Book Review: BURY THE CHAINS: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves and KING LEOPOLD'S GHOST

By Alan Shapiro

 

Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves
by Adam Hochschild
Houghton Mifflin, 2005
480 pages
 
King Leopold's Ghost
by Adam Hochschild
Mariner Books, 1999
384 pages
 
"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." Margaret Mead
 
This is not the best of times for people who care about social justice and human rights.
 
But it was hardly better in 1787. Slavery was routine in Africa and the Islamic world, serfdom the norm for millions of Russians, and in parts of the Americas more people were slaves than free. But nowhere was bondage more destructive than in Britain's slave trade that delivered captives to French, Dutch, Portuguese, and Spanish colonies as well as to its own in the West Indies. In such places as Guadeloupe, Haiti, and Jamaica, some 500,000 blacks were being worked to death on sugar, coffee, and tobacco plantations.
 
Almost all the British took the slave trade and slavery itself for granted. The royal family supported both. Planters and investors gained fortunes. The Church of England sanctified—and profited from—the system by its ownership of a huge plantation on Barbados. Ordinary people enjoyed their sugar and smokes without a thought about how they came by them.
 
Until May 22, 1787. That's when a dozen people met in James Phillips' printing shop in London and determined to end the slave trade. Slavery itself was so deeply entrenched in the British economy that it would have to come later.
 
"The abolitionists' first job was to make Britons understand what lay behind the sugar they ate, the tobacco they smoked, the coffee they drank," Adam Hochschild writes in his absorbing and instructive book for social activists, Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves.
 
The people who made the connections were ordinary people like Thomas Clarkson, a onetime divinity student; Olaudah Equino, a former slave living in England who became a renowned public speaker and whose autobiography was widely influential; Granville Sharp and Elizabeth Heyrick, expert pamphleteers, and a host of Quakers. In parliament, improbably, they gained the support of the conservative William Wilberforce, who became the best-known public voice of the movement, though not its prime mover.
 
In Hochschild's account that was the indefatigable Clarkson. He went to Bristol and Liverpool to study the slave ships, to interview captains, seamen, and merchants. "I made it a rule," he wrote, "to put down in writing, after every conversation, what had taken place." He went to ship chandlers' shops, in one of which he found handcuffs, leg shackles, and thumbscrews. Puzzled by an instrument with a screw, he learned it was a device used by doctors in lockjaw cases. On slave ships its use was to force open the mouths of blacks who refused to eat.
 
The abolitionists believed that "because human beings had a capacity to care about the suffering of others, exposing the truth would move people to action. The abolitionists placed their hope not in sacred texts, but in human empathy."
 
In the process they "forged virtually every important tool used by citizens' movements in democratic countries today," says Hochschild. They found speakers to detail how Africans were captured by fellow-Africans, shackled and forced to march to a port, sold like slabs of meat, then jammed into British slave ships. They formed committees for specific tasks like lobbying Members of Parliament. They wrote pamphlets containing eyewitness accounts of life and death aboard slavers. They also created letters, signs, reports, posters, fliers, and "report cards" on the votes of legislators, as well as a widely distributed diagram—still to be found in textbooks—of a ship with slaves packed like sardines. They organized a sugar boycott that won 300,000 adherents. They created new symbols (a medallion of a kneeling slave with the words "Am I not a Man and a Brother?"). And they generated petitions, petitions, and more petitions.
 
In two months, Clarkson covered 1600 miles on horseback, seeking more witnesses to the horrors of the slave trade for abolitionist pamphlets and petitions.
 
This frantic campaign went on for twenty years, until 1807, when Britain finally ended the slave trade. Of the original abolitionists, only Clarkson was still alive in 1838, when, following a series of West Indian slave revolts, most notably in Jamaica (1831-1832), and continued protests, Parliament outlawed slavery itself.
 
