Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves – Adam Hochschild

Despite the clunky title, this is a relatively fast read about a fascinating subject that has been neglected in my world of knowledge so far: the abolition of slavery from the British Empire during the last eighteenth century and onwards.

In 1787, a group of twelve men met one evening in a printer’s shop in London wanting to end slavery in the British Empire. As the author notes, the size of this goal would be comparable (for us) as wanting to get rid of cars across the world. It was a huge endeavor, and one that would not come that easy or without a big fight. This small group of committed activists would take on Parliament, the upper class, the military, the church – in fact almost every organized group at that time was most likely involved in slavery projects (and yes, even the Church of England had some dealings in the trade).

So – how did this proceed? It took years of dedicated effort, miles of horse-riding to do effective outreach to cities and towns across the nation at a time when transportation was slow and expensive, and a public relations campaign that influenced almost every other social justice campaign since then.

Reading the non-fiction portrayal of the events that occurred, I found it to be really exciting and involving in the whole process: the secret meetings of the Quakers (and others) who supported the neophyte cause, the writing of the anti-slavery pamphlets, the development of political supporters, and even the Sugar protest whereby more then 300,000 Britons refused to eat (or buy) sugar as it was a slave-supportive product. I just can’t imagine people nowadays doing something similar. (I’d like to think I was wrong, but after years with public health, I am not entirely convinced. Perhaps the early HIV/AIDS activists were closest in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Yes, I know HIV/AIDS was around earlier than that.)

This small group of men (and later on, women) were the people who first effectively used the tools of community relations today: wall posters and pamphlets to mass mailings, boycotts and antislavery badges (designed by Josiah Wedgewood and perhaps the equivalent of lapel ribbons for today.) Hochschild  is passionate about
this subject and it is easy to catch that enthusiasm when you read this and learn (or get reminded) of the horrors of traveling in a slave ship in the Middle Passage of the slavery triangle between England, the West Indies, and Southern US, and I learned a lot about it.

The drawing of the layout of the slave ship was one of the first ever diagrams used to mold public opinion, and did much to help the cause. The activists learned that “show, not tell” was the most effective teaching tool, and so speakers carried around some of the trappings of slavery: the leg irons, the leg traps, the whips… It’s hard to deny slavery when you saw those, I would think.

One thing I was amazed at was the very low number of people in the British Isles who could vote at that time. I was familiar with the fact that women had not been allowed to vote for a significant period of time, but at this time in the eighteenth century, only about 5% of all the population of England, Scotland and Wales could vote with the majority of those voters being upper class and peers of the realm. The petitions that the anti-slavery team put together going house-to-house in all kinds of neighborhoods and asking people who perhaps had never been asked for their opinions before – this was a
huge catalyst to involving the underclasses in the political process. No one had ever asked for their opinions before, and so this was a game-changer that led to ripples for the next century and beyond.

Really, this abolition movement changed the world in many ways: it led to the US abolitionists learning how to work an effective campaign, the independence of several Caribbean islands from European countries, new and different links with African countries… After some time, it also helped to bring public opinion to sway on the awfully dangerous working conditions for child (and adult) laborers in the mines close to home on British soil and other changes. It also clearly shows that emancipation wasn’t just a “gift” from the “White Guys”, but also the result of uprisings by the slaves themselves at the cost of many lost lives.

Really, I found this to be a fascinating book on many levels. The author is a co-founder of Mother Jones magazine, and is a well published writer and journalist. He definitely did his homework on this one. This was a finalist for the 2005 National Book Award in Non-Fiction.

Borrowed on ILL from Lubbock Library. Hooray for Texas libraries.

3 thoughts on “Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves – Adam Hochschild

  1. I read his book on the Congo (King Leopold’s Ghost) and found it a powerful read. I’ve been meaning to give his other stuff a go ever since!

  2. Pingback: Bury the Chains by Adam Hochschild | A Good Stopping Point

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