How to Change the World:
Britain Ends Its Slave Trade

By Charles Matthews
San Jose Mercury News, 2005

When we want to change people’s minds and affect the public discourse, what do we do? We form committees, write books, go on book tours, do direct-mail fundraising, make speeches, involve religious groups, enlist powerful figures, design logos, print pamphlets and posters, mount consumer boycotts, and collect signatures on petitions. Right?

As Adam Hochschild points out in his terrifically readable, even inspiring new book, nobody had ever done these things – certainly not in an organized way – until a group of people living in Great Britain in the late 18th century decided to end the horrors of the slave trade. They used every one of those techniques, and invented some of them. ”In all of human experience,” Hochschild writes, ”there was no precedent for such a campaign.”

Americans are accustomed to thinking of slavery as our problem, and of the Civil War as the way slavery was ended. But the British in the 18th century were deeply involved with slavery through the maritime commerce that was the lifeblood of the British imperial economy. ”Just as oil drives the geopolitics of our own time,” Hochschild observes, ”the most important commodity on European minds then was sugar.”

Thus arose the infamous ”triangle trade” – British goods shipped to Africa and exchanged for slaves, who were sent to plantations in colonies in the Caribbean and North America that produced the sugar (and rum, cotton, coffee and other goods) that went to Britain and Europe. Yet for all of this, the British ended their participation in the slave trade in 1807, and freed all the slaves in their colonies in 1838, a quarter of a century before Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

What’s even more striking is that, as Hochschild observes, the British anti-slavery movement was a watershed moment in human history. It was ”the first time a large number of people became outraged, and stayed outraged for many years, over someone else’s rights.”

Hochschild stresses how deeply entrenched slavery was in the human past: ”The sacred texts of most major religions took slavery for granted. Slavery had existed before money or written law.” Moreover, even though the thinkers of the Enlightenment had introduced new ideas about human rights, even the leading philosophes weren’t entirely clear on the concept. As Hochschild points out, Voltaire had mocked slave owners in his works, but he was flattered when a French slave-ship owner named one of his ships after him. Thomas Jefferson, one of our own Founding Philosophes, was troubled by slavery, but felt that maintaining the union of the states a more important goal than abolishing slavery.

But a few remarkable people learned how to transform compassion into social action. Among them was Thomas Clarkson, who as a divinity student entered a competition to write an essay in Latin on the pros and cons of slavery. He was so appalled by what he learned about the slave trade that he became the central figure in the movement to end it. Clarkson is almost forgotten today – in an interview Hochschild has admitted that he’d never even heard of him before he started work on the book. But the indefatigable Clarkson comes charging to life in Hochschild’s hands, as do dozens of other figures.

Among the others who became important to the movement is John Newton, a slave-ship captain who kept a detailed log of his voyages that gives us ”the most complete window we have into the life and mind of a man in the African slave trade.” Newton became an Anglican clergyman and is now best known as the composer of what may be the most famous of all hymns, ”Amazing Grace,” but when his conscience finally spurred him to join the abolition movement, it was his firsthand knowledge of the slave trade that proved most valuable. Similar expertise came from Olaudah Equiano, a slave who had earned his freedom and wrote a bestselling autobiography that shocked readers with its account of his experiences.

Their stories and many others are told by Hochschild in a kind of moral epic, as the anti-slavery movement fired the British imagination. Hochschild notes that the movement took hold at the right time in the right place. The tight little island of Britain was – even in an age before mass communications media – a place where an idea or an opinion or a cause could quickly reach critical mass.

The British had the best available communications infrastructure, having invested heavily in improving roads and in what Hochschild calls the world’s best postal service. By the mid-1780s London had a dozen newspapers, most of them dailies, and more than a hundred libraries. Throughout the country there were more than a thousand bookstores, not including countless sidewalk book stalls. More than half of the people in England could read, and there was no censorship of books or newspapers.

On the other hand, only five percent of the population could vote, and all of them were men. One of the most remarkable parts of Hochschild’s story is not only how the anti-slavery movement shaped public opinion, but also how it was able to make an unusually inflexible political process bend to the will of the disenfranchised. And in doing so, it set off ripples of political and social reform that widened through the next two centuries.

Hochschild is certainly no stranger to political action movements – he lives in Berkeley, after all, and is one of the co-founders of Mother Jones magazine. You feel him rooting for the good guys throughout the book, as you did in his 1998 work ”King Leopold’s Ghost,” about the brutal exploitation of the Congo by King Leopold II of Belgium and the human rights movement that fought it. Hochschild is also an exhaustive, dogged researcher, determined to get the facts right – there are more than 50 pages of notes and bibliography to attest to that. (See here for a profile of Leopold.)

He’s also a marvelous storyteller. He has a complexity of narrative threads to handle – not only the British anti-slavery movement, but also the slave revolt led by Toussaint L’Ouverture in St. Domingue (now Haiti), and an ill-planned attempt to relocate freed slaves to Sierra Leone. But he’s not afraid to interrupt the narrative for a vivifying aside, to evoke the sights, sounds, and smells of a place.

With its fascinating, indelible characters, ”Bury the Chains” achieves a stirring moral clarity that’s welcome in a time when belief in our power to change the world for the better seems to be waning. This account of what Hochschild calls ”the greatest of all human rights movements” is almost an antidote for apathy.

‘Bury the Chains’ Sidebar:
A Few Firsts

British anti-slavery activists pioneered techniques that became commonplace over the next two centuries, including:

* The first direct-mail fundraising letter: The Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, formed in 1787, regularly printed 500 to 1,000 copies of a letter soliciting funds, and soon had more than 2,000 donors.

* The first logo used widely in a political cause: The pottery manufacturer Josiah Wedgwood had one of his craftsmen design an emblem of a kneeling slave encircled by the words ”Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” It was ”an instant hit,” reproduced everywhere, from printed pages to snuffboxes and cuff links.

* The first poster used to advance a humanitarian cause: The society printed 7,000 copies of the diagram of a fully loaded slave ship, showing slaves packed like sardines into the hull. The posters were hung in homes and pubs throughout the country and ”remains one of the most widely reproduced political graphics of all time.”

* The (almost) first consumer boycott: Although the American colonists’ boycott that led to the Boston Tea Party preceded it, the boycott of sugar in Great Britain, after Parliament rejected a bill to abolish the slave trade in 1791, was more widespread. An estimated half million Britons joined in boycotting sugar from the colonies in the West Indies. ”Over a two year period, the sale of sugar from India increased more than tenfold.”

– From “Bury the Chains” ●