Bury The Chains : Prophets And Rebels In The Fight To Free An Empire’s Slaves by Adam Hochschild

Bury The Chains : Prophets And Rebels In The Fight To Free An Empire's Slaves by Adam Hochschild

From the author of the award-winning King Leopold’s Ghost comes a gripping, action-packed tale of the first grassroots movement for human rights, which led to the liberation of countless slaves across the globe.

In 1787, a dozen individuals gathered at a print shop in London to embark on an apparently impossible mission: putting an end to slavery in the world’s most powerful empire. In their journey, they would pioneer various techniques and tactics that citizen activists still employ today such as distributing wall posters and mass mailings, organizing boycotts, and creating symbolic antislavery badges. This extraordinary group combined an unwavering abhorrence of injustice with an uncanny ability to raise awareness for their cause. Within just five years, over 300,000 Britons embraced their cause by refusing to consume sugar, the primary product derived from slave labor. London’s elite society proudly displayed the antislavery badges crafted by Josiah Wedgwood, and the House of Commons passed the first law banning the slave trade.

However, the House of Lords, swayed by powerful slavery proponents, rejected the bill. Despite this setback, the crusade persisted, buoyed by extraordinary individuals like Olaudah Equiano, an impressive former slave whose captivating speeches captivated audiences throughout the British Isles; John Newton, a former slave ship captain turned author of the world-famous hymn “Amazing Grace”; Granville Sharp, a peculiar musician who taught himself law; and Thomas Clarkson, an impassioned organizer who crisscrossed Britain on horseback, dedicating his life to the cause. Ultimately, they succeeded in eradicating slavery from the British Empire in the 1830s, decades ahead of the United States. Thomas Clarkson, the sole survivor of the original meeting at the print shop fifty years prior, witnessed the day when a slave whip and chains were ceremoniously laid to rest in a Jamaican churchyard.

Similar to Hochschild’s acclaimed work, King Leopold’s Ghost, Bury the Chains immerses readers in a world charged with tension, suspense, and riveting character sketches of unsung heroes and intriguing villains. Once again, Hochschild sheds light on a transformative historical milestone that had not been adequately recognized until now.

Bury the Chains: The British Abolitionist Movement Revealed

Adam Hochschild’s 2005 non-fiction book, “Buried Chains”, offers a fresh look at the British Abolitionist Movement and its impact on human rights during the 18th century. The book reveals the systematic mobilization of public opinion against slavery during a time when the majority of the world’s population lived in bondage.

The book begins by introducing John Newton, a former slave trade ship captain who later became a priest and wrote the famous hymn “Amazing Grace”. Newton’s firsthand accounts of the harsh treatment of African slaves on board the ship highlight the brutal reality of the slave trade. The slaves, once sold in the West Indies, endured grueling conditions on sugar plantations, where they often lost limbs or suffered injuries while working.

John Newton’s conversion to abolitionist beliefs occurs when he meets Thomas Clarkson, a young Cambridge student who won an essay contest on the legality of slavery. Clarkson’s research and interviews with witnesses of slavery’s atrocities led him to launch a relentless campaign against the slave trade. The Church of England, however, offered little support to the cause, while the Quakers, who believed in the equality of all people, joined the movement but lacked the reach to effect significant change.

To rally public opinion, Clarkson and a group of Quakers formed the Committee for the Abolition of the African Slave Trade in London. They utilized various tactics such as speeches, pamphlets, petitions, letters, and boycotts to advance their agenda. Granville Sharp, another prominent figure in the movement, played a pivotal role in advocating for a slave’s freedom in court, effectively outlawing slavery within England.

As the movement gained momentum, Elizabeth Herrick, a leading female activist, spearheaded a boycott of slave-produced sugar. This boycott, supported by 300,000 Britons, fueled the abolitionist cause and made it a national preoccupation. Clarkson played a crucial role in disseminating his prize-winning essay, collecting testimonies, giving speeches, and distributing diagrams depicting the inhumane packaging of slaves on ships.

Despite the movement’s promising trajectory, two events hindered its progress. The successful slave uprising in Haiti led by Toussaint Louverture in 1791 undermined the sympathy the British populace had developed for slaves. Additionally, the French Revolution and subsequent war with England in 1793 stifled anti-slavery efforts in the interest of national unity. Nonetheless, Clarkson continued to press his case to the British public and Parliament, with the support of William Wilberforce, the sole parliamentarian championing the abolitionist campaign.

Finally, in 1807, Parliament passed Wilberforce’s bill, outlawing slave trading throughout the British Empire. However, the bill did not address the institution of slavery itself. The campaign for the total abolition of slavery continued, and in 1838, Parliament legislated the emancipation of all British slaves.

Hochschild’s book offers valuable lessons for modern-day activists. It emphasizes the importance of building coalitions, using various media outlets to broadcast one’s message, and persevering despite setbacks. From the British Abolitionist Movement, environmental groups today have drawn inspiration for their own activism.

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