Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 9 No. 3


Bury the Chains

Adam Hochschild
Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery
Pan, London 2005, pp. 467, £8.99

IF one asked why slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire in the early nineteenth century, a likely answer would be that it was no longer economically viable; that wage slavery was more suitable for the developing capitalist economy than chattel slavery. This would satisfy the orthodox Marxists among us. But I have always felt that this type of economic reductionism to explain major social events, while not necessarily untrue, is inadequate. Other factors – political, ideological, the actions and aspirations of individuals – have to be included.

Hochschild’s well-researched history of the anti-slavery campaign shows that more than purely economic factors were involved. The opponents of the slave trade and of slavery itself had to contend with the opposition of powerful vested interests. There were two distinct but linked aspects to slavery. One was the trade in slaves; their acquisition in Africa, transport across the Atlantic and sale to the plantation owners. The other was the actual exploitation of the labour of these slaves in the production of sugar, cotton and other commodities. The slave trade was abolished in 1807 by Act of Parliament, but slavery continued on the plantations of the West Indies and in the rest of the Empire till 1838. Both the trade in slaves and their exploitation generated great wealth for important sections of the British ruling class.

The trade in slaves had three legs, and was known as the triangular trade. The first leg was a ship’s voyage to the African coast. Most of the societies of Africa had their own systems of slavery, and the chiefs and kings of these societies were willing to sell slaves in return for cloth, glass beads, iron bars, pots and pans, gunpowder and muskets.

Once the ship was loaded with slaves it sailed ‘the middle passage’ across the Atlantic, to the West Indies or the American South where the slaves were sold to the plantation owners. The now empty ships’ holds were then filled with sugar, cotton and other products for sale back in Europe. On each leg of the journey handsome profits were made. A Liverpool merchant, William Davenport, made an overall rate of profit of 8.1 per cent on his investment in 74 voyages. (Two voyages by his ship, Hawke, netted returns of 73 per cent and 147 per cent in the war years of 1779 and 1780.) The profits from both the slave trade and the sugar plantations provided a substantial boost to the whole national economy and provided capital for the expansion of industry as a whole. In fact the slave trade and slavery provided a kick-start for the Industrial Revolution. Much of the capital that fuelled the railway-building boom came from sugar plantation profits. Hochschild comments:

Think of them [the West Indies] as the Middle East of the late eighteenth century. Just as oil drives the geopolitics of our own time, the most important commodity on European minds then was sugar and the overseas territories that mattered most were the islands so wonderfully suited for growing it. The riches of the Caribbean, said a prominent French writer of the day, Abbé Guillaume-Thomas de Raynal, were ‘the principal cause of the rapid movement which stirs the Universe … By the mid-1700s Britain was importing 100,000 hogsheads (63-gallon casks) of sugar a year. Because of sugar, in 1773 the value of British imports from Jamaica alone was five times that from the 13 mainland colonies. In the same year, British imports from tiny Grenada were worth eight times those from all of Canada … While slaves laboured in the fields, whites who owned or managed the large plantations lived in conspicuous comfort, the best off in the legendary ‘great house’ that was the centre of every well-established estate. Whenever possible, planters built their great houses on breezy heights overlooking the sea, sometimes at the end of a carriage road lined with cedars or coconut palms … Rooms in the most elegant houses were panelled in hardwood; more wood was shaped into bedposts and banisters for majestically curving staircases; louvers or venetian blinds kept out the sun. Slaves on their knees used coconut husks to polish the dark mahogany floors to a high shine. From chamber pots to wine glasses, many household objects were imported from England. The planters were renowned for their vast meals. (pp. 54–55)

A large and influential section of Britain’s ruling class obtained their wealth and influence from slavery as absentee plantation owners, as participants in the slave trade as ship-owners and as financiers of slaving expeditions. Landowners and merchants alike were intricately tied to slavery. William Beckford, a Lord Mayor of London, was the richest absentee plantation-owner of his time with a dozen properties in Jamaica worked by over 2,000 slaves.

There was strong representation of plantation-owners and slave-traders in Parliament. London was a slave-ship port and the headquarters for the bankers and brokers who financed the sugar plantations. All four of its representatives in the House of Commons were pro-slavery. All told, several dozen MPs owned West Indian plantation land.

