Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves
2005. Houghton Mifflin. Hardcover. 467 pages.
(366 pages if you don’t count the appendix, bibliography and the index.)
What this book is about, in Hochschild’s own words in the introduction:
“Never doubt,” said Margaret Mead, “that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” This book is about one such group. Their story is not a simple one, but a ragged and untidy epic that did not unfold in the orderly way they hoped for. It would sprawl across decades and continents . . . It would become interwoven with great historical currents which . . . no one foresaw: above all the dreams of equality unleashed by the French Revolution, and a series of ever-larger slave revolts that shook the British Empire and made clear that if the slaves were not emancipated they might well free themselves. The stage on which British slavery lived and at last died was a vast one.
Bury the Chains is an ambitious history of the British anti-slave trade and anti-slavery movement (I separate because it was first the one and then the other.) Hochschild does an excellent job of making sure that readers see the big picture while including the kinds of detailed primary-source tidbits that make history come alive.
If this history could be said to have a central figure, it is that of Thomas Clarkson. While a University student, Clarkson won an award for his Latin essay in response to the question: is it lawful to make slaves of others against their will? The horrors he uncovered while researching the question changed him irreversibly. As Clarkson wrote later, “a thought came into my mind, that if the contents of the Essay were true, it was time some person should see these calamities to their end” (qtd. on p. 89). And so throughout his life, Clarkson agitated against the slave trade and against slavery, riding throughout the country to gather testimonies of the horror, and to gather support.
I was a little familiar with Thomas Clarkson as he was played by Rufus Sewell in the film Amazing Grace, but Hochshild’s book has placed him into ‘hero’ category for me now. He spends his whole life fighting for the cause. There’s a detail about Clarkson’s funeral that was extremely touching and there might have been some tears from me at that point.
While a clear admirer of Thomas Clarkson, Hochschild is definitely a warts-and-all writer of history. Clarkson is pretty much made of awesome, but even he has his blind spots. Even the venerable William Wilberforce suffers a little under close scrutiny. For example, Wilberforce was disgruntled with the women’s antislavery societies because he thought their behavior was stepping outside the bounds of the biblical role for women. Paternalism was another frequent folly of the white abolitionists.
I loved that Hochschild does not assume a person’s importance to the cause can be determined by how much was written about them at the time. When Hochschild mentions a female leader of a Barbados revolt, Nanny Grigg, he points out that “as both slave and woman, Nanny Grigg is doubly written out of history, and we know nothing else about her except that she was carried on the inventory of the Simmons plantation at the exceptionally high value of 130 pounds” (p. 319). Similarly, one prominent leader in the “end slavery now” movement was a Quaker convert, Elizabeth Heyrick, an active anti-slavery writer and campaigner. Little is known about her personal life, but Hochschild makes sure to give her credit for keeping the cause alive.
While England may have been one central node of the movement, the Caribbean was the other. Hochschild describes the brutality of sugar cane plantations in the Caribbean with anecdotes and startling statistics:
One final set of grim numbers underlines the way slaves on sugar plantations like Codrington were systematically worked to an early death. When slavery ended in the United States, some 400,000 slaves imported over the centuries had grown to a population of nearly four million. When it ended in the British West Indies, total slave imports of two million left a surviving slave population of only about 670,000. The tiny French island of Martinique took in more slave imports over the years than all thirteen North American colonies, later states, put together. The Caribbean was a slaughterhouse.
With slaves constantly being imported from Africa, plantation owners felt little compulsion to treat their slaves well:
An Antigua planter who bought some slaves from John Newton told him that his policy was “with little relaxation, hard fare, and hard usage, to wear them out before they became useless, and unable to do service; and then, to buy new ones, to fill up their places.”
Little wonder that when rumors of freedom reached the ears of Caribbean slaves, revolts soon broke out over the Caribbean in both British and French colonies. I’ll admit that I knew of the slave revolts before reading Bury the Chains, but little about them. Hochschild covers Touissant L’Ouverture’s leadership of the Haitian Revolution, and how the high cost of suppressing slave revolts – British soldiers dying of both disease and battle – was a major factor for emancipation. (It’s galling however, that part of the emancipation bill included hefty compensation to the plantation owners for the loss of their “property”.)
I could go on and on about this book, sharing anecdotes and facts, but I really hope my review will encourage others to read it for themselves. It will definitely be one of my favorite books of the year.
It also is quite resonant with today’s times, when “preserving the economy” seems to be given too freely as the ‘ultimate’ justification. That definitely gives food for thought.
Excerpts from other reviews:
The Book Embargo Blog – “Knowing a fair deal about the period and, by the time I returned to the book, about British slave literature, I sometimes felt that the way Hoschschild [sic] presented especially literary sources was imprecise. I found myself going “Yes, that’s true, but on you should also say…” – but I guess this is how all popular history works, and true by necessity of any work this wide in scope.”
Just One More Page – “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.”
Karin’s World of Travelling – “In his introduction he writes that he doesn’t really bring any new information about this subject and that might not be so, but he most certainly brings the information and research that is done out there – to the people reading his book. Not only bringing us this information – he also shows us how we get deceived by history (and how WE want to understand the past).”