Adam Hochschild has the rare ability to take seemingly dull, dry or depressing events of history and turn them into a riveting narrative that both deepens a reader's understanding of the past and directly connects that past to the present. Hochschild did this in his critically acclaimed 1998 bestseller, King Leopold's Ghost, an astonishing account of King Leopold II of the Belgians' reign of terror in Africa at the beginning of the 20th century and the efforts to stop it. He does so again in his absorbing chronicle of the 50-year campaign to end the British slave trade, Bury the Chains.
"This story is really a writer's dream," Hochschild says during a call to his home in San Francisco. Hochshild was cofounder of the progressive Mother Jones magazine and now teaches writing in the journalism school at the University of California at Berkeley. He lives with his wife of many years, the sociologist and writer Arlie Russell Hochschild. "It actually surprises me that there have not been more books for a popular audience on what is such an extraordinary drama."
Bury the Chains begins on May 22, 1787, when a group of men gathered in a London printing shop and launched "the first grassroots human rights campaign," which had the then-impossible goal of eliminating slavery. Why impossible? As Hochschild points out, "at the end of the eighteenth century, well over three quarters of the people alive were in bondage of one kind or another." Not only that, slave labor was absolutely essential to the global trade in sugar, and sugar was to the British Empire then what oil is to the American economic empire now. A world without slavery was unthinkable to almost everyone. And yet on March 27, 1807, King George III signed a bill banning the entire British slave trade. And on August 1, 1838, "nearly 800,000 black men, women and children throughout the British Empire officially became free."
The long effort to ban slavery was not one steady upward climb to victory. There were frustrating periods of stasis or backsliding, when the movement seemed derailed, if not dead. The war with Napolean's France entirely stalled efforts year after year as the two global superpowers of the day battled for economic advantage ("war fever is always the enemy of social reform," Hochschild notes).
Hochschild uses these pauses in the course of events to great dramatic effect. He draws on the "fine, fine scholarly writing" of historians like David Brion Davis and Seymour Drescher and biographer Ellen Gibson Wilson to move his narrative along the slave trade circuit – to Sierra Leone, for example, which was a central shipping point of the slave trade, and, strangely enough, the site of a visionary attempt to build a homeland for escaped American slaves promised their freedom by the British during the American Revolution (included among their numbers was one of George Washington's former slaves). Or to Haiti, site of a brutal, successful slave rebellion that helped loosen the grip of slavery in the British Empire and has had repercussions that resound to this day. All of this makes for fascinating, provocative reading.
But it is Hochschild's portraits of the persistent, sometimes eccentric, and no doubt frequently annoying activists who led this movement – or were arrayed against it – that makes Bury the Chains such a fascinating read. Hochschild says he originally intended to write a biography of John Newton, author of the song, "Amazing Grace," a former slave-ship captain turned preacher who, legend says, had a change of heart and became a champion of the antislavery movement. "I'm always intrigued by people who change sides," Hochschild says, "in either direction."
The problem was, the legend was not quite true. It wasn't until Newton was approached by a man named Thomas Clarkson that he lent his considerable prestige to the antislavery movement. The little-known Clarkson is in fact the singular hero of this account, and one of the great contributions of Bury the Chains is that it brings the achievements of the courageous, indefatigable and remarkably media-savvy Clarkson to a popular audience.
Other central figures were Olaudah Equiano, a former slave whose influential memoir was a bestseller of the day; the eccentric gadfly Granville Sharp, who invented a harp with a double row of strings, played in a family orchestra that sailed around England on a barge and brought a host of not-so-frivolous lawsuits against miscreant slave owners and slave-ship captains; and William Wilberforce, the era's most famous orator, a conservative member of Parliament who was persuaded to adopt the progressive antislavery cause, and through the purposeful re-editing of history by his two powerful sons was for years considered the most important personality in the movement. But perhaps the most fascinating portrait of all is of the profligate Duke of Clarence, an intemperate, boorish womanizer and a foe of the antislavery movement, who to the movement's consternation, became King William IV in 1830.
Throughout Bury the Chains, Hochschild maintains an awareness of how history is written and rewritten. " All countries have their comforting national myths," he says. That Wilberforce rather than Clarkson was for so long thought to be the central figure of the movement "fitted what most people in England wanted to think: that ending slavery was the work of noble, very religious and respectable people."
Hochschild, himself a veteran of the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam war movements, strongly believes there are lessons to be learned from reading history. For today's activists, he points to three particular lessons from the experiences of the British antislavery movement: first is the importance of coalitions; the antislavery movement ultimately succeeded because it built an effective religious coalition of Quakers and Anglicans, he says. Second is the need to "ceaselessly search for different kinds of media to get a message across." Clarkson and others "placed a diagram of the close quarters of a slave ship in pubs all over England, and people were shocked and moved by this." And "the third, and most important thing I learned is to never give up. They were always facing very discouraging moments. But they never gave up."
Alden Mudge writes from Oakland, California.