The livelihoods of tens of thousands of seamen, merchants and shipbuilders depended on the slave trade. The author shows how intimately the whole of British society was implicated in slavery:

Finally, the slave economy’s profits were a path to respectability. John Gladstone, a member of Parliament and the father of a future prime minister, owned Caribbean sugar and coffee estates with well over a thousand slaves. The cathedral-like library of All Souls College, Oxford, was financed by profits from a slave plantation in Barbados. Family slave estates in Jamaica paid for the elegant house in Wimpole Street where Elizabeth Barrett would be courted by Robert Browning. William Beckford, with a vast fortune based on slave-grown Jamaican sugar, hosted the most sumptuous banquets since Henry VIII and hired Mozart to give his son piano lessons. Edward Colston MP was the best-known philanthropist in Bristol; vestryman of his church, lavish benefactor of schools, poorhouses, hospitals, and retired seamen, creator of an endowment that paid for sermons on specified subjects to be preached annually at several churches and the city jail. Colston proudly declared that ‘every helpless widow is my wife and her distressed orphans my children’. A large bronze statue of him still overlooks Bristol’s Colston Avenue, and it was not until one night in 1998 that someone scrawled on its base the name of one of the professions in which he made his fortune: Slave Trader. (p. 15)

One of the largest, most profitable and harshly managed plantations in Barbados, the Codrington estate, had an absentee owner – the Church of England!

So when 12 men met in a London book store and print-shop on 22 May 1787 to form a committee to campaign against slavery they were taking on a powerful section of Britain’s ruling class. In fact they were attacking the source of much of that class’ wealth. Not only that. They lived in a world in which slavery was an accepted fact for the majority of the world population, for most people did not know of any other way of life. Hochschild gives very good description of what the general attitude to slavery must have been at the time:

At the end of the eighteenth century, 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. The age was a high point in the trade in which close to 80,000 chained and shackled Africans were loaded on to slave ships and transported to the New World each year. In parts of the Americas, slaves far outnumbered free persons. The same was true in parts of Africa and it was from these millions of indigenous slaves that African chiefs and slave dealers drew most of the men they sold to Europeans and Arabs sailing their ships along the continent’s coasts. African slaves were spread throughout the Islamic world, and the Ottoman Empire enslaved other peoples as well. In India and other parts of Asia, tens of millions of farm workers were in outright slavery, and other peasants in debt bondage that tied them and their labour to a particular landlord as harshly as any slave was bound to a plantation owner in South Carolina or Georgia. Native Americans turned prisoners of war into slaves and sold them, both to neighbouring tribes and to the Europeans now pushing their way across the continent. In Russia the majority of the population were serfs, often bought, sold, whipped, or sent to the army at the will of their owners. The era was one when, as the historian Seymour Drescher puts it, ‘freedom, not slavery, was the peculiar institution’. This world of bondage seemed all the more normal then, because anyone looking back in time would have seen little but other slave systems. The ancient Greeks had slaves; the Romans had an estimated two or three million of them in Italy alone; the Incas and the Aztecs had slaves; the sacred texts of most major religions took slavery for granted. Slavery had existed before money or written law. (p. 2)

So these pioneers of the anti-slavery movement were not only taking on powerful vested interests, but challenging universally and widely-held assumptions. Yet by 1838, just half a century later and within a lifetime, slavery had been formally abolished in the British Empire. This book is a story of one of the most successful campaigns in history. Who were these campaigners?

They were not ‘class warriors’. Most of them were motivated by ethical and moral considerations. They were, in fact ‘do-gooders’. Nine of the 12 original committee members were Quakers, and the campaign in its early stages was organised through the Quaker network. It owed much of its success to the organising skill of the Quakers gained through long years of campaigning to defend their right to practice their religion. Hochschild stresses the disinterestedness of the campaigners:

Slaves and other subjugated people have rebelled throughout history, but the campaign in England was something never seen before: it was the first time a large number of people became outraged and stayed outraged for many years over someone else’s rights. And most startling of all, the rights of people of another colour, on another continent. No one was more taken aback than Stephen Fuller, the London agent for Jamaica’s planters, an absentee plantation owner himself and a central figure in the pro-slavery lobby. As tens of thousands of protesters signed petitions to Parliament, Fuller was amazed that these ‘were stating no grievance or injury of any kind or sort, affecting the Petitioners themselves’. (p. 5)

