Monday, February 07, 2005

British Anti-Slavery Movement - Why Then?

Adam Hochschild's Bury the Chains is reviewed in the Economist.
Why an ancient practice, condemned neither by the New Testament nor by Christian tradition, was recognised as unacceptable by growing numbers of men and women in the second half of the 18th century has long puzzled historians. Mr Hochschild avoids big-picture answers and concentrates on the extraordinary characters involved. . .

His mainly British cast is a large one. . . The objects of their concern were by no means all helpless victims. Slave rebellions rocked the West Indies throughout the 1790s and beyond. After the French abandoned Santo Domingo to the British in 1793, the army's attempt to put down Toussaint L'Ouverture's slave revolt cost more soldiers than it lost in the American war of independence. At Westminster, even MPs who approved of slavery questioned its expense. . .

t once was fashionable to explain the ending of slavery as an economic consequence, and to treat changing attitudes as secondary. Slavery, it was argued, was ceasing to be profitable. With industrialisation, investors in slave ships and plantations had better places to put their money. Reformers, in effect, were pushing at an open door. Even if the dates worked better—and there was money in slavery well into the 19th century—mechanical stories of this kind would explain at best lack of resistance, not anti-slavery pressure.

Opponents of the slave trade agitated not only for new laws. They badgered courts to look at old law in fresh light. . . [Hochschild] remind[s] us how a committed minority can persuade a majority to see what at first they cannot or do not want to see. In one of many vivid passages, Mr Hochschild describes a simple but electrifying piece of evidence that Clarkson placed before an enquiry into the slave trade by the Privy Council in 1788. It was a diagram of a slave ship, the Brookes, showing slaves tightly packed and chained in rows. For many people, this was perhaps the first time that the reality of the slave trade had impinged upon them: with their own eyes, they could see its cruelty.

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