Adam Hochschild’s previous book, King Leopold’s Ghost (1998), won wide acclaim for its account of the horrors of Belgian colonialism in the Congo. In Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves, Hochschild takes up a related, but far more encouraging story of the contact between Europe and Africa. This book tells how the efforts of a small group of men to end the slave trade grew into a political program and a mass movement that led to the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire.
Hochschild concentrates on the lives and actions of key figures in the movement. He tells the story of John Newton, a slave trader turned evangelist who wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace.” Slavery was so widely accepted in the middle of the eighteenth century that even Newton did not reflect on its evils until late in his life, when his conscience had been awakened by others. Those others included Thomas Clarkson, a young scholar turned organizer who devoted his life to the fight against slavery; Granville Sharp, an eccentric member of the British establishment who became a pioneer crusader against slavery; Olaudah Equiano, a former slave who fought the institution and published a celebrated autobiography; and William Wilberforce, the generally conservative member of Parliament who became the anti-slavery movement’s best-known voice.
Hochschild may occasionally be a little anachronistic in connecting the fight against slavery to contemporary social justice movements. