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Times Literary Supplement
Sunday, November 6th, 2005


Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves

by Adam Hochschild

The pages of sin

A review by Anthony Pagden

The "unweary, unostentatious and inglorious" story of the struggle for the abolition of slavery, declared the nineteenth-century Irish historian W. E. H. Lecky, was one of the "three or four perfectly virtuous pages comprised in the history of nations". Adam Hochschild, in Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves, does not mention Lecky, but it is essentially Lecky's story that he has set out to tell. Unweary it may have been, virtuous it certainly was, but the story of how Thomas Clarkson, Granville Sharp, William Wilberforce and a host of other industrious if less prominent figures slowly but inexorably forced legislation upon a reluctant Parliament is also one of slow, dogged, painstaking and ultimately undramatic effort.

Year after year, from the moment in 1785 when Clarkson stepped down from his horse at Wades Mill in Hertfordshire (a spot still marked by a small obelisk) and determined that "some person should see these calamities to their end", until 1807, when the slave trade, although not slavery itself, was finally outlawed, the abolitionists toured the country, gathering support, while Wilberforce doggedly attempted to force an anti slavery bill through a Parliament filled with slave-owners and their representatives. From this worthy but unpromising material Hochschild has created a rapid and compelling piece of history. Bury the Chains provides engaging character sketches of all the major characters in the drama -including that of the remarkable ex-slave and best-selling autobiographer, Olaudah Equiano -- and of a number of minor ones, like the reformed slaver and author of the hymn "Amazing Grace", John Newton. It also offers a brisk, thoughtful and well-informed narrative of the major political events -- the attempts to create a colony of free Africans in Sierra Leone, the Napoleonic Wars, the Haitian Revolution, the uprisings in Jamaica in 1832-3, the Reform Act of 1832 -- which inevitably determined the course of the abolitionists' efforts.

Hochschild has given us the best possible account of how it happened. The question still remains, however: why did it happen? Why did a white, conservative, all male Parliament, made up entirely of property-owners, vote out of existence an institution which for centuries had simply been taken to be an unfortunate but unchangeable part of the human condition? As Hochschild demonstrates again and again, all the vested interests of the world's most powerful trading nation were against abolition. Sugar was one of the mainstays of the British economy in the eighteenth century. Imports from Jamaica alone were five times those of the Thirteen Colonies, and sugar production relied upon slave labour.

As Daniel Defoe put it in 1713, "No African Trade, no Negroes, No Negroes, No Sugar; no Sugar no Islands, no Islands no Continent, no Continent no Trade; that is to say farewell to your American Trade, your West Indian Trade". The trade itself also created vast fortunes for those who lived by it, and turned otherwise unremarkable seaports -- Liverpool and Le Havre, Bristol and Providence -- into thriving, wealthy metropolises. It transformed small African communities such as Dahomey into powerful states. It became a feature of the lifestyles, the political structures and the economic order of a large section of the globe. Portugal, France, the Baltic States and Spain all participated in the trade, but by the early eighteenth century it was Britain which dominated it. "No nation in Europe", William Pitt the Younger told the House of Commons, in 1792, "has plunged so deeply into this guilt as Great Britain."

When it finally came, abolition cost the nation something close to 1.8 per cent of the national annual income over fifty years. What drove all those who had had gained so much from slavery to surrender to the demands of a highly vocal minority, most of them powerless (although they had some powerful advocates), and many such as the Quakers who existed on the margins of British society? The answer has at least something to do with the introduction of sugar from Asia, as the older Marxist literature on the subject has always insisted, and the corresponding decline of the need for slave labour in the West Indies. It has something to do, as Robin Blackburn argued in The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, 1776-1848, with the modernization of the European state system and of its overseas economies. But abolition was also the outcome of a massive shift in European attitudes towards the value of human life, and the claims which peoples in remote and alien cultures might have upon Europeans. Slavery was the refusal -- the ultimate refusal -- to recognize ourselves in others; and that, the writers of the Enlightenment had come to believe, was a failure not merely of understanding: it was a failure of our own humanity. Slavery, Montesquieu warned, not only inflicted an injustice on the slave, it also corrupted and degraded the enslaver, and a slave society was doomed, in the end, to moral corruption and decay. It was for this reason, said David Hume, that the slave societies of the Ancient World, for all their many virtues, could never serve as models for the moderns.

The abolitionists had understood this. They had, as Hochschild puts it, mastered the challenge of "drawing the connections between the near and the far". The sensitive, Enlightened theatre-goers of Paris, complained Denis Diderot in the mid-eighteenth century, could weep their eyes out over the fate of Phaedra, and give not a thought to the poor African. "It is only the fatal destiny of the unhappy Negroes", he lamented, "which is of no interest to us."

Making that destiny an immediate and pressing issue among people who had very little idea about the horrors of slavery, and very little concern for what took place on remote tropical islands, and making it in ways that reached a wide public audience, was, as Hochschild argues, in part made possible by the growth of literacy in Britain and by the spread of newspaper pamphlets and cartoons which were surprisingly unconstrained by the standards of most contemporary European nations other than Holland. (Hochschild's other argument, that it was the ubiquitous presence of the press-gangs that heightened public sensitivity to the plight of the slaves, strikes me as much less plausible. Much of the support for abolition came from cities, such as Manchester, which were far from the sea; and the leaders of the movement showed not the slightest awareness of the existence of press-gangs, much less of any similarity between them and the slave traders.) For all that, it remains unclear why a Parliament which, even after the Reform Act, represented only a tiny percentage of the population, should have voted to outlaw something that was still a significant contributor to the nation's wealth.

One of Hochschild's great virtues is the degree to which he stresses the role that the slaves themselves played in bringing about their own ultimate emancipation. It was not only educated whites who read the abolitionist literature and the abolitionist press and, more widely after the French Revolution, about the novel and menacing notions of "liberty", "equality" and the "rights of man"; increasingly, the slaves did so too. In August 1791, slaves on the French island of Saint-Domingue, encouraged by what they had heard of the progress of the Revolution in France, rose in a concerted and highly organized rebellion led by the former slave Toussaint L'Ouverture. In September 1793, in support of the French planters, and fearful that the rebellion would spread to Jamaica, the British, now officially at war with Revolutionary France, invaded the island. Within months the troops had taken all the major towns, and the capital, Port au Prince. But they got not further. In October 1798, after five years of struggling against unceasing and highly effective guerrilla warfare, malaria and yellow fever, and despite ceaseless reinforcements, the commander of what remained of the occupation force, Thomas Maitland, negotiated a peace with Toussaint and left. When it was all over, the British had sent more men to suppress uprisings in the West Indies than it had during the American War of Independence, and over 60 per cent of them had died there. As Hochschild puts it: "the soldiers of the world's greatest slave trading nation had given way before an army of ex-slaves". Any doubt about the capacity of these ex-slaves to defend their liberty was dispelled by Napoleon's attempt to reintroduce slavery into the island in 1802. After twenty-two months of fighting, the French lost 50,000 soldiers, including eighteen generals, more than Napoleon was to lose at Waterloo. In January 1804, Saint-Domingue officially declared its independence from France and became the Republic of Haiti. Three years later, the British Parliament passed a bill which officially outlawed the slave trade.

Although the bill was not a response to the British defeat at the hand of Toussaint L'Ouverture, the Haitian Revolution had made it clear that, if the European powers did not put an end to slavery willingly, they would eventually, and at immense cost to themselves, be forced to.
Abolishing the trade, however, was not the same thing as abolishing slavery. Once the trade had ceased, full emancipation had come to seem inevitable to many; but it took another rebellion, this time in Jamaica, in 1831-2, before it was finally achieved. Although nothing on the scale of Saint-Domingue, the Jamaica uprising was the most extensive and most costly, in both lives and property, in the British Caribbean. In the summer of 1832, Lord Howick, Parliamentary Secretary to the Colonial Office, wrote to the new Governor of Jamaica: "The present state of things cannot go on much longer . . . . Emancipation alone will effectually avert the danger". A year later, Parliament reluctantly accepted the truth of this observation. In 1833, all slaves on British soil were emancipated -- although the Act did not come into full effect until 1838.

Hochschild sees all of this as the beginning of something that reached far beyond the abolitionist movement itself. It was, in his view, the beginning of true democracy in Britain; the beginning of the politics of public opinion and of the power of the marginalized -- not only the slaves themselves, but of the labouring classes and of women in Britain -- to make their voices finally heard. Some of this is certainly overstated. As Hochschild himself recognizes, Marxist historians have tended to view the abolitionist movement as essentially a form of aristocratic benevolence, handed out to Africans at precisely the moment when they were becoming economically less significant, but denied to nominally free labourers at home. Few if any of the abolitionists believed that equality of status between blacks and whites was desirable or even possible. Even Wilberforce, of whom Hochschild has drawn a brilliantly vivid portrait, and who was evangelical, prudish, obsessed with sin, a keen supporter, as Hochschild puts it, "of all the era's repressive measures", believed that emancipating the slaves might ultimately be less important than bringing "the reign of light and truth and happiness among them", by which he meant primarily Christianity and British "laws, institutions and manners". It was not rights which were at stake here so much as Christian duty. Yet if the abolition of slavery may not be quite all that Hochschild wishes to claim for it, it is hard to deny it Lecky's description. There can have been few other "perfectly virtuous pages" in British or in any other history, and in Adam Hochschild they have found a passionate, skilled and deeply committed narrator.

Anthony Pagden is Professor of History and Political Science at the University of California, Los Angeles. His most recent book is La Illustración y sus enemigos: Dos ensayos sobre los or!genes de la modernidad, 2002.

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