The abolitionist attitude towards blacks was perhaps summed up best by Wedgwood’s design [of a logo for cufflinks and hairpins to be worn by supporters, showing a kneeling slave and the words ‘Am I not a man and brother?’]. The African may have been a ‘man and a brother’ but he was definitely a younger and grateful brother, a kneeling one, not a rebellious one. At a time when members of the British upper class did not kneel even for prayer in church, the image of the pleading slave victim reflected a crusade whose leaders saw themselves as uplifting the down trodden, not fighting for equal rights for all. (p. 133)

Yet there was also another strand in the movement. Over a large portion of its activity it coincided with the radical ferment within the British working class encouraged by the French Revolution across the Channel. Many of the abolitionists were also active in the working-class and radical movement. Thomas Hardy, a City shoemaker, the secretary of the London Corresponding Society, one of the first working-class organisations that campaigned for universal suffrage and reform, was also a strong abolitionist. He was close to the former slave Equiano (Gustavo Vasa), who wrote part of his best-selling autobiography while living in Hardy’s house. Equiano became one of the leading lights of the abolitionist movement. He was also one of the first of the London Corresponding Society’s several thousand members, and was active recruiting to it throughout his extensive travels. He helped establish contact between the London Society and Sheffield.

There was tension as well as convergence between the two currents. As Hochschild explains:

Leaders of Britain’s working-class movements were usually against slavery, but they distrusted the politics of aristocratic benevolence, and modern critics have often followed them. Freeing the slaves, they have charged, was a much easier pill to swallow than permitting trade unions, banning child labour, recognising the rights of the Irish and allowing all Britons to vote. And all this fuss about the West Indies helped distract the public from the oppression of labour at home. The first point is certainly true. But the second is not, for, once awakened, a sense of justice is something not easily contained. It often crosses the boundaries of race, class and gender. The movement’s impact spread far more widely than the pious Evangelicals among its early backers ever wished for. If slaves should have rights, why not women? If the brutal working conditions of slavery should be outlawed, why not those in British factories? (p. 352)

Immediately on its formation in 1787, the 12-man committee had to make a decision – whether to campaign only against the trade in slaves or for the complete abolition of slavery. All but one of the 12 decided to restrict their campaign to the slave trade itself. Abolishing the slave trade looked possible, the immediate freeing of all slaves did not. Abolishing the trade required only a decision by the British Parliament. For full emancipation the lawmaking powers of the West Indian colonial legislatures would have to be overridden. Even more daunting, as Hochschild pointed out, in a country where property rights were deeply sanctified by tradition, the committee feared that emancipation would be seen, as Clarkson, its leading member, said ‘as meddling with the property of the planters’.

However, many felt this to be a purely tactical matter. Once the supply of slaves was cut off it was hoped the slave population would eventually disappear due to the high death rate, or that the planters would be forced to treat their slaves so much better that it would be only a few more easy steps to freedom. In fact, both supporters and opponents made little distinction between the two objectives.

According to Hochschild, the campaign was outstandingly well organised. Within a few years of the London committee’s formation there was a committee in nearly every major city in Britain. The committees organised public meetings, debates, undertook investigative journalism publicising the horrors and cruelties of slavery, launched petitions to Parliament, and at one stage organised a boycott of plantation-grown sugar at the height of which more than 300,000 Britons were refusing to eat sugar. The first petition to Parliament in 1787 came from Manchester, one of the strongholds of both anti-slavery and radicalism, and was signed by over 10,000, one in five of the city’s inhabitants. The organisers of the Manchester petition decided to write to every mayor or other chief magistrate of every town in Britain urging similar anti-slave petitions. In 1788, abolition petitions outnumbered those on any other subject. The movement rapidly took on a democratic flavour. In Sheffield, 769 metal-workers, though aware that the sale of cutlery, scythes, etc., by the traders to the native chiefs provided them with jobs, nevertheless petitioned Parliament:

Cutlery wares … being sent in considerable quantities to the Coast of Africa … as the price of Slaves – your petitioners may be supposed to be prejudiced in their interests if the said trade in Slaves should be abolished. But your petitioners having always understood that the natives of Africa have the greatest aversion to foreign slavery … consider the case of the nations of Africa as their own.

