Slavery, Adam Hochschild observes at the beginning of Bury the Chains, was a normal and accepted condition around the world at the middle of the eighteenth century. Many civilizations, from the beginning of history, had held slaves. The African slave trade, moreover, had become a huge business for Europeans over the previous three centuries. Profits from the trade built many of the elegant buildings in London and elsewhere in England. Even the Church of England was deeply involved in a business that depended on violently seizing innocent people, imprisoning them in horrific conditions on ships, and condemning them to short lifetimes of forced labor.
Hochschild illustrates just how normal slavery was considered by most people in eighteenth century England by weaving the biography of John Newton through the story of the struggle against the slave trade. As a young man, Newton had been seized by a naval press gang in his era’s version of the military draft. After managing to get out of service with the Royal Navy by being exchanged in a swap of seamen with a slave ship, Newton entered years of involvement with African slavery. Wild and rambunctious as a youth, he later experienced a religious conversion. Christianity did not turn him away from dealing in human beings any more than it did the Church of England, though, and when he became the captain of a slave ship, Newton would gather his crew for prayer daily while delivering slaves to America. Only near the end of his life, in 1788, twenty-four years after becoming ordained as an Anglican Evangelical deacon and after gaining fame as an evangelical preacher did Newton publicly denounce the immorality and the brutality of slavery. This belated recognition of evil was sixteen years after Newton wrote one of the most famous hymns of the English language, “Amazing Grace.”
Newton’s second conversion, to opposition to the slave trade, came as part of the rise of an antislavery campaign which had begun with the meeting of a dozen men on May 22, 1787. Granville Sharp, an eccentric musician and pamphleteer, had already become known as the chief legal defender of black people claiming their freedom in London. Thomas Clarkson, a young recent Cambridge scholar, had taken up the cause of abolition after writing a prize-winning Latin essay on slavery two years earlier. At the meeting in 1787, Sharp, Clarkson, and another Anglican joined together with a committee of nine Quakers to begin the long fight to end the buying and selling of humans on British territory.
Hochschild acknowledges the importance of the Quakers to the antislavery movement. Their unyielding insistence on their own religious guidelines, however, prevented Quakers from engaging in such ordinary social practices as removing their hats in greeting, addressing nobles as “my lord,” and using names of days of the week derived from pagan gods. This prevented them from working effectively with authorities. Therefore, they took on non-Quaker spokesmen such as Clarkson and Sharp. The relative anonymity of the Quakers has led Hochschild to give relatively little close scrutiny to their work and to concentrate on the personalities and efforts of the spokesmen. This is understandable but unfortunate because the movement probably could not have progressed at all without the Quakers.
One of the central actors who was not at the meeting was an African who became known as Olaudah Equiano. This impressive individual had learned to read and write as a slave and had earned the money to purchase his own freedom. He became a public speaker and a writer, giving lectures and publishing newspaper articles against slavery. In 1786, a year before the meeting, he had published his autobiography. Claiming to have been born in Africa, Equiano gave white readers one of the first inside views of the lives of slaves, and helped the English public see enslaved people of African ancestry as human beings. Equiano, like the later Frederick Douglass, offered undeniable evidence that brilliance, and not...