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

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9780618104697: Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves

From the author of the prize-winning King Leopold's Ghost comes a taut, thrilling account of the first grass-roots human rights campaign, which freed hundreds of thousands of slaves around the world.
In 1787, twelve men gathered in a London printing shop to pursue a seemingly impossible goal: ending slavery in the largest empire on earth. Along the way, they would pioneer most of the tools citizen activists still rely on today, from wall posters and mass mailings to boycotts and lapel pins. This talented group combined a hatred of injustice with uncanny skill in promoting their cause. Within five years, more than 300,000 Britons were refusing to eat the chief slave-grown product, sugar; London's smart set was sporting antislavery badges created by Josiah Wedgwood; and the House of Commons had passed the first law banning the slave trade.
However, the House of Lords, where slavery backers were more powerful, voted down the bill. But the crusade refused to die, fueled by remarkable figures like Olaudah Equiano, a brilliant ex-slave who enthralled audiences throughout the British Isles; John Newton, the former slave ship captain who wrote "Amazing Grace"; Granville Sharp, an eccentric musician and self-taught lawyer; and Thomas Clarkson, a fiery organizer who repeatedly crisscrossed Britain on horseback, devoting his life to the cause. He and his fellow activists brought slavery in the British Empire to an end in the 1830s, long before it died in the United States. The only survivor of the printing shop meeting half a century earlier, Clarkson lived to see the day when a slave whip and chains were formally buried in a Jamaican churchyard.
Like Hochschild's classic King Leopold's Ghost, Bury the Chains abounds in atmosphere, high drama, and nuanced portraits of unsung heroes and colorful villains. Again Hochschild gives a little-celebrated historical watershed its due at last.

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About the Author:

ADAM HOCHSCHILD is the author of seven books. King Leopold's Ghost was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, as was his recent To End All Wars. His Bury the Chains was a finalist for the National Book Award and won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and PEN USA Literary Award.


Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

INTRODUCTION: TWELVE MEN IN A PRINTING SHOP

Strangely, in a city where it seems that on almost every block a famous event or resident is commemorated by a blue and white glazed plaque, none marks this spot. All you can see today, after you leave the Bank station of the London Underground, walk several blocks, and then take a few steps into a courtyard, are a few low, nondescript office buildings, an ancient pub, and, on the site itself, 2 George Yard, a glass and steel high-rise. Nothing remains of the bookstore and printing shop that once stood here, or recalls the spring day more than two hundred years ago when a dozen people a somber- looking crew, most of them not removing their high-crowned black hats filed through its door and sat down for a meeting. Cities build monuments to kings, prime ministers, and generals, not to citizens with no official position who once gathered in a printing shop. Yet what these citizens began rippled across the world and we feel its aftereffects still. It is no wonder that they won the admiration of the first and greatest student of what we now call civil society. The result of the series of events begun that afternoon in London, wrote Alexis de Tocqueville, was absolutely without precedent. . . . If you pore over the histories of all peoples, I doubt that you will find anything more extraordinary.” To understand how momentous was this beginning, we must picture a world in which the vast majority of people are prisoners. Most of them have known no other way of life. They are not free to live or go where they want. They plant, cultivate, and harvest most of the earth’s major crops. They earn no money from their labor. Their work often lasts twelve or fourteen hours a day. Many are subject to cruel whippings or other punishments if they do not work hard enough. They die young. They are not chained or bound most of the time, but they are in bondage, part of a global economy based on forced labor. Such a world would, of course, be unthinkable today.
But this was the world our world just two centuries ago, and to most people then, it was unthinkable that it could ever be otherwise. At the end of the eighteenth century, well over three quarters of all people alive were in bondage of one kind or another, not the captivity of striped prison uniforms, but of various systems of slavery or serfdom. The age was a high point in the trade in which close to eighty thousand chained and shackled Africans were loaded onto slave ships and transported to the New World each year. In parts of the Americas, slaves far outnumbered free persons. The same was true in parts of Africa, and it was from these millions of indigenous slaves that African chiefs and slave dealers drew most of the men and women they sold to Europeans and Arabs sailing their ships along the continent’s coasts. African slaves were spread throughout the Islamic world, and the Ottoman Empire enslaved other peoples as well. In India and other parts of Asia, tens of millions of farmworkers were in outright slavery, and others were peasants in debt bondage that tied them and their labor to a particular landlord as harshly as any slave was bound to a plantation owner in South Carolina or Georgia. Native Americans turned prisoners of war into slaves and sold them, both to neighboring tribes and to the Europeans now pushing their way across the continent. In Russia the majority of the population were serfs, often bought, sold, whipped, or sent to the army at the will of their owners.
The era was one when, as the historian Seymour Drescher puts it, freedom, not slavery, was the peculiar institution.” This world of bondage seemed all the more normal then, because anyone looking back in time would have seen little but other slave systems. The ancient Greeks had slaves; the Romans had an estimated two to three million of them in Italy alone; the Incas and Aztecs had slaves; the sacred texts of most major religions took slavery for granted. Slavery had existed before money or written law.
One measure of how much slavery pervaded the world of the eighteenth century is the traffic on the Atlantic Ocean. We usually think of the Atlantic of this period as being filled with shiploads of hopeful white immigrants. But they were only a minority of those carried to the New World. So rapidly were slaves worked to death, above all on the brutal sugar plantations of the Caribbean, that between 1660 and 1807, ships brought well over three times as many Africans across the ocean to British colonies as they did Europeans. And, of course, it was not just to British territories that slaves were sent. From Senegal to Virginia, Sierra Leone to Charleston, the Niger delta to Cuba, Angola to Braziil, and on dozens upon dozens of crisscrossing paths taken by thousands of vessels, the Atlantic was a conveyor belt to early deathhhhh in the fields of an immense swath of plantations that stretched from Baltimore to Rio de Janeiro and beyond.
Looking back today, what is even more astonishing than the pervasiveness of slavery in the late 1700s is how swiftly it died. By the end of the following century, slavery was, at least on paper, outlawed almost everywhere. The antislavery movement had achieved its goal in little more than one lifetime.
This is the story of the first, pioneering wave of that campaign. Every American schoolchild learns how slaves fled Southern plantations, following the North Star on the Underground Railroad. But England is where the story really begins, and for decades it was where American abolitionists looked for inspiration and finally for proof that the colossally difficult task of uprooting slavery could be accomplished. If we were to fix one point when the crusade began, it would be the late afternoon of May 22, 1787, when twelve determined men sat down in the printing shop at 2 George Yard, amid flatbed presses, wooden trays of type, and large sheets of freshly printed book pages, to begin one of the most ambitious and brilliantly organized citizens’ movements of all time.
A long chain of events, large and small, led to that meeting. Perhaps the most crucial moment came when Thomas Clarkson, a twenty- five-year-old Englishman on his way to London, paused, dismounted from his horse, and sat down at the roadside, lost in thought. Many months later, he would be the principal organizer of the gathering at George Yard. Red-haired, dressed in black, he was the youngest of those who entered the shop that day, perhaps ducking his head slightly as he came through the doorway, for he was a full six inches taller than the average Englishman of his time. In the years to come, his sixteen-hour-a-day campaigning against slavery would take him by horseback on a thirty-five-thousand-mile odyssey, from waterfront pubs to an audience with an emperor, from the decks of navy ships to parliamentary hearing rooms. More than once people would threaten to kill him, and on a Liverpool pier in the midst of a storm, a group of slave ship officers would nearly succeed. Almost forgotten today, he remains one of the towering figures in the history of human rights. Although we will not meet him until Part II of this book, he is its central character.
There are many others as well, most of whom were not at the meeting that day. John Newton was a slave ship captain who would later write the hymn Amazing Grace.” Olaudah Equiano was a resourceful slave who earned his freedom, spoke out for others in bondage, and reached tens of thousands of readers with his life story. Granville Sharp, a musician, pamphleteer, and all-round eccentric, rescued a succession of blacks in England from being returned to slavery in the Americas. A London dandy named James Stephen fled to the West Indies to escape an intricately tangled love life, and then was transformed when some slaves he saw in a Barbados courtroom were sentenced to a punishment he found almost unimaginable. A colleague of his became the only abolitionist leader who ever crossed the Atlantic on a slave ship, taking notes in Greek letters to disguise them from the eyes of prying crewmen. Later in time, another key figure was a Quaker widow whose passionate stand against all compromise helped reignite a movement in the doldrums. And one was the leader of history’s largest slave revolt, which defeated the armies of Europe’s two most powerful empires.
The British abolitionists were shocked by what they came to learn about slavery and the slave trade. They were deeply convinced that they lived in a remarkable time that would see both evils swept from the face of the earth. Like anyone who wages such a fight, they discovered that injustice does not vanish so easily. But 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.
The movement they forged is a landmark for an additional reason. There is always something mysterious about human empathy, and when we feel it and when we don’t. Its sudden upwelling at this particular moment caught everyone by surprise. Slaves and other subjugated people have rebelled throughout history, but the campaign in England was something never seen before: it was the first time a large number of people became outraged, and stayed outraged for many years, over someone else’s rights. And most startling of all, the rights of people of another color, on another continent. No one was more taken aback by this than Stephen Fuller, the London agent for Jamaica’s planters, an absentee plantation owner himself and a central figure in the proslavery lobby. As tens of thousands of protesters signed petitions to Parliament, Fuller was amazed that these were stating no grievance or injury of any kind or sort, affecting the Petitioners themselves.” His bafflement is understandable. He was seeing something new in history.
At times...

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