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?

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.

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.

Nick Hazlewood’s The Queen’s Slave Trader: John Hawkyns, Elizabeth I, and the Trafficking in Human Souls is a far more tough-minded work. What gives it its bite is the fact that it deals with an otherwise heroic period in English history, one in which Protestant sea dogs were pulling the beard of Spain’s Philip II, defending little England against his “Invincible Armada,” and generally fighting the good fight against the royal absolutism that was threatening to engulf Europe. But less well known is that those same freedom-loving Protestants were angling all the while to break into the Spanish- and Portuguese-dominated slave trade.

Their motives are clear: While the risks were huge, the rewards were even greater. Spanish and Portuguese America suffered from an acute labor shortage, and, despite efforts to ban outsiders, there was every reason to believe that planters would pay a premium to anyone able to provide them with fresh slaves. The death of England’s pro-Spanish Queen Mary in 1558 was a signal for English Protestants to leap into the breach. Four years later, a sea captain named John Hawkyns–although the history books usually render it “Hawkins,” Hazlewood says the family more often spelled it with a “y”–prepared to do just that. Leaving Plymouth at the head of a small fleet, Hawkyns seized four Spanish ships off the Western Sahara before turning his attention to the more heavily populated estuaries, rivers and inlets to the south. Where the Spanish and Portuguese had already learned by this point to rely on local chiefs and kings to supply them with slaves, Hawkyns preferred a more direct approach. He and his crew simply pounced on anyone they spotted along the shore, dragging him from his home or fishing canoe and throwing him into the hold. Spying a vessel in today’s Sierra Leone, he and his men clubbed the crew into submission, according to Portuguese accounts, and made off with both the ship and its cargo of up to 500 slaves, not to mention ivory, wax, and gold. He seized a Spanish vessel with 200 more slaves, a third boat with seventy and a fourth with sixty.

Loaded to the gunwales, Hawkyns dashed across the Atlantic in an effort to sell off his captives before they perished from disease. He did not have permission to land in Spanish territory, he did not have a license to trade, his goods had not cleared customs and at least one of his ships was stolen. But by claiming that one of his ships needed repairs, he bluffed his way ashore and set up shop in what is now the Dominican Republic. After selling off a portion of his cargo, he sailed another thirty miles along the coast and began trading slaves for cattle hides. Finally, in June 1563, he set sail for home. Portuguese slave traders seized one of his ships on the way back, and Spanish authorities confiscated another. Still, says Hazlewood, the profits from the remaining cargo were enormous.

This is what international trade was like in the early modern period: a thinly veiled form of piracy and kidnapping. Hawkyns exhibited absolutely nothing of what we today would regard as a moral sense. Or, to put it another way, the only moral sense he displayed was one composed of equal parts religion, patriotism and egotism. If his efforts benefited England, hurt Catholic Spain and made him rich in the bargain, they were “good.” If they didn’t, they were “bad.” This is not to say that the English of the sixteenth century were incapable of human sympathy. “If any African were carried away without their free consent,” Elizabeth said of Hawkyns’s first voyage, “it would be detestable and call down the vengeance of Heaven upon the undertakers.” But Elizabeth had a change of heart once she realized how much money was at stake. Along with several of her top courtiers, the Queen signed on as a backer of Hawkyns’s second voyage, providing him with a ship, the Jesus of Lubeck, for which she expected a full sixth of the profits in return.

Even the most jaded among us cannot help but be taken aback that Elizabeth, “the English Deborah,” would lend her name to such an enterprise. But freedom in the sixteenth century was a zero-sum game: If England gained, then someone else had to lose, in this instance the Africans. Hawkyns’s second haul was also considerable, although a third voyage, which he sent out under the command of a deputy (with Hawkyns’s probable cousin, the young Francis Drake, as a member of the crew), ended badly when Spanish authorities prevented the ships from unloading their wares. On the other hand, a fourth voyage, which began in October 1567 with Hawkyns once again at the helm, started out on a much more promising note. After vandalizing a few Catholic shrines in the Canary Islands, he and his crew headed for West Africa, where they interceded in a tribal war and took up to 600 prisoners. Filled to the brim, Hawkyns once again headed for the Caribbean, where he succeeded in unloading a good portion of his cargo along what is today the Colombian-Venezuelan coast.