Adam Hochschild takes on another piece of the history of slavery in his book King Leopold's Ghost, published in 1999. Here, Hochschild tells the monstrous story of how, beginning in the 1880s, King Leopold II of Belgium seized as his personal fiefdom a huge territory surrounding the Congo River. Leopold developed a murderous system for extracting the region's rubber and ivory that cost as many as ten million lives. In the process he built himself a fortune probably worth more than one billion dollars in today's money. And yet he managed for years to spin himself in Europe and the United States as a philanthropist and humanitarian. Under President Chester Arthur in 1884 the U.S. government (for not the last time in its history) accepted Leopold's false claim to the Congo, becoming the first country to recognize Leopold's theft of the region.
 
Like Bury the Chains, King Leopold's Ghost is a story of the power of individual social activists. Edmund Morel was an employee of a Liverpool shipping line whose subsidiary monopolized the transport of all cargo to and from what was then known as the Congo Free State. In 1897 or 1898, Morel was at the docks of the port of Antwerp, Belgium. He was puzzled. Ships arrived loaded richly with rubber and ivory; ships departed carrying mostly army officers, firearms, and ammunition. What kind of trade was this? Who or what was paying for the rubber and ivory? The only explanation—slave labor—galvanized Morel, as the slave trade had Clarkson.
 
In time, it also galvanized George Washington Williams, a black American journalist and historian; William Sheppard, the first black American missionary to the Congo; Roger Casement, a British consul for the Congo; the courageous Hezekiah Shanu, born in what is now Nigeria; Joseph Conrad, whose searing book The Heart of Darkness was based on his Congo experience.
 
They learned about the chicotte, "a whip of raw, sun-dried hippopotamus hide, cut into a long sharp-edged corkscrew strip applied to the victim's bare buttocks"; about killing squads; about a system of forced labor that used as an instrument of deliberate, grisly policy the severed hands of recalcitrants; about an equally deliberate starvation policy that entailed animal theft and burning crops and villages. "Exterminate the brutes," says Kurtz in Conrad's novel.
 
And they fought this horror in a campaign that lasted even after Leopold died in 1909, with exposes, missionary reports, speeches, photographic exhibits, newspapers, political lobbying, fundraising, endless letter-writing, meetings.
 
With change coming, though slowly, the Congo Reform Association held its final meeting in 1913. The very worst was over. But forced labor was not, nor the chicotte. The less-noticed but brutal colonial practices of France, Britain, and other European countries continued. And so did the United States' brutal counter-guerrilla war in the Philippines. American soldiers there tortured prisoners (100 years before they tortured today's Iraqis and Afghans) and burned villages in a style that would later become familiar in Vietnam. The Americans killed 20,000 in its Philippines campaign, and another 200,000 died of war-related starvation and disease.
 
The small band of abolitionists who fought the atrocities of slavery succeeded, says Hochschild, "because they mastered one challenge that still faces anyone who cares about economic and social justice, drawing connections between the near and the distant." To convey the horror of the British slave trade, the abolitionists made the connection between pleasures of the sweet tooth and the horrors of the middle passage and backbreaking, dangerous slave labor. To generate outrage over King Leopold's reign in Congo, they had to establish the connection between rubber tires on bicycles and the first automobiles, between an ivory napkin ring or crucifix and severed hands.
 
Today we continue to learn the connections between the near and the distant—between a Wal-Mart or Disney shirt and 14 hours of work for a woman in Bangladesh making 11 cents an hour, between a tank of gas and a suicide bomber in Baghdad.
 
Among "the entrenched wrongs of our own age," Hochschild writes in Bury the Chains, are "the vast gap between rich and poor nations, the relentless spread of nuclear weapons, the multiple assaults on the earth, air, and water that must support future generations, the habit of war. None of these problems will be solved overnight, or perhaps even in the fifty years it took to end British slavery. But they will not be solved at all unless people see them as both outrageous and solvable, just as slavery was felt to be by the twelve men who gathered in James Phillips's printing shop in George Yard on May 22, 1787."
 

Alan Shapiro, a lifelong teacher, is author of many of the activities featured on teachablemoment.org. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: lmcclure@morningsidecenter.org