Sunday, January 16, 2011

Book Review: Bury the Chains

Title Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves
Author Adam Hochschild
Rating *****
Tags non-fiction, history, slave trade, slavery, abolition, england, british empire 

This kind of book is what led me to get two degrees in history. It is an absolutely fascinating story, compellingly told, with a sweep of several continents and an idea that shook the world.

Hochschild does an excellent job of setting the scene, of telling us what it was like to be English in the late 18th century. Slavery was the norm. It had been a part of society since the beginning, and the majority of the world's population were slave or serf. In addition, much of the wealth in England came from the sugar trade, which depended heavily on slavery. And yet, in the course of only a few years, a movement to abolish the slave trade and then slavery itself became overwhelmingly popular. The author devotes himself to explaining how that happened, and no detail is too small for him to uncover...yet it is all told in a way that is as thrilling as any fiction.

It started with a committee of about 12 men in the late 1789s. Most of them were Quakers, but their backbone was Thomas Clarkson, who was Anglican. It was essential, since England was officially Anglican, to have spokesmen of that faith. Clarkson traveled enormous distances both raising funds for the campaign and gathering testimony about slavery and the trade.

One man who eventually joined the campaign was John Newton, who was a highly influential Anglican clergyman and author of many popular hymns, including Amazing Grace. Newton had been involved in the slave trade for many years as a trader and captain of slave ships.

The campaign took off in part because of both words and imagery. A diagram of a slave ship, showing exactly how appalling the conditions were, became a poster seen by much of the British population. Two books were particularly important. One was the memoirs of a former slave, Olaudah Equiano. Equiano traveled nearly as much as Clarkson to sell his memoirs, and in him the British public saw an intelligent and impressive spokesman for his race. The other important book was a condensation of hearings before Parliament about the conditions of the slave trade and of slaves.

All of this information was percolated through newspapers and the coffee houses where people gathered and read news and shared information. As a result, abolition of the slave trade became a popular cause, even leading many to give up sugar.

However, most Englishmen had no right to vote, nor did any English women. One additional element needed for the campaign to be successful was a forceful speaker in Parliament, and the movement found such a man in William Wilberforce, who on many other topics was a conservative. He gave his passion to the cause of abolition of the slave trade, and was eventually successful, with abolition of slavery coming many years after that.

Hochschild mentions, but doesn't emphasize as much as I'd like, the wild ferment of ideas about individual freedom that changed the world in the 18th century. I know that "thinking outside of the box" has become a terrible cliche, but I think the Enlightenment proves that once ideas occur that are out of the box, people start questioning on all sorts of related topics. If government gets legitimacy through the people, then why can't more men vote? Why shouldn't slaves be free? What about women? And so on, and on. this is why the Enlightenment is one of my favorite periods in history.

Bury the Chains is a marvelous work, highly recommended.

Publication Mariner Books (2006), Paperback, 496 pages
Publication date 2006
ISBN 0618619070 / 9780618619078

Posted via email from reannon's posterous

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