Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves by Adam Hochschild
rating: 5 of 5 stars
I finished reading this book about two or three weeks now I guess. The reason I have not reviewed it yet is because I don't want to acknowledge that I have in fact finished reading this book, because then it would just depress me that I do not have something as well-written, captivating, challenging, and stimulating to read as of right now.
This book by far is the best book I have read in 2009. Adam Hochschild truly captured not only the spirit of the abolition movement, but also the many different men involved in bringing the industry of slavery to an end in the British empire. His ability to narrate the events that led to this movement in history is unparalleled - perhaps only matched by the likes of Barbra Tuchman and Stephen Ambrose. And yet Hochschild made William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson and Granville Sharp and Equiano and James Stephen come to life in a way that I don't think any other author could have.
I am doing a poor job of reviewing - on to the details - the book lays the foundation for this period in history - the sociological, psychological, political, religious, and economical factors that lay underneath the acceptance of the slave trade and slavery in the world's greatest empire. From this foundation, it moves into the start of the fight against the slave trade - which was the world's very first grassroots human rights campaign. At no other prior point in human history, did human beings come together and systemically work within the confines of governmental law to change the norms of society. The book goes into further detail about the specifics of how this movement got started, how it developed, and the obstacles that it had to overcome (50 years worth of obstacles) in order to succeed. And yet in the end, the slave trade and slavery itself were finally abolished and for the first time in history, an empire existed in which slavery was outlawed. While there were many other forms of keeping the Africans in positions of subjugation to the ruling elite (many of which have ramifications on the state of world politics and economics today), the name and practice of slavery was officially banned from the British Empire.
Personally, it was an interesting time to be reading this book right on the heels of concluding Rob Bell's "Jesus Wants to Save Christians" in which he rails against "empire" and all of its trappings and how as Christians we need to fight against the empire. Yet empires are a fact of history - there has always been empires and there will always be empires. What I think that "Bury the Chains" did for me that Rob Bell's book did not was show how a group of people can fight for the basic human rights of people who could not fight for themselves. This book showed how a group of 11 men, working within the political, social, and religious confines of their society, were able to bring down the economic forces that allowed slavery to continue for as long as it did. These men helped regular people to identify with people of a different skin color and see them as human beings - not a means to an end. It took many years - and in the end, violent revolutions in the Caribbean - but they ultimately succeeded. Yet Hochschild does not overlook the fact that in doing so, that by eliminating slavery in the British Empire, that very Empire suffered an enormous loss to their GDP - well into the millions, billions. Obviously, a person's life is worth more than money - but it took a half century for the empire to recognize that it's people wanted them to realize that.
The characters that dot the timeline of the abolition movement were eccentric fellows and all very different from each other - yet they were able to overcome their differences - religious, political, and social - and work together to help their fellow man. I wish I could go back in time and meet Granville Sharp, or Thomas Clarkson, or Equiano, or William Wilberforce - such amazing men. Hochschild excels in detailing their lives and roles in bringing this movement into a reality and finally to an end.
While there are forms of slavery that still exist today in the forms of sexual trafficking and factory labor in the East, it is safe to say that the idea that slavery is inherently evil would never have occurred had it not been for the work and unparalleled dedication of these men to the most basic of human rights - that of freedom. Many kudos to Hochschild for capturing this tale in such an enlightening and brilliant way. I was truly sad when I turned to the last page and read the last words of this wonderful, wonderful book.
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