On May 22, 1787, nine Quakers and three Anglicans gathered in a London print shop with the express purpose of doing something about the international slave trade. The trade was unspeakably cruel. Men, women and children were snatched from their homes and villages, force-marched hundreds of miles to coastal embarkation points and then crammed like sardines into the holds of fetid slave ships in which many would die of dysentery, smallpox and other diseases before ever seeing land again.
Yet the average Englishman paid no more mind to their suffering than to that of the poor barnyard animal he consumed for Sunday dinner. Such unpleasantness was far away, whereas the good things the slave trade wrought were close at hand. Slave profits fueled the economies of entire cities. They paid for the cathedral-like library at All Souls College, Oxford; for the elegant house on Wimpole Street where Robert Browning would court Elizabeth Barrett and for a growing number of sumptuous mansions dotting the English countryside. They even enabled a member of Parliament named Edward Colston to make a name for himself as a philanthropist in his hometown of Bristol. Declaring that "every helpless widow is my wife and her distressed orphans my children," Colston funded schools, churches, poorhouses and hospitals and provided for sermons to be preached on specified topics in local churches and the city jail. (Nearly two centuries later, a statue in his honor was erected in the center of Bristol.)
Given such abundant good works, was there anyone rude enough to point out how Colston made his money, which was by kidnapping real, live human beings and transporting them to Caribbean hellholes where the average slave perished after seven to ten years of forced labor?
Of course not. But then, following that fateful meeting in London, the scales fell from British eyes with remarkable speed. Within a few short years more than 300,000 people had joined a boycott of slave-grown sugar, and committees to abolish the slave trade were springing up in virtually every town and city, while Parliament was receiving more petitions on that subject than on any other. Slavery suddenly emerged as the hot topic du jour among London's popular debating societies. Within half a decade, the House of Commons had passed its first bill limiting the trade in human chattel, a rate of success that any modern human rights activist would envy.
Why were those twelve individuals so successful? One reason was simply the yawning gap between the reality of the slave trade and any semblance of Christian charity as perceived by the public. Britain dominated the international slave trade, and it wasn't just sailors, sea captains and businessmen who were in it up to their necks. Politicians and society ladies were too, as was the Church of England, which owned a plantation in Barbados where slaves were branded, fitted with iron collars and whipped when they tried to run away. Hypocrisy this monstrous couldn't help but shrivel when exposed to the light of day. As a consequence, the slave interests were immediately thrown on the defensive before a public that was shocked--shocked!--to discover what had been taking place under its nose for more than a century.
As Adam Hochschild points out in Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves, the result was not only a highly effective public campaign but a new kind of politics, one that was humanitarian, extra-parliamentary, and middle class. Not only did the new movement take aim at individual consciences; it called on individuals to stir other consciences by adopting various signs of solidarity. "Think of what you're likely to find in your mailbox--or electronic mailbox--over a month or two," Hochschild writes. "An invitation to join the local chapter of a national environmental group. If you say yes, a logo to put on your car bumper. A flier asking you to boycott California grapes or Guatemalan coffee. A poster to put in your window...." A bumper sticker does not change the environment by itself, of course (particularly if it is attached to a fossil fuel-consuming, greenhouse gas-emitting automobile). But it announces that the driver has scoured his or her own soul and invites others to do likewise. All these elements, Hochschild argues, had their origin in this pioneering human rights crusade.
Because those original crusaders were modern, in other words, we are modern, and because they were progressive, we--which is to say the middle-class, book-buying public that Hochschild is targeting--are progressive as well. To which the critical reader can only reply with a querulous "yes, but...." Yes, fliers, posters and such are now ubiquitous. But are individuals, or broad social forces, responsible for historical change? Are people like the twelve London activists whom Hochschild spotlights "causative," as the sociologists say, or are they bit actors who strut briefly upon the historical stage?