This book is a long read but very worthwhile and very readable.
The American writer Adam Hochschild has touched the African continent before when he wrote about the endeavours of the Belgian King Leopold II who treated a large portion of Africa as his personal backyard with gruelling results. In 2005 he published his study on the treatment of slaves in the British Empire, ruler of the seas and ruler over vast expanses of land. We follow the struggle of a small band of men to end slavery in the British Empire.
The story starts in the year 1787. On the 22nd day of the month of May. Twelve men gather in a print shop in London. To be precise: George Yard 2. Here history was made. These men came together in a time that many people were enslaved in one way or another and in different degrees. Freedom was not a word that many people lived by. One of the people in the print shop was Thomas Clarkson, who would be the leading light struggled for many decades to see the end of slavery, he travelled wide and far, he did his research, he published books and pamphlets. He managed to encourage others throughout the British Isles. He was supported by a small band of people, of which many belonged to that small group of the Quakers. A small band with an enormous influence.
Many names feature in this book. People like John Newton (Amazing Grace), Granville Sharp, Olaudah Equiano, Wilberforce MP, and many others. But the name that should be in our minds for ever is that name of Thomas Clarkson, who started as a young man, who had just finished his study theology, to fight for the right cause. At first the desire was to end the slave trade, with the silent hope that in the end slavery would fade out.
With the writer and many characters in this book, we travel through the British Isles and meet people in town halls, in churches, on fields, in pubs. We sail to West Africa and see the situation in the slave trading centers. We sail with slave holding ships to the west, to Caribean islands and sugar plantations, with owners who stored riches. We read reports about the ongoing cruelties, about slave revolts (Toussaint), about military suppression. We move on the American continent and see what happened on plantations over there and the silent and loud suffering. We move back and try to find out what was in the minds of the owners of slaves and plantations who lived a life of luxury. We see the position of the Church (owning plantations), we travel with the people who were encouraging a boycott of sugar in order to cripple the wealth of the owners.
At time the cruelty meted out to the slaves is too much to read about. How it must have been to suffer this cruelty!
Adam Hochshild gives an impressive account of the British slavery and the long long struggle to end the slave trade. in 1838 800.00 slaves were freed, but this did not end their misery. The owners were compensated, but not the slaves themselves. At the end we read about the passing of Donald Clarkson, the only one of the original 12 who lived to see the freeing of the slaves. When Clarkson was buried the Quakers present donned their hats, a thing they would not do to any person, not even the king. In the aftermath William Wilberforce receive a lot of credits for his parliamentary work and the ant-slavery movement (according to Hochschild done by Wilberforce’s sons). The role of Clarkson was made smaller than it had been. Wilberforce was honoured with a statue in Westminster Abbey. In 1996 a stone was laid in Westminster Abbey to honour Clarkson. The stone was placed near the statue of Wilberforce.
- A few critical notes:
- In the end Hochhschild states that the work of the original twelve (and many others) was the result of a very modern belief, that people are not moved by biblical arguments, but by seeing the suffering of fellow human beings and feeling compassion. To me, that was a bit of a weird conclusion after all that had been written.
- Hochschild at too many times draws lines from the past to the present. But the past is not the present and the other way around. Let history speak for itself. Do not hinder the reader by interfereing in this way.
- The same applies with his tendency to apply moral judgments. Leave it to the reader. As a writer of a book on a historical topic, let history speak for itself.
At the end I would like to say about Thomas Clarkson: Let us don our hats.
- Adam Hochschild – Bury the chains. Prophets and rebels in the fight to free an Empire’s slaves – 2005