To me the most staggering thing about the long history of slavery – which encompassed the entire world and every race in it – is that nowhere before the 18th century was any serious question raised about whether slavery was right or wrong. In the late 18th century, that question arose in Western civilization, but nowhere else.
It seems so obvious today that, as Lincoln said, if slavery is not wrong, then nothing is wrong. But no country anywhere believed that three centuries ago.
A very readable and remarkable new book that has just been published – “Bury the Chains” by Adam Hochschild – traces the history of the world’s first anti-slavery movement, which began with a meeting of 12 “deeply religious” men in London in 1787.
The book re-creates the very different world of that time, in which slavery was so much taken for granted that most people simply did not think about it, one way or the other. Nor did the leading intellectuals, political leaders, or religious leaders in Britain or anywhere else in the world.
The dozen men who formed the world’s first anti-slavery movement saw their task as getting their fellow Englishmen to think about slavery – about the brutal facts and about the moral implications of those facts.
Their conviction that this would be enough to turn the British public, and ultimately the British Empire, against slavery might seem naive, except that this is precisely what happened. It did not happen quickly and it did not happen without encountering bitter opposition, for the British were at the time the world’s biggest slave traders and this created wealthy and politically powerful special interests defending slavery.
The anti-slavery movement nevertheless persisted through decades of struggles and defeats in Parliament until eventually they secured a ban on the international slave trade, and ultimately a ban on slavery itself throughout the British Empire.
Even more remarkable, Britain took it upon itself, as the leading naval power of the world, to police the ban on slave trading against other nations. Intercepting and boarding other countries’ ships on the high seas to look for slaves, the British became and remained for more than a century the world’s policeman when it came to stopping the slave trade.
“Bury the Chains” carries this incredible story forward only to the time of the banning of slavery in the British Empire. One can only hope that either Adam Hochschild or someone else writes an equally dramatic and compelling book on the saga of the worldwide struggle against slavery.
Chances do not look good. The anti-slavery movement was spearheaded by people who would today be called “the religious right” and its organization was created by conservative businessmen. Moreover, what destroyed slavery in the non-Western world was Western imperialism.
Nothing could be more jolting and discordant with the vision of today’s intellectuals than the fact that it was businessmen, devout religious leaders and Western imperialists who together destroyed slavery around the world. And if it doesn’t fit their vision, it is the same to them as if it never happened.
As anti-slavery ideas eventually spread throughout Western civilization, a worldwide struggle pitted the West against Africans, Arabs, Asians and virtually the entire non-Western world, which still saw nothing wrong with slavery. But Western imperialists had gunpowder weapons first and that enabled the West to stamp out slavery in other societies as well as in its own.
The review of “Bury the Chains” in the New York Times tried to suggest that the ban against the international slave trade somehow served British self-interest. But John Stuart Mill, who lived in those times, said that the British “for the last half-century have spent annual sums equal to the revenue of a small kingdom in blockading the Africa coast, for a cause in which we not only had no interest, but which was contrary to our pecuniary interest.”
It was a worldwide epic struggle, full of dramatic and sometimes violent episodes, along with inspiring stories of courage and dedication. But do not expect Hollywood to make a movie about anything so contrary to their vision of the world.
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