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Let Freedom Ring

Reviewed by Steven Mufson
Sunday, January 23, 2005; Page BW03


Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to

Free an Empire's Slaves

By Adam Hochschild. Houghton Mifflin. 468 pp. $26.95

Often, outrage is not enough. If campaigns to end injustices have succeeded, it is because they have been thought through, built well, fought hard. In our lifetimes, we have seen great strides in the effort to end child labor, segregation and apartheid; we have seen real gains in the battles for women's rights, consumer safeguards and environmental protections. But successful movements require more than the audacity to try to right a wrong, especially when that wrong is pervasive, widely accepted and underpins a vast economic enterprise. They succeed because of organizational savvy. The granddaddy of these transforming citizens' crusades, and the one that altered perhaps the most amazingly unjust and savage institution of all, was the British movement to end the international slave trade.

Adam Hochschild's wonderful, vivid new Bury the Chains argues, in part, that the British abolition movement of the late 1700s pioneered the strategies that every activist group now takes for granted: direct mailings, legal test cases, campaign pins, grassroots lobbying. "Each of these tools, from the poster to the political book tour, from the consumer boycott to investigative reporting designed to stir people to action, is part of what we take for granted in a democracy," Hochschild writes. "Two and a half centuries ago, few people assumed this."

Fascinating as this is, what makes Hochschild's book so readable is the rich cast of characters who created the movement, and the appalling nature of slavery itself. This isn't just any social movement, and the reader can't help but share the mingled sense of outrage and disbelief that the abolitionists themselves must have felt as they witnessed or heard about the incredible inhumanity of this practice.

Hochschild, a founder of Mother Jones magazine and the author of several books, including King Leopold's Ghost, begins his story with the May 22, 1787, meeting of a dozen men in a print shop in London -- a time when roughly three-quarters of humanity lived in some sort of bondage, be it slavery, serfdom or indentured servitude. Every year, nearly 80,000 Africans were captured, shackled and loaded onto slave ships bound for the New World. Most British leaders and citizens accepted the system as necessary to sustain the economy of British colonies in the West Indies and of port cities in the United Kingdom itself; slavery's advocates said that without the institution, the price of sugar would soar. Few Britons evidenced much thought or distress about the morality of slavery. Even the Church of England owned a plantation where slaves were branded and mistreated. "If, early that year, you had stood on a London street corner and insisted that slavery was morally wrong and should be stopped," Hochschild writes, "nine out of ten listeners would have laughed you off as a crackpot." Yet within a few years, the abolitionists had established committees in every major town, rallied 300,000 Britons to support a boycott of slave-grown sugar and flooded Parliament with petitions to end slavery.

As with many activist movements, the catalysts for this one often came from the oddest places. One was an insurance dispute. An inexperienced slave-ship captain, his boat overcrowded with slaves and sailors and alternately becalmed and beset by headwinds, lost his way en route to the West Indies. The slaves began to die, and their corpses would bring the captain no profit. Then he realized that since slaves were considered cargo, they could be jettisoned if conditions at sea required. So he decided to throw 132 still-living slaves overboard, let them drown and collect insurance money for them. But his insurance company, for mercenary (not moral) reasons of its own, said it wasn't liable. The dispute led to a trial over money, not murder. One of those in attendance was a lawyer named Granville Sharp, who at age 32 had become the leading defender of black rights in London after meeting a severely beaten black man being treated by Sharp's brother, a physician. Sharp became one of the leading pamphleteers of the abolition movement and began to prick the sleeping conscience of England.

The ripples from the insurance trial began to wash over British society. One of Sharp's indignant pamphlets wound up in the hands of a minister who later became head of Cambridge University. Once there, he set a question for the university's prestigious Latin essay contest: Is it lawful to enslave others against their will? The contest's winner, a tall, red-headed divinity student named Thomas Clarkson, became overwhelmed with revulsion while researching his essay. After the contest, as he galloped toward London on his way to a promising career in the Church of England, he paused, dismounted and sat by the side of the road. There he resolved that "it was time someone should see these calamities to their end." He went on to become one of the abolition movement's boldest leaders.

