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It is important, in times of despair, to remember that human beings sometimes get it right. For most of human history, we have used one another as chattels and furniture. The lot of perhaps most humans who ever lived was slavery, serfdom or peonage, sweating in fields or choking in mines or accidentally crushed in primitive machinery. Then, almost for the first time, something happened that changed how we thought about that. Little by little, the chains of eternal bondage started to be broken.
It is right to use apocalyptic language for what was, in fact, a slow, messy process of activism and compromise. That was how the people who worked to abolish slavery thought, when possessed by their better angels, and we need to think back to what is now almost inconceivable. As Adam Hochschild endlessly points out in this history of the British anti-slavery struggle, the story of the abolitionist movement is full of those ironies that come when people are converts or betrayers; it is also a story which has been endlessly misunderstood.
Hochschild is most interested in the political process, rightly so. The anti-slavery movement taught itself most of the methods that are now the commonplace of pressure groups, from lobbying to logos, posters to teach-ins. Inevitably, this means he neglects, to some extent, the birth of the idea that slavery was wrong among people who never got involved in the formal movement: Dr Johnson's circle, for example, or the group of radicals of which the Darwins and Wedgwoods were part.
The formal anti-slavery movement had to make some hard choices and prioritise its efforts. First, it had to put a stop to slavery in Britain itself and then take on the slave trade. Critics have sometimes seen the decision to defer an attack on slavery itself as evidence of bad faith and secret agendas. Hochschild demonstrates convincingly that the attack on slavery never stopped, but that the slave trade, with its mass murders for insurance, its stifling holds and wholesale corruption of African society, was the more practical target. In the event, slaves helped free themselves by rebellion and massacre in Haiti and in Jamaica, where they gave the British army enough of a bloody nose to win reluctant respect.
The movement was itself a compromise. Its leader William Wilberforce allowed himself to be a parliamentary figurehead for Quakers and political radicals with whom he agreed about little else. Without his solid Establishment credentials, the movement might not have survived the political crackdowns of the Pitt government.
Pitt himself largely betrayed his early commitment to the movement as the Napoleonic wars wore on. Hochschild stresses the extent to which Thomas Clarkson, even more central than Wilberforce, was marginalised in memory for being too much the democrat firebrand.
He is extraordinarily good on the way that the movement brought together people who went on to other political commitments. The reactionary Christian Wilberforce was often upset to find himself allied to women who took the lesson of the struggle against slavery to heart, and applied it to their own position. The parliamentary representatives of Caribbean plantation owners were not slow to draw the same lessons; Hochschild is excellent on their "thin end of the wedge" rhetoric.
Indeed, Napoleon's betrayal of the French Revolution's commitment to emancipation was a positive advantage to a movement considered guilty by association with Jacobin ideals. The British suppression of the trade itself, in 1807, was eventually pushed through as a measure of economic warfare against a France that had renewed slavery. However, the long-standing idealist commitment of the civil servant who suggested this move makes it a classic example of the doctrine of double effect.
Britain was the European country that profited most from buying into the pre-existing internal African slave trade and from sugar and cotton: the industries slaves made possible in its colonies. But one reason why the anti-slavery movement could be so successful was that national rhetoric - "Britons never shall be slaves" - made it possible, for once, for radicals to play a patriotic card. And the mere existence of such a movement at the heart of empire gave heart to empire's victims. The most important thing that Clarkson, Wilberforce and the others created was hope.
Roz Kaveney's 'From Alien to The Matrix' is published by I B Tauris this month
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