With Bury the Chains, Adam Hochschild presents the first narrative history of the British antislavery movement in more than a generation. Where others have [End Page 200] focused on particular moments, individuals, or themes, Hochschild tells the whole story, from beginning to end, from the institution of organized abolitionism in 1787 through the emancipation of slaves in the British Empire in 1833. The account turns on crisp and compelling portraits of the agitators, from the familiar to the comparatively obscure. The retired slave ship captain Alexander Falconbridge, the Quaker activist Elizabeth Heyrick, and the enslaved Jamaica preacher Samuel Sharpe, receive their due alongside John Newton, Granville Sharp, Olaudah Equiano, Thomas Clarkson, William Wilberforce, and James Stephen. Yet, Bury the Chains is less a celebration of great men and women than an appreciation of the great things that idealistic but flawed men and women tried to do. For those who want to know the story, or want to teach it, this book will stand as the most complete and most accessible account for some time to come.
Those familiar with the history, however, will find few surprises. Hochschild begins with a brief sketch of slavery and the slave trade in the eighteenth century British Empire. He then turns to the formation of the antislavery campaign in England, from the advocacy of Granville Sharp in the Somerset Case of 1772 through the founding of the Sierra Leone settlement and the formation of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1787. Here, and hereafter, Thomas Clarkson becomes "the central character." (4) Hochschild treats Clarkson's sixty years of organizing, lobbying, strategizing, and publishing with justifiable admiration. At the same time, he keeps Clarkson, and the other abolitionists, in proper perspective. Economical descriptions of British culture, politics, and society make the contexts clear.Hochschild devotes four chapters to "the bleak decade" from 1792 to 1802, when the antislavery campaign fell victim to the imperatives of war against revolutionary France and slave insurrection in Saint Domingue. He explains slave trade abolition in 1807 and emancipation in 1833 as the consequences of peculiar moments in British politics and as reactions to specific events in the French and British Caribbean, and not as the product of determined activism alone. Bury the Chains represents a brilliant distillation of the most recent generation of scholarly research.
Still, inevitably, parts of the book work better than others. Some of the problems follow from the limits of the biographical approach. In the opening chapters, Hochschild's anecdotal style does not quite capture the structure of the Atlantic slave system or how the British slave trade typically worked. Although the reader needs to know what made the abolitionists tick, the recurrent attention to their romantic lives, if entertaining, sometimes descends into silliness. More serious is the neglect of North American precedents. One would never know from Bury the Chains that antislavery movements, of a kind, already had developed in revolutionary America, a decade before the British campaign took shape. The impact of American Quaker lobbying on the first abolitionists in England scarcely registers. Incredibly, the consequential and voluminous writings of the Pennsylvanian activist Anthony Benezet draw no mention at all.
If Bury the Chains falls short in its treatment of origins, it works much better as an interpretation of the abolitionists' achievements. Hochschild puts back on the agenda the truly important question of why so many from the middling and working classes found antislavery compelling. And, correctly, he seeks the answer in the lives British men and women lived, as much as in the ideologies [End Page 201] they embraced. The British knew themselves to be free, and yet they stood in constant fear of a loss of liberties and rights, an impulse that led British workers to sympathize "with slaves who had none." (221) Bury the Chains, moreover, is the first account of the British antislavery movement to assign the Haitian Revolution the importance it deserves. The slave uprising in Saint Domingue, and the...