Nor is Clarkson even the most colorful in Hochschild's roster. There's also John Newton, a slave-ship captain who became an evangelical preacher and wrote the song "Amazing Grace"; a former slave named Olaudah Equaino, who wrote movingly about being captured and about the wretched conditions on slave ships; the publisher James Phillips, who connected Clarkson and Sharp with a Quaker network that provided the backbone of the abolitionist organization; and Wilbur Wilberforce, the eloquent, evangelical member of the House of Commons who became the abolitionists' greatest ally in Parliament.

Just as in U.S. reform movements from abolition to temperance, the pervasiveness of evangelicals in the British anti-slavery movement was no coincidence; evangelicalism was spreading at the time among Anglicans, who were reacting against a whole raft of immorality and licentiousness -- from public executions, prostitution, pubs and pickpockets to the lack of dignity shown by representatives in Parliament. "To evangelicals," Hochschild writes, "this was a nation that had lost its moral bearings."

Nowhere was that lost moral compass clearer than with regard to slavery. Hochschild's ragged band of abolitionists, often armed with little more than their own ingenuity and moral suasion, went up against one of the great evils of the 18th or any other century. Bury the Chains features a stunning portrait of the sheer brutality of the slave trade and the British plantation system in the West Indies. On slave ships, kidnapped Africans were packed in rows in a 2'8"-high space, according to the intrepid Clarkson, who took measurements (and may have missed a calling as a brilliant investigative reporter). According to one captain's log that Clarkson examined, 20 percent of slaves died on the voyage from Africa. The trips were perilous for the crews, too: Another captain lost 32 sailors in a single voyage. Once in the West Indies, slaves died so regularly in hazardous working conditions -- unsafe machinery in the mills where the sugar cane was crushed, or dangerous cauldrons where the cane juice was boiled -- that the plantations relied on new shipments of slaves to keep their work force constant. Rebels were treated harshly; some were burned alive, others shot.

In one particularly nightmarish section, Hochschild details the atrocities that accompanied the fighting after a rebellion against slavery broke out in August 1791 on what is now Haiti. Hochschild grippingly describes a series of war crimes by all sides -- the rebels, the French and the British, who briefly seized the island -- that would make today's Iraqi insurgents blush. One French general ordered a Haitian rebel leader's epaulets nailed to his shoulders -- in front of his wife and children, who were then drowned before the suffering rebel's eyes. The same general also packed Haitian prisoners into a ship's hold and burned sulfur throughout the night, thereby creating "what may have been history's first gas chamber."

These harrowing passages show what the abolitionists were up against: an appalling institution and its appalling consequences. And yet, after the costly war in the West Indies, Lord Grenville, a new prime minister who was more sympathetic to the abolitionists, guided a bill abolishing the entire British slave trade through Parliament in early 1807. Full emancipation for the empire's slaves, however, did not come until 1833.

That's still an astonishing achievement, and Hochschild believes the British abolitionists can provide inspiration for people today. "Their passion and optimism are still contagious and still relevant to our times, when, in so many parts of the world, equal rights for all men and women seem far distant," he writes. In a few paragraphs, Hochschild draws a parallel between the struggle of the abolitionists and current campaigns to improve working conditions and end child labor in developing countries. If those issues seem distant to many Americans, he writes, remember that slavery seemed distant to most British citizens who nonetheless consumed the sugar that slaves produced in that dawn of globalization.

Hochschild's riveting narrative reminds us that people who fancy themselves civilized can have the most uncivilized institutions, that distance can lull a society into living with terrible injustices, and that economic interests can corrupt the moral fabric of a nation. Hochschild laments the absence of a sign or plaque to mark the place in London where the abolition movement began. The dedicated members of that campaign surely deserve a monument; until then, they have this splendid book. •

Steven Mufson is deputy editor of The Washington Post's Outlook section and the author of "Fighting Years: Black Resistance and the Struggle for a New South Africa."

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