But then Hawkyns found himself in a tense standoff with a Spanish fleet near the Mexican port of Veracruz. He negotiated a truce that he trusted would hold until he finished repairing his ships. And it did hold, for a bit. But on a signal from their officers, Spanish sailors suddenly turned on the Englishmen with whom they had just been chatting and plunged knives deep into their chests. Up to 150 died. Aboard one of Hawkyns’s ships, crewmen engaged in desperate hand-to-hand combat with 300 Spanish sailors trying to scramble aboard. As the English struggled to get away, Spanish cannon fire smashed through their fleet, sinking one vessel and crippling three others. Ultimately, the Spanish forced them to abandon their biggest ship, the aforementioned Jesus of Lubeck, laden with treasure and still carrying more than thirty valuable slaves. It was a cruel blow–for the English. For the slaves, of course, it was all supremely irrelevant. Regardless of which side won, their bondage would continue. Their only interest was in survival, in the most immediate sense of the word.

Hazlewood brilliantly reconstructs the chaotic struggle on land and sea that raged for some eight hours. He throws in some delightful touches, including a scene in which Hawkyns pauses mid-battle to order a beer and then, when a Spanish shot blows the cup away, declares, “Fear nothing! For God, who hath preserved me from this shot, will also deliver us from these traitors and villains!” It would make a fine Hollywood movie–if Hollywood had a sense of irony, that is. Although the historical data are sketchy, Hazlewood paints a persuasive portrait of Hawkyns as a brave, intelligent and resourceful man, but with the ethics of a thug. Given his brutality and ruthlessness, he would probably have done well as a modern-day narcotraficante or perhaps a member of George W. Bush’s inner circle. Meanwhile, his ill-fated final voyage was a sign that England was not yet ready for the big leagues. Not until the 1650s, under Oliver Cromwell, would it re-emerge as a contender for naval supremacy.

If The Queen’s Slave Trader deals with the beginning of England’s involvement with the slave trade and Hochschild’s Bury the Chains with its long denouement, then Steven Wise’s Though the Heavens May Fall discusses the point in between, when the British began wrestling with the question of whether to confine slavery to the colonies or to permit its spread to the metropole. Unlike the settlers on the American mainland, few Caribbean planters had any intention of making the West Indies their home; instead, they returned to England at the first opportunity, using their new-found fortunes to set themselves up as country gentlemen. The problem was that many brought back black retainers, whom they persisted in treating as slaves. By 1680, servants like these had grown so numerous that it was said that a fashionable lady “hath always two necessary implements about her; a Blackamoor and a little dog.” But what happened when such “blackamoors” ran off to London? Could their masters send out slave-catchers to track them down and bring them back? Could they whip them or ship them back to likely death in the West Indian cane fields? In 1569, in the case of an Englishman who had returned from Muscovy with a Russian slave, a court had supposedly ruled that “England was too pure an air for slaves to breathe in.” But the only record of the case was a passing mention that another court had made of it some seventy years later. Was English air still too pure or had something happened in the interim to allow the institution of slavery to breathe free?

The upshot was a series of test cases culminating in a suit in November 1771 on behalf of a 31-year-old black man named James Somerset, who had run away but whose master had recaptured him and was now trying to ship him off to Jamaica. Was Somerset merely a bit of lost property or was he a free man being held against his will? Wise does a good job of guiding the reader through the thicket of eighteenth-century common law. One problem that Somerset and his supporters faced was the medieval law of “villeinage,” still on the books even though it had long since fallen into disuse. If the courts decided that a slave was merely a modern-day villein, or serf, then his master might be legally entitled to transport him to Jamaica. But if the courts had decided that was the case, the consequences would have been explosive, since the legal status of English agricultural workers in general would also have been jeopardized. If black people could be enslaved under the law of villeinage, then they could too. In retrospect, it is clear that was not going to happen. If the day an English aristocrat flogs a pauper with a cat-o’-nine-tails is the day the English aristocracy’s privileges came to an end, as Macaulay once wrote, then the day a common-law judge allowed a return to villeinage was the day the common law came to an end as well.

Hence, it was more or less inevitable that Lord Mansfield, the judge in the Somerset case, would decide on June 22, 1772, that villeinage did not apply and that slavery was “so odious” that, unless Parliament specifically legalized it, it was incompatible with English common law. Nearly 200 black Londoners celebrated a few days later with a ball in a pub not far from Westminster Hall.

