Book Review  

Bury the Chains  
Bury the Chains :
Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves

by Adam Hochschild - Houghton Mifflin 2005

Review by Rootsie
March 03, 2006

"'Never doubt,' said Margaret Meade, '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." (from the Introduction)
This new book by the Adam Hochschild, who brought us King Leopold's Ghost, a devastating account of the Belgian Congo, endeavors to put a heroic spin on the efforts spanning nearly 50 years, of British Quakers and a few upper-class Anglican eccentrics to outlaw the slave trade, which the British Parliament finally did in 1834.

One problem for Hochschild in this effort lies in the equivocal nature of the heroes, notably Parliamentarian William Wilberforce, Granville Sharp, a 'feisty musician and self-taught lawyer', John Newton, a former slave trade trader (and author of the hymn "Amazing Grace"), and Thomas Clarkson, perhaps the Western world's first modern political organizer. All fervent Christians, they were deeply concerned about the moral depravity of the trade, but apparently only insofar as it reflected poorly on the fictions with which the British continue to comfort themselves. They hated the brutality of the trade both for slaves and legions of press-ganged sailors, and the dreadful abuse of slaves on the Caribbean sugar islands, but mostly they seemed troubled that their England was involved in it. Clarkson was particularly tireless, devoting virtually every moment of his adult life to the cause of abolition, crisscrossing the British Isles countless times, scouring the slaving ports for witnesses, collecting names for petitions, and raising people's consciousness about the horrors of the trade.

Ultimately, however, he and his comrades failed to see their way through the racist assumptions of their time. They did not publicly or indeed even privately advocate for emancipation until the very end, when it was an inevitability, and even then agitated for a 'gradual' approach (It was a woman, Elizabeth Heyrick, who spoke out in the 1830's with the greatest clarity and moral force against the continuation of African slavery in any form). It took Newton 35 years of devout Christian hand-wringing about virtually every other sin under the sun to finally get himself worked up about slavery, and even then he evidenced no personal remorse.

About Clarkson, Hochschild writes:
"Like many white abolitionists to come, Clarkson shared some of the ideas of his time about race. For example, to refute those who claimed that their skin color meant God destined Africans to be "hewers of wood and drawers of water," he argued not that color doesn't matter, but rather that Africans might not be permanently black after all. Skin color, he claimed, must be linked to climate, for are not children of African slaves in the New World often lighter-skinned than their parents? Apparently it didn't occur to him that there might be another reason for this lighter skin, a point on which any slave or Englishman could have enlightened him."
This disconnect is particularly curious given the fact that Clarkson collected reams of testimony, by white witnesses and participants, to the rape of black women on slave ships and on the Caribbean plantations. The point is that not only was it politically inexpedient to agitate for outright emancipation of the slaves, but that the very notion of human equality was not in the cerebral repertoire of most of these men. What they urged instead was a vigorous Christianizing mission, seeing this as the way to push blacks up the evolutionary ladder.

Even later anti-slavery 'leaders' like Thomas Fowell Buxton had this to say:
"The Negro race are blessed with a peculiar aptitude for the reception of moral and religious instruction, and it does seem to me that there never was a stronger call on any nation than there is send missionaries, to institute schools, and to send out Bibles. It is the only compensation in our power. It is an abundant one! We may in this manner recompense all the sorrows and sufferings."
Hochschild comments dryly, "It was small recompense."

This preoccupation with black spiritual upliftment contributed in large part to the establishment of the disaster which became the British colony of Sierra Leone. Certainly the idea of a self-governed state populated with former slaves on the African continent was not the first thing the white fathers of the colony had on their minds. From the start, the colony's 'governors' were white, fired up by the idea of establishing a Christian toehold in West Africa, comprised of devout exemplar blacks who, by the Grace of God, would soon be producing more sugar in this fertile Eden than could be imagined even in Haiti, with the added bonus of bringing the light of Jesus Christ to darkest Africa. This was also their end-run around the slavery issue. Rather than abolishing it, they would render slavery unnecessary and it would wither by itself. The absurdity of planting a colony of free blacks from England and Nova Scotia on the African mainland just up the road from England's largest slave depot in West Africa is something else that apparently never occurred to them.

Another disconnect is evidenced by the British abolitionists' failure to acknowledge or in many cases even see the relation between their 'human rights' struggle and the earthquakes rumbling through European life in this age of Industrial and political revolution. Two percent of the British population had the right to vote during the time in which this narrative takes place. Wilberforce, revered so highly to this day in Britain, viewed workers' rights, universal male suffrage, women's rights, Irish rights, with horror, failing entirely to bring his critique of the slave trade to bear on the vast inequalities which existed all around him. About this Hochschild is frank and forthcoming. The Quakers come off better in his account, outsiders as they were by self-definition, but they are in general peripheral figures in Hochschild's narrative, and among the Quakers were also a number of slave traders, particularly in the American colonies.

