Antislavery Book Resonates Today
Brandon Sun, July 11, 2022 - David McConkey
Emancipation Day is August 1, a perfect
opportunity to review one of my favourite books. Emancipation Day
celebrates the date in 1834 when slavery was abolished in the
British Empire. The book tells the story of that emancipation. By
American writer Adam Hochschild, it is Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight
to Free an Empire's Slaves.
Today, we can hardly imagine an evil worse than slavery. Yet a theme of Hochschild’s book is how slavery used to be accepted as normal. Slavery was a feature of ancient Greece and Rome, was taken for granted in religious texts like the Bible and the Qur’an, and was practised by Indigenous peoples in the Americas. Slavery was entrenched in traditional societies in Africa, which then fuelled the transatlantic slave trade after Europeans colonized the New World.
Bury the Chains begins with an event that frames the narrative. On May 22, 1787, a dozen men met in a bookstore and printing shop in London, England. Together they resolved to work to end slavery in the British Empire.
At that time, more than three-quarters of the world’s people lived in bondage of one kind or another. Forms of servitude included castes in India, serfdom in Russia and slavery in many places. Almost no one then saw anything out of the ordinary with those practices. And the late 1700s was not that long in the past: about four lifetimes ago.
The antislavery effort that started with that London meeting did succeed in abolishing slavery in the empire. It took 50 years. One member who attended the original meeting lived long enough to see emancipation achieved.
Hochschild points out that the British antislavery movement was something never seen before: people mobilizing out of a concern for the rights of others. “And most startling of all,” Hochschild writes, “the rights of people of another colour, on another continent.”
Bury the Chains dramatically portrays the story’s people and places. Through the pages of the book, we see organizer Thomas Clarkson riding horseback over thousands of miles throughout the United Kingdom establishing local antislavery support groups. We see Clarkson seeking out individuals who would testify about the cruelty they had witnessed of slavery on British ships and plantations.
We see captured men and women being marched from the interior of Africa and then herded onto ships to endure forced labour and death in the Americas. We see slaves being brutalized on sugar plantations in the West Indies. We also see William Wilberforce speaking against slavery in the British House of Commons.
And we see slave ship captain John Newton. After health issues ended his career at sea, Newton joined the Anglican clergy. He gained fame as a preacher and as a writer of hymns, including Amazing Grace.
Today, Amazing Grace is associated with the fight for civil rights and is often assumed to be a reaction to slavery. But Hochschild notes that Newton did not speak out against slavery until after the antislavery movement had brought the issue to his attention.
Newton was a person of his time. It did not occur to Newton to criticize slavery even though he himself had participated in the slave trade, had preached for decades about morality and had penned Amazing Grace.
Bury the Chains resonates today considering existential threats like those relating to climate, technology, inequality and war. The book has a timeless quality as it leads to some big questions encountered in any life at any time. Among the questions: How do we as individuals visualize beyond our own culture? How do we engage with overwhelming and often depressing concerns while embracing and enjoying our daily lives?
I would love to see teenagers especially read Bury the Chains. It has so much to offer. It is a big book, yet could hold a reader’s interest even amidst today's distractions. It transports the reader to another time and place, which is enlightening for its own sake and also fosters understanding of our own time and place. The book details horrendous conditions and an agonizingly slow path to justice. But it is ultimately about imagination, compassion and hope.
Bury the Chains invites the pleasure of repeated readings. It is at the Brandon Public Library. (Incidentally, if you have other recommendations for books of similar power, I welcome your suggestions.)
August 1 is Emancipation Day. Remember a time not that long ago when slavery was normal. Remember the struggle to end slavery and how that effort helped kick-start citizen movements for the rights of women and others. And consider a book that informs and inspires: Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves.
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