Intolerable Cruelty | The Nation


Intolerable Cruelty

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Bury the Chains clearly implies the former. Hochschild, whose last book was the highly acclaimed King Leopold's Ghost, a study of colonial atrocities in the Belgian Congo, structures his tale as a middle-class epic filled with colorful characters determined to abolish what nearly everyone else took for granted. There is John Newton, a slave-ship captain who found religion, composed the famous hymn "Amazing Grace," but only woke up to the true horrors of his profession after his retirement; Olaudah Equiano, a slave who learned to read and write, purchased his own freedom and then wrote a memoir that became an international bestseller; a young divinity student named Thomas Clarkson, who became the new movement's first full-time employee; and Granville Sharp, a musician and autodidact who, when not defending the rights of London's growing population of free blacks, was dashing off pamphlets on everything from Greek grammar to biblical interpretation.

About the Author

Daniel Lazare
Daniel Lazare is the author of, most recently, The Velvet Coup: The Constitution, the Supreme Court, and the Decline of...

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Hochschild tells their story well, cutting from one vivid portrait to another as the campaign unfolds. But while activists like these were undoubtedly committed and hardworking, what is most evident from his group portrait--whether he intended it or not--is how mixed their record actually was. Although they made a big splash at first, they were quickly overwhelmed by momentous historical events that were constantly erupting offstage. They exercised about as much control as a twig does over the flood bearing it downstream.

Morally, moreover, their legacy was more ambiguous than we might like to think. Not only were abolitionists silent about new forms of slavery that were springing up in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, most notably child labor in coal mines and factories, but, in a particularly ironic twist, the movement they created segued all too smoothly into the movement to colonize Africa directly. In 1839 a leading abolitionist, Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton, established a new organization whose title said it all: the Society for the Extinction of the Slave Trade and the Civilization of Africa. The more Europeans inserted themselves into African affairs, the more Africa became a playground for their imperial ambitions. Shutting the door to one form of hypocrisy meant opening it to another.

Political conditions, in fact, were moving faster than any of the original participants realized. The initial London gathering came at a particularly favorable moment. The American Revolution a few years earlier had shaken up the establishment and invigorated reformers, who lost no time in taking advantage of the opening. But by 1792, when the French Revolution entered its radical phase under the leadership of the Jacobins, the window of opportunity began to close. Faced with a far more serious revolution on its very doorstep, the British establishment turned coldly hostile to the slightest suggestion of political change. Following an initial heady period of success, abolitionists and other reformers were persecuted, and political meetings effectively banned. A few years after that, another opportunity beckoned when Napoleon lost thousands of troops in a futile attempt to recapture the former French colony of Saint Domingue--today's Haiti--from slaves who had risen in revolt in 1791. With Napoleonic France suddenly in the proslavery camp, British abolitionists hastened to paint their cause in patriotic colors. Parliament, aware that British imperialism would need a more "enlightened" image if it was to succeed in the nineteenth century, voted to abolish the slave trade altogether in 1807. But then another deep freeze set in, and it wasn't until 1833 that Parliament got around to passing a bill abolishing slavery in the British West Indies in toto.

When change did occur, it was less the result of a few gentlemen in London than of (to use a time-honored word) the masses. The Haitian revolution, which terrified such paragons of liberty as Thomas Jefferson, was a sign that slaves could no longer be regarded as passive victims, a point reinforced by a series of powerful uprisings in British Caribbean possessions from 1816-32. At the height of the French Revolution, the Jacobins summarily abolished slavery in all French possessions overseas, and ordered French vessels in the Caribbean (including one dubbed La Terroriste) to begin harrying British and Spanish shipping. Remarkably, Hochschild faults Thomas Clarkson for putting his hopes in the French Revolution, comparing him to Communist fellow travelers who remained loyal to Stalin throughout the purges. He devotes just a couple of paragraphs to the struggle for popular suffrage in Britain in the early 1830s, describing it as "modeled on the drive for abolition" when, as Robin Blackburn shows in his magisterial volume The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery (1988), it was a quasi revolution that went well beyond anything that middle-class abolitionists had in mind. Indeed, the famed abolitionist William Wilberforce was so frightened of the democratic volcano in his midst that, as Hochschild notes, he made plans to flee to the countryside "before the lava bursts forth."

Hochschild concludes his study with a swipe at unnamed critics who complain, he says, that "all this fuss about the slaves in the West Indies helped distract the public from the oppression of labor at home." The statement is not footnoted, and it's hard to imagine whom Hochschild has in mind, since it has long been a tenet of the left that the struggle against wage slavery and the struggle against chattel slavery are inseparable. As Marx put it, "Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded." Still, there's no doubt that British humanitarianism was selective in terms of whom to feel sorry for and whom not to. Abolition did not succeed in Britain until it transcended the narrow middle-class moralism that Hochschild celebrates. If reformers are so ineffectual in Bush's America, perhaps it is because they have not transcended it either.

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