True enough, the campaign against the trade featured the first Western examples of true political organizing, including pamphleteering, the boycott of sugar, etc. etc. But at the center of the narrative alongside Clarkson stands the disturbing figure of Wilberforce, lionized in British history as the great liberator of the slaves, conservative to the point of reaction on every other social issue, and a wacky fundamentalist to boot, deeply concerning himself with such burning issues as whether it is a sin for Christians to dance and sing.

Perhaps a more complex and useful narrative would have concerned itself with the millions of men and women without even the right to vote who petitioned Parliament every year for 44 years for an end to the trade, forcing debate there: landless, disenfranchised working people from industrial cities like Manchester and the coal mining towns of Scotland. They personally had nothing to gain from an end to the trade, and arguably the most to lose, since one acknowledged way to improve one's lot in the world was to get on a slave ship and take a cut of the vast profits. They also were of course the work force in a factory system which slave products and slavery profits made possible. One wishes that the voices of some of the signers of those many petitions could have been heard in the book.

The true change agents were of course the enslaved blacks of the Caribbean, whose bloody uprisings and the defeat of the two greatest armies the world had ever known made it clear that British and French impunity were impossible to sustain. The British invasion of St. Domingue (later Haiti) resulted in a death rate of 60% out of a force of over 20,000. Naturally, this did not play well at home. It was the British defeat in St. Domingue, then Napoleon's defeat, and finally the later slave revolutions in Barbados and Jamaica, which spelled the end of the profitability of the slave system, and this is what ultimately brought it down.

Virtually the only black person with a voice in the book is Olaudah Equiano/Gustavus Vasa. He is certainly a fascinating character who lived more than nine lives in his brief one, from African slave to freeman to sailor to valet to political agitator to author to publishing entrepeneur, who did not hesitate to put his life and his free status at risk to fight for the end of slavery, on both an individual and public level. Toussaint L'Ouverture makes a brief appearance as well. While I understand that the story Hochschild chooses to tell is the story about whites' response to slavery, I believe he inevitably ends up giving the impression that the various strategies and tactics employed by the British agitators had more to do with ending slavery than they in fact did. And because of this, the book comes dangerously close to joining the centuries'-wide canon of triumphalist imperial claptrap.

Hochschild for example seems to suggest that abolition efforts in England incited the Caribbean slave uprisings, as various writings made their way across the ocean, and accounts of activities were discussed at plantation dinner tables and such, especially in Jamaica. But it would be an impossible stretch to imply that the slave revolts of French and Creole-speaking St. Domingue were precipitated in large part by abolition efforts taking place in England. The pamphlets made good tinder, literal and figurative, that is sure, and the name "Wilberforce" took on mythic connotations for Jamaican slaves, doubtless as a result of plantation owners' grumbling about him. But the slaves themselves were the ones who coordinated their uprising, fought modern armies with sticks and shovels and guerilla tactics, and they were the ones who died hideously when captured. St. Domingue under Napoleon's brother-in-law Le Clerc was nothing short of a torture circus ala de Sade.

Hochschild is no dummy. He frankly describes the failings of the abolitionists, and tries, I think, not to draw sweeping conclusions, but remarks like this one from the end of the book seem to me to make claims for this movement that are grandiose and distorted by deep-seated European assumption about its disproportionate agency in the world:
"All of the twelve [who first gathered in 1787 to plan a strategy to end the slave trade] were deeply religious...but they also shared a newer kind of faith. They believed that because human beings had a capacity to care about the suffering of others, exposing the truth would move people to action...Clarkson, writing of this 'enormous evil,' said that he 'was sure that it was only necessary for the inhabitants of this favoured island to know it, to feel a just indignation against it.' It was this faith that led him to buy handcuffs, shackles, and thumbscrews to display to the people he met on his travels. And that led him to mount his horse again and again to scour the country for witnesses who could tell Parliament what life was like on the slave ships and plantations. The riveting parade of firsthand one of the first great flowerings of a very modern belief: that the way to stir men and women to action is not by biblical argument, but through the vivid, unforgettable description of acts of great injustice done to their fellow human beings..."
Unfortunately, it is not clear to what degree these men considered slaves human beings. And for the countless petitions over the years that, when unscrolled, covered the entire length of the Parliament chamber, for the vast number of harrowing firsthand accounts (by whites), Parliament did not act for nearly 50 years, and then only because Britain's prize colonies in Jamaica and Barbados were little more than ash and cinders and an alarming number of white corpses. More than a few members of Parliaments needed no testimonies, for they had been eyewitnesses, beneficiaries, and participants themselves.

