starlady: Anna Maria from PoTC at the helm: "bring me that horizon" (bring me that horizon)
[personal profile] starlady
Hochschild, Adam. Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves. Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2005.

I think this might be the best book I have read all year. it is certainly the most inspiring; at one point near the end I was moved to tears, and that is very high praise from me.

Hochschild, a professor of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley's, school of the same, offers a searing and inspiring history of the fight to end slavery in the British Empire, begun by 12 men in a printing shop in 1787 and ended at last by millions around the world, victorious, in 1833. To this story Hochschild brings an unabashedly and unapologetically contemporary perspective, never wavering in his conviction that democracy despite its faults is the best and most desirable form of government, that racism in and of itself is wrong, and that the same goes for the lack of women's and worker's rights in societies of the day worldwide. Equally salutary and crucially, he is clear on the fact that the abolitionist movement would never have succeeded without the input of slaves and ex-slaves themselves, who in writings (like Olaudah Equiano) described unvarnished the horrors they had survived and surmounted, and who in warfare and rebellion, like the slaves of the former St. Domingue and those of Jamaica 40 years later, made clear that they would not wait to be freed by the white man, but would seize those rights for themselves, with all the violence that had been visited upon them by their masters. (In one of history's more agonizing ironies, Haiti paid and has paid for the two hundred years since a terrible price for its denizens' unwillingness to lie quiet in their oppression.) He is also clear that the movement would never have been reignited without the uncredited goad and example of many women's antislavery organizations, under the leadership of women like Elizabeth Heyrick, who had no patience with the gradualist approach their senior male counterparts espoused. And finally, it is in many ways a testament to the unflinching, radically ethical nature of Quakerism even in the centuries before ideas of equality and human rights took root in discourse. Hochschild is also brilliant on the interconnectedness of slavery with virtually every social, economic and political institution in the empire, particularly the Royal Navy, and lays bare these connections with thoroughgoing zeal. It is a story peopled by characters who seem both larger than life (Thomas Clarkson, Toussaint L'Ouverture) and whose inability to make what seem to be obvious connections (William Wilberforce) are brought to vibrant, contradictory, puzzling life. His unwillingness to gloss over these everyday evils, as well as the sheer banal stupidity of monarchy and its scions, ought to shame many writers of historical fiction.

Equally important, it makes painfully clear that nothing ever came to those who sat back and trusted in the benevolence of those in power; every inch of progress in human freedom has come via the blood, sweat, and toil of those who believed in the cause, what Clarkson, a true hero if ever there was one, called "the great work." It was the tireless effort and passionate fighting of activists and rebels who brought slavery to its knees and then delivered the final blow, after thousands of years in which it was considered absolutely normal; slavery, as Hochschild points out, predates human history and even money. But today, hardly more than 200 years after that first meeting in the printing shop, it is a war crime prosecutable by the International Criminal Court and outlawed in every nation. De facto slavery is emphatically and unconscionably still with us, and Anti-Slavery International works globally out of its London headquarters, Thomas Clarkson House. But these things are possible to change, and it is through stories like these that I derive and sustain my guarded optimism about the possibility of humanity to eventually live up to its better nature.

It is a firm part of my ethical commitment to remember and not to forget the terrible costs of modernity in human lives over the centuries, but this flowering of human empathy is one of modernity's compensations, and Hochschild, I think, is right to emphasize that it was the modern capacity for sympathy--not with a concrete individual standing right in front of you, but with an abstract figure of class of people whose members you may never have even met--that played a crucial role in igniting the masses of Britain to the abolitionist cause, as well as their exposure to impressment and oppression by the Royal Navy and the crown armed forces:
To the British abolitionists, the challenge of ending slavery in a world that considered it fully normal was as daunting as it seems today when we consider challenging the entrenched wrongs of our own age: 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.

All of the twelve were deeply religious, and the twenty-seven-year-old Clarkson wore black clerical garb. But they also shared a newer kind of faith. They believed that because human beings had a capacity to care about the suffering of others, exposing the truth would move people to action. "We are clearly of the opinion," Granville Sharp wrote to a friend later that year, "that the nature of the slave-trade needs only to be known to be detested." Clarkson, writing of this "enormous evil," said that he "was sure that it was only necessary for the inhabitants of this favoured island to know it, to feel a just indignation against it." It was this faith that led him to buy handcuffs, shackles, and thumbscrews to display to the people he met on his travels. And that led him to mount his horse again and again to scour the country for witnesses who could tell Parliament what life was like on the slave ships and the plantations. The riveting parade of firsthand testimony he and his colleagues put together in the Abstract of the Evidence and countless other documents is one of the first great flowerings of a very modern belief: that the way to stir men and women to action is not by biblical argument, but through the vivid, unforgettable description of acts of great injustice done to their fellow human beings. The abolitionists placed their hope not in sacred texts, but in human empathy.

We live with that hope still.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-11-04 20:48 (UTC)
recessional: a small grass plant pushes up between cracks of parched ground (writing; bits of paradise)
From: [personal profile] recessional
Hochschild is also brilliant on the interconnectedness of slavery with virtually every social, economic and political institution in the empire, particularly the Royal Navy, and lays bare these connections with thoroughgoing zeal.

Ooo! I need this, for Winter Leaving. The narratives of commonly-known slavery history are so linked to the plantation and associated communities that it's comparatively hard to get stuff about how it was integrated into OTHER parts of society, and since WL's history of the "New" World is so different, I need that.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-11-05 04:55 (UTC)
recessional: painting: a young woman in white dances (writing: moving stillness)
From: [personal profile] recessional
Exactly. And the thing is, I know that some of that stuff is totally different in WL, but I have to know what it is before I know what's different, you know? Or what it means for everything ELSE if aspect X is different. (For instance, I'm pretty sure cotton is still a somewhat-luxury good in Europe, because I'm pretty sure none of the European powers ever got India, and I KNOW the don't have the New World slave plantations.)

This is why writing alt-history is an occupation of the mad.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-11-05 01:07 (UTC)
umadoshi: (read fast (bisty_icons))
From: [personal profile] umadoshi
It's a little sad that I'm surprised when my library system already has a book I've just discovered I want to read, but they have this one and I've requested it. ^_^ Thank you for the review!

(no subject)

Date: 2010-11-06 08:09 (UTC)
dhobikikutti: earthen diya (Default)
From: [personal profile] dhobikikutti
Thanks for the write-up, hopefully I can find a copy of this at some point.
Also, are you on goodreads? Its a handy way to track reading liss, and that way I can just steal yours. :)
Edited (pimpage for laziness) Date: 2010-11-06 08:10 (UTC)

(no subject)

Date: 2010-11-05 03:00 (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Wow. This is a powerful and convincing piece; I must move this book up my list.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-11-05 06:15 (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Thank you. (I wrote this immediately after I finished the book, so it conveys a lot of my emotions about it.)

And yes, I was surprised at how awesome it was. I had one very small nitpick, but overall it is just great.


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March 2019


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