slavery. It was abolition led by the people, who probably knew little of Africa or those of a different colour and many of whom did not even have a vote. This book tells the story of the gallant struggle and victory. It is well researched and very well written. It is a real page turner and hard to put down. It is a great read. Highly recommended.