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John T. McGreevy

Virtuous Like Us?

The late 18th- and early 19th-century campaign to end slavery in the British Empire, Adam Hochschild argues, "forged virtually every important tool used by citizens' movements in democratic countries today." He concludes: these abolitionists knew that "the way to stir men and women to action is not by biblical argument, but through the vivid, unforgettable description of acts of great injustice done to their fellow human beings."

Half right. Bury the Chains is indeed a riveting history of the British anti-slavery movement. Beginning in 1787 with a London meeting of twelve men resolved to challenge English participation in the slave trade, the movement swept across much of England. In Manchester ten thousand residents signed a petition in opposition to the trade only a few months after that initial meeting; the next year's Parliament received 103 petitions representing up to 100,000 people. The early days of the French revolution furthered the cause. (Lafayette, hero of the American Revolutionary war and then mayor of Paris, had already freed his own slaves in French Guiana.) At the same time, Oladuah Equiano, the first former slave to enter the debate, toured England promoting his bestselling autobiography, a searing depiction of West Indian slavery. By 1791, hundreds of thousands of anti-slavery women in Britain had coordinated one of the world's first boycotts, of sugar produced by West Indian slaves.

Horror at the turn taken by the French revolution in the 1790s and looming Anglo-French military conflict reversed this momentum. "War fever," Hochschild dubiously claims, "is always the enemy of social reform." Regardless, West Indian planters hired lobbyists to press a defense of slavery in the press and the halls of Parliament, and mobilized as pro-slavery spokesmen leaders in port cities, such as Liverpool, dependent on the trade. Massive slave revolts in both the French (Haiti) and British (Jamaica) West Indies in the 1790s, and the bloody wars that ensued, hardened ...

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