If Hochschild is trying to say that in nations committing horrific crimes there are always some who resist, I can agree, of course. But this book reminds me of the fictions of Vietnam. People still can be heard to say, "It was us who stopped that damned war." What stopped that war was the fact that the North Vietnamese were winning it, at devastating cost to them, and unacceptable expense for us. Bury the Chains is a case in point of what the late professor Edward Said and others refer to as European and United States "exceptionalism," which among other things claims a unique and exalted relationship to morality and truth, and by implication suggests that the 'developed nations' alone are capable of taking the lead in moving this planet forward, a habit of thought all too evident these days in the 'Save Africa' rhetoric issuing from future British PM Gordon Brown. My only response to this is 'show me the money.' Prove it.

The Anglican Church has in the past few days publicly apologized for its involvement in the slave trade as owners of Codrington Plantation in Barbados, most probably as a result of information divulged in this book, although black groups in Britain have been agitating for years for an historical reckoning in the Church. When a white guy finally uncovered the facts, the Church found the inspiration to fess up.

These kinds of gestures will be meaningless as long as long as the essential Western discourse remains unchanged, and talk of compensation, the only acceptable form of atonement, is confined to the fringes.

Hochschild begins Bury the Chains with a brief history of enslavement in the West and in Africa, in order to 'contextualize' African slavery, with the effect of attempting to normalize it. There were slaves in Asia, slaves in Europe, serfs in Russia, slaves in Africa—and the qualitative and quantitative differences between these and African chattel slavery? Hochschild does not discuss these. This has the effect of mitigating British crimes, and painting the British abolitionists as remarkable men out of their time who saw through to the core of their Christian values to create the first 'civil society' human rights movement in the Western world.
"At the end of the eighteenth century, well over three quarters of all people alive were in bondage of one kind or another...It was from these millions of indigenous slaves that African chiefs and slave dealers drew most of the men and women they sold to Europeans and Arabs...African slaves were spread throughout the Islamic world, and the Ottoman Empire enslaved other peoples as well. In India and other parts of Asia, tens of millions of farmworkers were in outright slavery...Native Americans turned prisoners of war into Russia the majority of the population were serfs...The ancient Greeks had slaves, the Romans...the Aztec and Inca had slaves...

Looking back today, what is even more astonishing than the pervasiveness of slavery in the late 1700's is how swiftly it died. By the end of the following century, slavery was, at least on paper, outlawed almost everywhere. The antislavery movement had achieved its goal in little more than one lifetime."
So from the start, Hochschild wants to give his abolitionists the credit for single-handedly bringing global slavery to an end, at least on paper. How we in the West love our paper: we look so good on paper, at least on the paper we produce. The particular British genius for creating the most monstrous and inhumane slave system in the history of the world is not discussed. It is perhaps most astonishing that it took over a millennium of the primacy of Christianity for Christians to even begin to note the inconsistencies between their professed values and the realities of their conduct. They certainly haven't wrapped their heads around it yet.

The surround of assumption that privileged whites are born into makes it very difficult for us to see our world and our history as they are. The story Hochschild tells is undeniably an interesting one. I just don't think it's the one that needs to be told. It inadvertently deflects from the truly astonishing story of a people's revolt that raised up leaders from among the worst victims who became that age of revolution's purest revolutionaries, not just giving lip-service to liberty, equality, and fraternity for some, but fighting and dying to secure it for all.

  1. Ayanna Gillian. "Slave? What Slave? A Study of the Traditional Systems of African Servitude." . 2 November 2003.

  2. Ayanna Gillian. "Islam, Colourism, and the Myth of Black African Slave Traders. 10 February 2004.

  3. Deborah Gabriel. "Powerful lobbying by black communities led to C of E slavery apology,and the fight for reparations will continue, say activists"
    . 13 February 2006.


Rootsie's Homepage | Articles | Online Forum

Silver Bar
Copyright © 2003

Amazon Books

Bury the Chains : Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves
Bury the Chains : Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves by Adam Hochschild

Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking-Glass World
Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking-Glass World by Eduardo Galeano

Racism, Sexism, and the Media
Racism, Sexism, and the Media : The Rise of Class Communication in Multicultural America by Felix Gutierrez, Clint C. Wilson II, Lena Chao

Holy War by Karen Armstrong
Holy War by Karen Armstrong

The Ornament of the World by Maria Rosa Menocal
The Ornament of the World by Maria Rosa Menocal

Introduction to African Civilizations by John G. Jackson, Runoko Rashidi, John Henrik Clarke
Introduction to African Civilizations by John G. Jackson, Runoko Rashidi, John Henrik Clarke