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Posted May 8, 2005
Human empathy can create change!
Two things brought me to read this excellent book by Adam Hochschild. First, his previous book is a favorite. King Leopold¿s Ghost about the Belgium King Leopold II¿s plunder of the Belgium Congo, which helped set the stage for the tragedy of present central Africa. Second, I enjoyed meeting Mr. Hochschild at the recent Los Angeles Times Book Festival held at UCLA. He discussed his new book, Bury the Chains in a fascinating and interesting way. What I was afraid might be a cold over reaching history lesson, instead offers riveting portraits into the several main characters who over some 51 years fought to bring down the institution of slavery in Britain. All accomplished without civil war. The narrative drives with unique details and a main character, Thomas Clarkson who as a young man enters a Latin essay contest and wins first price for his essay on ending the slave trade. He then joins up with a group of Quakers and as an evangelical Anglican Clarkson begins to build a ¿band of brother¿ that develops and first implements many of modern day political techniques, such as posters, boycotts, and a modern sense of how to use the media of the day. But this narrative is more than Clarkson¿s story as Hochschild weaves stores of many interesting participants, both for and against the end of slavery. This book can easily lead to more research and readings as it is meant to be only an overview, told with a journalistic eye. For example, the chapters of the slave rebellions are interesting, but as you are reading your well aware that there must be whole books written on just one revolt. I would recommend this book be used in any high school and college classes on World or British History, it might become the best textbook any student might read. (Also, I read that some reviewers found Hochshild to have a bigotry against Christianity, which they say undermined the book. I am at a complete loss to understand where one would derive such a conclusion. Perhaps it¿s in the fact that Hochschild clearly states that it was each person¿s human empathy, which in the end won the victory over slavery, not some blind hope in sacred texts. I don¿t see that as bigotry, but clearly true as nothing in the history in the progress of human rights has happened unless there is recognition via human empathy that change is needed.) Read and decide for yourself.
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Posted April 12, 2007
Useful but one-sided study of abolition
The British Empire, so praised by Britain's current rulers, was at root a slave empire, held together by slave-trading between slave colonies. Between 1660 and 1807, British-owned ships carried 3.5 million Africans, 40,000 a year, across the Atlantic, more than any other country carried. British property owners were the world¿s chief slavers. The British ruling class, not the nation, owned the slave ships, the slaves and the plantations. British workers did not control their own labour power, never mind own other people. William Cobbett noted that in 1832, ¿white men are sold, by the week and the month all over England. Do you call such men free, on account of the colour of their skin?¿ Black chattel slavery and white wage slavery were parts of the same system. The abolitionists ignored the eighteen-hour-days worked by children in Bradford¿s mills. They backed the laws that attacked trade unions and suspended Habeas Corpus. They funded their foreign philanthropy by increasing the exploitation of their white slaves at home. The trade unionist Oates said, ¿The great emancipators of negro slaves were the great drivers of white slaves. The reason was obvious. The labour of the black slaves was the property of others. The labour of the white slaves they considered their own.¿ As the Derbyshire Courier noted, ¿We make laws to provide protection to the Negro: let us not be less just to the children of England.¿ Bronterre O¿Brien wrote, ¿What are called the working classes are the slave populations of the civilized countries.¿ From birth, they were mortgaged to the owners of capital and land, only nominally owning their own labour power, forced into wage slavery. Britain¿s property owners extracted far more profit from their 16 million wage slaves than from their million chattel slaves. O¿Brien again, ¿We pronounce there to be more slavery in England than in the West Indies ¿ because there is more unrequited labour in England.¿ The empire was based on exploiting wage slaves and used the free movement of goods, capital and labour to extend its exploitation. The wars of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries were fought to keep, or add to, Britain¿s imperial and slave-trading conquests. For example, in the 1790s, British slave owners united with French slave owners to try to eat Haiti¿s revolution. The government sent more soldiers to the West Indies, and lost more, than it had when trying to crush America¿s independence. Of the 89,000 sent, 45,000 died, as did 19,000 sailors. France lost 50,000 dead. Haiti¿s freed slaves defeated the armies of the two greatest slaver powers, but the British forces laid waste to the island, destroying almost all its sugar plantations. Slavery lost its former importance to the metropolitan economy. The slave colonies took an ever smaller share of Britain¿s exports. From 1820 the slump in the West Indies grew worse and worse. In 1832, an official wrote that the West Indies system ¿is becoming so unprofitable when compared with the expense that for this reason only it must at no distant time be nearly abandoned.¿ The years 1830-32 also saw the Swing Rising in Britain, revolution in France, a major slave revolt in Jamaica and the parliamentary Reform Act. All led to the 1833 Slave Emancipation Act, which freed the 540,000 slaves in the British West Indies. Parliament gave the planters £20 million (a billion pounds in today¿s money) as compensation for the loss of their slaves. The working class paid the money in tax, though they pointed out that the Church should have paid, as it owned so many slaves itself and as its priests justified the slavery of both black and white, at home and abroad. The Empire then imposed another form of servitude on the `freed¿ slaves of the West Indies ¿ compulsory six-year `apprenticeships¿. Later in the century, it used indentured labour, workers forcibly imported from India. Slavery had been profitable in the 18th century abolition was even more profitable
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Posted August 10, 2006
Moving and exciting: a must read!
The best book I've read in years! Hochschild writes about the slave trade from all angles, and the characters are fascinating and richly developed: Olauduh Equiano, a freed slave who joins the abolition movement John Newton, a slave trader who writes the hymn 'Amazing Grace', Thomas Clarkson, whose lifelong devotion to abolition is truly heroic and inspiring. I learned a lot from this book, yet it was written so well I could hardly put it down, more gripping than a Stephen King novel. You'll see people at their worst and at their absolute best. Everyone living should read this book.
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Posted July 14, 2011
A page-turner. An amazing account of what a handful of people were able to accomplish. It's a horrible account of what people do to other people and a warning for future generations who should never forget the real history of the Western empires.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Above all, this book is a real and genuine inspiration for thinking people, especially activists working for change. It shows that It Can Be Done even though the odds are staggeringly not in your favor. A haunting account that has stayed with me. I shake my head in awe when I think of what the people in this book were able to accomplish.