Many of the petitions had their start in public meetings, and one at Leeds explicitly invited the signatures from ‘the rough sons of lowest labour’. In 1792, in conjunction with the debate in Parliament, petitions flooded in. One from Edinburgh stretched the whole length of the House of Commons floor when unrolled. Thirteen thousand signed in Glasgow; 20,000 in Manchester (one-third of the population). The petitions from some small towns bore the signatures of almost every literate inhabitant. In a few weeks, 519 abolition petitions came from all over the country bearing at least 390,000 signatures.

All this campaigning was focussed on getting Parliament to legislate to abolish the trade – and, eventually, slavery itself. In this connection, William Wilberforce is seen by many as the main figure in the campaign. In fact, as Hochschild’s account makes plain, his role was more decorative than practical. All he did was speak in Parliament. The real work was done by others, particularly by Thomas Clarkson. A founder member of the committee in 1787, he devoted his whole life and unremitting activity to the movement, travelling thousands of mile on horseback, organising, speaking, drafting reports and documents to the Parliamentary Select Committees. The first vote in the House of Commons rejected a bill to abolish the trade by 163 to 88. Despite almost yearly votes, committees of inquiry and other activity, it was not till 1807 that Parliament finally outlawed the slave trade by British ships, but not slavery itself. Slavery itself continued till 1838.

Hochschild stresses the importance, the rapid success and the historic significance of the campaign, and he pays due tribute to Clarkson, Equiano and the many other activists involved. However, it is important not to forget that a great contribution to the ending of slavery was made by the slaves themselves. They were not the passive, kneeling and suppliant victims portrayed in Wedgwood’s logo. The West Indies were convulsed by a series of slave revolts.

Though the French Revolution had proclaimed liberty, equality and fraternity, this did not apply to slaves. So the slaves on the island of St Domingue (present-day Haiti), then the largest French colony in the Caribbean, with the largest slave population, rose in revolt. Under the leadership of Toussaint L’Overture they defeated both French and British attempts to reconquer the island. When the revolt broke out in August 1791, the news spread alarm throughout. In London, stock prices fell. Panic spread among slaveholders everywhere. In Virginia, the state legislature tightened restrictions on slave gatherings and passed an ‘Act against divulgers of false news’. In Jamaica, the authorities declared martial law and begged London for soldiers. Slaveholder solidarity overcame the rivalry between Britain and France, and British arms were dispatched to the beleaguered whites in St Domingue. When war broke out between Britain and France in 1793, the British attempted to reconquer St Domingue. The main aim being, in the words of the commanding British general, ‘to prevent a circulation in the British Colonies of the wild Doctrines of Liberty and Equality’. The British failed to recover the colony. When some years later Napoleon prepared to reconquer the island, the British government, still fearing the virus of slave rebellions in its colonies, confidentially let Napoleon know that it would not regard his invading St Domingue as a hostile act. This very much reminds one of the policy of appeasement of Nazi Germany by the British ruling-class circles just before the Second World War in view of their common fear of communism.

Hochschild comments:

If there were always justice in history, the suffering and deaths of hundreds of thousands of ex-slaves in defeating first the British and then the French, and the transformation of colonial St Domingue into independent Haiti, should have immediately brought freedom throughout the Caribbean, especially to the nearby British islands. But a strong British military presence prevented this, and both British slavery and – for a moment anyway – the British slave trade seemed intact. Yet the events in St Domingue forever changed the way people in Britain thought about their own West Indian colonies. Their image as a glorious, dependable source of imperial wealth, writes the historian David Brion Davis, ‘already tarnished by years of anti-slavery literature, never recovered from Britain’s defeat’. In the minds of both slaves and their owners the Haitian Revolution altered the idea of what was possible, and it thereby raised the stakes in all the struggles that followed. For the first time, whites saw a slave revolt so massive that they could not suppress it, and for the first time blacks saw that it was possible to fight for their freedom and win. (pp. 295–96)

The lesson was not lost on the slaves in the British colonies. There had been a revolt in Dominica in 1791 which the planters blamed on the abolitionists’ activities. A revolt in Jamaica in 1795 was sparked by Maroons, freed blacks and their descendants. It was only put down after more than half a years’ fighting, at a cost of £55,000 and heavy casualties. The same year rebel blacks and mulattos captured the governor, massacred whites, destroyed most of the plantations, and held the bulk of the island for months. When the rebels run out of cannon balls, they loaded their cannons with blocks of sugar wrapped in cloth, and fired these at the British.