Wise, an attorney who has taught at Harvard and other law schools, clearly enjoys a good tangle, and his enthusiasm for the legal ins and outs of the Somerset case is engaging. Still, there is something very American about his unqualified admiration for English common law. Only in the United States, where the Constitution is worshiped with religious veneration, could a legal historian fail to see the problem with disallowing slavery purely on the basis of local, customary, organic law. Mansfield did not rule that slavery was inhumane or undemocratic, merely that it was unconstitutional in England alone. Rather than striking a blow at slavery, he merely clarified the ground rules by specifying where it was permitted under the British crown and where it was not. In a sense, Somerset invited Englishmen to do abroad what they could not do at home, which is one reason slavery would continue in the British West Indies for another six decades and in British India for another nine. Even at its most liberal, the English common-law tradition was an intensely insular and conservative one (just as the American constitutional tradition is today). What it gave with one hand, it took away with the other.

Anne Bailey’s African Voices of the Atlantic Slave Trade is a remarkable effort to present the slave trade from a perspective very different from what we are used to–not that of slavery’s liberal opponents or even of the slaves themselves but of the Africans from whose midst the slaves were taken. Bailey, who teaches African history at Spelman College in Atlanta, is herself of Afro-Caribbean extraction and has spent several years doing research along the stretch of southern Ghana once known as the Slave Coast. According to liberal mythology, what she should have found there was a society still reeling from the trauma of the slave trade or, according to black nationalist mythology, one still seething with resentment over the hurt inflicted by the imperialist West. Instead, she found a highly stratified society determined to avoid the topic altogether. As Bailey pressed more and more deeply, the most common response she elicited was one of shame and disdain. Descendants had changed their names to avoid the stigma of having a slave ancestor, while would-be tribal chiefs had reportedly been disqualified because questions were raised about possible slaves in their family tree. Bailey adds, “It is almost a crime to say to someone in Ewe [a local language], ‘Togbuiwo nye amefefleor Mamawo nye amefefle'”–they bought your grandfather or grandmother. Indeed, “it is much more permissible to confess to some connection to slave traders–but an absolute taboo to mention slave ancestry.” Better a victimizer, in other words, than a victim.

Strange as this may seem, it is no different from the English taking pride in the exploits of a John Hawkyns, which they did until recently. Meanwhile, Bailey notes that if slavery had long been a feature of West African society, there is no doubt that the Europeans raised it to a whole new level. The terms of trade were vastly unequal. Europeans encouraged their African suppliers to range deep into the interior. To pay for the slaves they brought out, the English alone supplied them with more than a million guns over the years, a vast arsenal that helped fuel the growth of powerful slave states such as the Asante. A growing emphasis on the slave trade caused other activities such as cattle breeding, farming and fishing to wither, sending local economies into a downward spiral. Nor did conditions improve after the Europeans began shutting down the trade in the early nineteenth century–in some ways, they got worse. The old supply networks continued to function, flooding the coastal tribes with slaves they could no longer sell. Domestic slavery rose as a result, with ever more poisonous consequences for African society. When a Danish military detachment tried to suppress the slave trade in the 1840s, one tribe, the Anlos, furious at this latest European about-face, rose in revolt. All the Anlos knew is that the Europeans had encouraged them to adopt a certain way of life and now were trying to take it away.

Bailey is scrupulously objective in making her way through the resulting political minefield. Although the Europeans were obviously in control, she does not absolve the Africans of responsibility. While not rejecting the call for reparations altogether, she argues that real reparations would enable West Africa to grow and modernize so that it would have both the economic and political ability to wrestle with the legacy of slavery in all its various permutations and combinations.

The task, needless to say, is not an easy one, as a photograph reproduced in African Voices of the Atlantic Slave Trade seems to suggest. It’s an ordinary tourist snapshot, showing the author with members of an African tour group at a slave site in downtown Accra. But one thing about it stands out. While Bailey, tall, slender and fashionably dressed, is smiling warmly, the others are solemn to the point of scowling. I found my response to this photo changing the more I studied it. At first, it seemed to capture a well-earned sense of resentment on the Africans’ part at yet another painful Western intrusion into their affairs. But then it occurred to me that what it showed was not African resentment so much as the beaming self-confidence of a citizen of the advanced, industrialized West who goes out of her way to grapple with difficult problems that others try to avoid. Where others see trouble, she sees an opportunity. People like Anne Bailey make us uncomfortable, which is all to the good.