Adam Hochschild. Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves. Houghton-Mifflin, 2005.
Adam Hochschild has told us an engaging and dramatic story with tremendous significance for our present day. As Hochschild points out, in 1787, “well over three quarters of all people alive were in bondage of one kind or another, not the captivity of striped prison uniforms, but of various systems of slavery or serfdom.” He states that just as “such a world would, of course, be unthinkable today” it was, “to most people then, unthinkable that it could ever be otherwise” (page 2).
That date, 1787, is important for Hochschild’s story because on May 22 of that year a group of twelve people met together in London, England, to begin a movement that would within twenty years lead to the British Empire ending the slave trade and within another thirty years lead to the actual abolition of slavery throughout the Empire.
This group of twelve included ten Quakers, continuing the anti-slavery concerns that long characterized many in that community, and two others, both Anglicans. One, Granville Sharp, was for many years a crusader for various social justice causes, known to be a bit eccentric. The twelfth man, the central hero of Hochschild’s narrative, was a young man studying for the ministry named Thomas Clarkson.
In his studies at Cambridge, Clarkson entered an essay contest, and prepared, as an academic exercise, a piece arguing against the slave trade. What began as an exercise in debate soon came to possess Clarkson’s soul. Initially, he later wrote, “I had no motive but that which other young men in the University had on such occasions; namely the wish of obtaining literary honor.” The more he learned, though, the more horrified he became. “In the day-time I was uneasy. In the night I had little rest. I sometimes never closed my eye-lids for grief.”
Clarkson won the top prize with his essay. His finished his studies, set to begin what seemed likely to be a successful career in the ministry. But, as he reported later, slavery “wholly engrossed my thoughts. I became at times very seriously affected while upon the road. I stopped my horse occasionally, and dismounted and walked. I frequently tried to persuade myself in these intervals that the contents of my Essay could not be true….If the contents of the Essay were true, it was time some person should see these calamities to their end.” Hochschild suggests that this day in June 1785 when Clarkson struggled with the need for “some person” to fight slavery “is a landmark on the long, tortuous path to the modern conception of universal human rights.”
Clarkson continued to wrestle with his grief and passion. “Could a lone, inexperienced young man have ‘that solid judgment…to qualify him to undertake a task of such magnitude and importance;—and with whom was I to unite?’ But each time he doubted, the result was the same: ‘I walked frequently into the woods, that I might think on the subject in solitude, and find relief to my mind there. But there the question still recurred, “Are these things true?”—Still the answer followed as instantaneously “They are.”—Still the result accompanied it, “Then surely some person should interfere.”‘ Only gradually, it seems, did it dawn on him that he was that person” (pages 89-90).
Once Clarkson became clear on his task, though, he took it on with a depth of commitment and effectiveness rarely matched in all of the history of human efforts for justice. The rest of his long life was devoted to this work–and he lived to see it come to fruition. Clarkson died in 1846 at the age of 86, eight years after the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. Shortly before Clarkson’s death he received a visit from American abolitionists Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison who recognized his greatness in the cause.
Quakers play only a peripheral role in Hochschild’s story (unfortunately), but he does make a point to mention several times in the course of the book the Quaker tradition of Quaker men never removing their hats while in the presence of powerful people. This sets up the concluding sentences of the book, an account of Clarkson’s funeral. “In both the funeral procession and the overflowing church where the service was held, the mourners included many Quakers, and the men among them made an almost unprecedented departure from long-sacred custom. They removed their hats” (page 354).
This book is much needed tonic today for anyone today who trembles at the thought of successfully resisting the forces of violence and injustice that seem so overwhelming. Hochschild probably wisely sticks simply to telling the story. I would have liked more analysis of the processes of abolition (when the final legislation is passed, we get only a cursory account of the action). I also would have liked more attention to the role of the Quakers who were central to the effort. However, the story of the perseverance, the numerous set-backs, the extraordinary suffering of the Empire’s slaves, and the ultimate success against overwhelming odds is well told and carries its own power.