In Barbados, long under British rule and with no rebellion or conspiracies for over a hundred years, a rebellion broke out on Easter Sunday 1816. The rebellion had been plotted under cover of a series of social gatherings to celebrate Good Friday. Within a few hours fires had spread across a third of the island. Slaves on 70 plantations were in revolt and had seized weapons before the militia could intervene. A quarter of the island’s sugar crop had gone up in smoke before soldiers could crush the revolt. White troops burned the slaves’ huts to flush out rebels. At least 50 slaves died fighting, well over 200 were executed, and more than a hundred transported to penal servitude.

In the summer of 1823, word reached Georgetown in Guyana about the anti-slavery agitation in Britain and Parliament’s vague declarations. Rumours flew among the slaves that the King of England had freed them; others believed Wilberforce was next in line for the throne and would free them. This was an example of how the agitation in England was having an effect in fanning the flames of rebellion on the plantations. Not waiting for freedom to be handed to them, armed slaves marched on Georgetown. When soldiers halted them and arrested two of their leaders, Quamina and Jack Gladstone, the slaves freed them. The slaves were finally defeated. Quamina and several others fled to the interior. Three weeks later he was found and shot dead. In the fighting and by execution afterwards, some 250 slaves were killed.

Just after Christmas 1831 another revolt broke out in Jamaica. It took most of January 1832 for troops to subdue the revolt. More than 200 plantations in north-west Jamaica suffered over £1.1 million worth of damage. Some 200 slaves and 14 whites died in the fighting, and the gallows and firing squads claimed over 300 rebels – possibly more because some court records were destroyed.

If the campaign by Clark, Wilberforce and the abolitionists can be seen as a major factor leading to the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, it is clear that more than that was needed to end slavery itself on the Caribbean plantations. It is clear that it was the rebellion of the slaves themselves that provided the final shove. Although all these revolts – except that on St Domingue – were crushed, it became clear that the cost of maintaining slavery was too high. After the latest revolt in Jamaica, Lord Howick of the Colonial Office warned: ‘The present state of affairs cannot go on much longer … Emancipation alone will effectually avert the danger.’ In the wake of the rebellion, the British naval commander for the West Indies told a House of Commons Committee: ‘The only reason why the slaves are tranquil now is that they … hope to be emancipated.’ If they are not freed, he declared, ‘insurrection will soon take place’.

It had become evident that freeing the slaves was the only alternative to a widespread war that might be beyond the government’s military capacity. Seeing the untenability of their position, the plantation owners now concentrated on being paid compensation for the property that was being taken from them.

Hochschild writes: ‘Elizabeth Heyrick [a prominent abolitionist] had presciently warned nearly a decade before “let compensation be first made to the slave”. But this was not – and would never be on any government’s agenda.’

The emancipation bill finally passed both Houses of Parliament in the summer of 1833. Parliament voted the plantation owners £20 million in government bonds, an amount roughly equal to 40 per cent of the national budget. Compensation satisfied financial interests in Britain as well as in the West Indies, for many of the plantations were mortgaged, and it was their London creditors who ultimately pocketed much of the money. The Church of England received £8,823, 8 shillings and 9 pence for the 411 slaves on its Codrington plantation. For Britain’s landed gentry, who, even after the Reform Act, still controlled the state, compensation was a good compromise. It recognised the impossibility of continuing to exploit the slaves in the old way, and bowed both to public opinion and the sacredness of private property.

