How antislavery outrage finally found a voice

In 1787, they met in a London print shop to change the world

In his day, Edward Colston was a model of English philanthropy. A hugely wealthy man, he gave a large proportion of his income to the needy. In the 18th century, schools, churches, poorhouses, community groups, and hospitals all benefited from his generosity. "Every helpless widow is my wife and her distressed orphans my children," he liked to boast. The relief he gave to some groups, however, was earned at the expense of others. Colston was a slave trader.

Dig into the history of slavery and one finds a mother lode of hypocrisy. The Church of England owned a huge sugar plantation in the West Indies, on which hundreds of slaves were worked to their death. John Locke, whose ideas on liberty inspired the 18th-century revolutions, owned sizable shares in a slave company. After the French Revolution, traders re-named their slave ships Liberté, Égalité, and Fraternité. Below deck, blacks were packed like sardines.

Hypocrisy is easy if profits are high. A more perfect arrangement could hardly be imagined: Manufactured goods were taken to Africa, slaves were then taken to the West Indies, and sugar or rum was then transported back to England.

The world's most barbaric industry was embedded into the culture of the most civilized nation on earth. Those who did not benefit directly from the trade were still deeply involved in it. The great majority of slaves ended up on sugar plantations, and the British had an insatiable sweet tooth. A cup of coffee, a bar of chocolate, a tot of rum, all bolstered the slave trade. Reinforcing the edifice was the assumption that blacks were not actually humans, or that they benefited when whites meddled in their lives.

Attacking the industry was like trying to move Mount Everest with a pickax. But in 1787, unease jelled into the first organized antislavery movement. Twelve men met in a print shop in London. They included Thomas Clarkson, a brilliant young classics scholar; Olaudah Equiano, an entrepreneurial former slave who had managed to buy his freedom; Granville Sharp, an eccentric musician; and James Stephen, a London dandy who first went to the West Indies to escape an entangled love life, but was converted to the cause because of the horrors he witnessed. The only thing these men had in common was their opposition to the slave trade, yet that was enough to cement a formidable union.

In the process, they developed many of the techniques of activism familiar today. They organized a boycott, long before the word itself had been invented. They printed leaflets, distributed lapel badges, perfected the art of lobbying, designed eye-catching posters, and engaged in what we now call direct marketing.

As Adam Hochschild reveals in his extraordinary book, "Bury the Chains," moral outrage can move mountains. The original 12 took their crusade across Britain, forming local cells of individuals willing to devote their lives to the cause. But, as they perfected the techniques of activism, so, too, the slave trading establishment perfected sophisticated techniques of dissimulation. Huge sums were paid to pro-slavery lobbyists and PR agents, who spread the word that slaves should be called "assistant planters."

Given the vast profits involved, Parliament was reluctant to act. The British government feared that abolition would bequeath a valuable market to the French, who would be only too willing to step into the breach. But over the course of a half-century, the abolitionists managed to chip away at the slave-trading edifice and to overcome parliamentary inertia.

Hochschild's book is a blend of bitter and sweet. Gut-wrenching descriptions of the cruelty inflicted upon slaves are juxtaposed with deeply inspiring tales of men and women determined to end the suffering. Hypocrisy intertwines with virtue; goodness with venality.

A book of this sort could so easily stick in the gullet. Endless descriptions of suffering can induce compassion fatigue. Likewise, heroes need to be finely drawn to avoid saccharin-sweet sentimentality. But the strength of this book lies in the author's careful touch. Amid all the horror, there's genuine humor. His heroes all have foibles; some have feet of clay. But together they somehow succeeded in changing the mind of a nation.

The campaign to end the slave trade had repercussions far beyond the West Indian sugar plantations. Activists learned much about themselves and their community. As Hochschild demonstrates, women who involved themselves in the campaign began to examine their own state of servitude. Likewise, the difficulty of getting Parliament to act on this issue fueled the Great Reform Act of 1832, which extended democracy even further.

One quickly runs out of superlatives when praising this book. In addition to being a very accessible history of the slave trade and the movement that brought it to an end, it is also an illuminating story about the triumph of popular will, which has resonance today.

Hochschild is yet another example of a peculiar phenomenon in the nonfiction market: Some of the best histories published today are written by those who do not call themselves professional historians. It would be a fine thing indeed if all historians had his ability to communicate.

E.H. Hobsbawm once wrote that the great irony of the sugar trade was that such bitterness should have been produced from the manufacture of something so sweet. While that aphorism is undoubtedly accurate, it is nonetheless reassuring to see in "Bury the Chains" that bitterness in turn inspired a movement so sublimely sweet.

Gerard J. DeGroot is a professor of modern history at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.

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