For the slaves, freedom was neither immediate nor complete. Parliament had decreed that emancipation would come in two stages. The slaves would become ‘apprentices’ in 1834, obliged to work full-time for their former owners, without pay, in most cases for six years. Only after that would they be fully liberated. As a result of pressure on both sides of the ocean, the six years were shortened to four. Only on 1 August 1838 did all the slaves throughout the British Empire, men, women and children, become officially free. And then one has to wonder whether the new wage-slavery was much better than the old chattel slavery. The history of Haiti since it won its ‘freedom’ is a tale of continued misery, corruption, exploitation and poverty.

Other interesting aspects of Hochschild’s book are the pen portraits of many participants in these events. Until reading the book I did not realise how popular writing had inflated the importance of Wilberforce and how undeserved his reputation is. From Hochschild’s account his role emerges as really a minor one. The actual campaigning and organising, the real hard work was done by people like Thomas Clarkson. The campaigners needed parliamentary spokesman and that is all he was, and, according to Hochschild, he wasn’t even a very effective one:

Year after year, Wilberforce introduced an abolition bill, but he remained as poor a strategist as ever. He would propose the bill either too late in the legislative session or when the MPs were distracted by some other issue, and he was too disorganised to muster his supporters. (p. 252)

On all other issues he was essentially reactionary. When the government clamped down on working-class and radical agitation in the 1790s he spoke and voted for its Seditious Meetings Act and its Treasonable and Seditious Practices Act, noting in his diary: ‘Went to Pitt’s, to look over the Sedition Bill – altered it much for the better by enlarging … I greatly fear some civil war …’ Under the Acts any political meeting of more than 50 people had to be approved by a magistrate. Anyone who spoke or wrote in a way ‘to excite or stir up the people to hatred or contempt of the … constitution of the realm’ was liable to immediate arrest. Hochschild asks: ‘Could that include hatred of slavery?’ Wilberforce continued to support all the era’s repressive measures, arguing in favour of a law that provided three-month jail terms for anything remotely resembling labour organising, which he thought ‘a general disease in our society’.

Wilberforce seemed as much concerned with suppressing sin as slavery. Having persuaded George III to issue a proclamation against vice and ordering prosecution of ‘excessive drinking, blasphemy, profane swearing and cursing, lewdness, profanation of the Lord’s Day or other dissolute, immoral or disorderly practices’, he founded the Society for Carrying into Effect His Majesty’s Proclamation Against Vice and Immorality. For good measure he got this society to secure the jailing of a small bookseller, Thomas Williams, for publishing Tom Paine’s The Age of Reason. A prissy character indeed.

One wonders why Wilberforce is always mentioned as a champion of the slaves when much more worthy campaigners such as Thomas Clarkson, Granville Sharp, James Ramsey, John Newton, James Phillips and Edward Rushton (see Bill Hunter’s biography) are hardly mentioned.

As well as giving the main events and trends leading to the abolition of slavery in Britain, Hochschild includes fascinating accounts of the attempts to establish communities of freed slaves in Sierra Leone and Nova Scotia.

It is clear that the final emancipation of the slaves was the result of a combination of factors. One undoubtedly was the brilliant and dedicated campaign of the abolitionists that made the issue of slavery a central one in public discourse over a period of years. But it is doubtful whether this purely moral campaign would have forced the powerful moneyed vested interests to retreat. It is obvious that the rebelliousness of the slaves themselves, in Haiti, Jamaica, Barbados and elsewhere, made the old forms of exploitation impossible. It was a combination of struggle, economics and moral campaigning that determined how and when slavery was abolished in the British Empire.

But one thing still puzzles me after reading this excellent book. Why was the slave trade made illegal in 1807 – 30 years before the abolition of slavery? True there were recurrent problems with attempted mutinies by the slaves on the ships, but these seemed to have been contained. As far as one can tell, the trade was still profitable. It would seem that the moral pressure exerted by the abolitionist campaign, the petitions and the exposure of the cruelties were sufficient to move the consciences of Parliament. I would love to believe this was the case. But one wonders whether there were more material causes. Did the supply of slaves from Africa dry up? Did the rate of profit drop too low? Were there geopolitical factors involved? Did the wars with Revolutionary and then Napoleonic France and international relations have an effect. It is a pity that Hochschild says little on these aspects.

Harry Ratner

Updated by ETOL: 30.10.2011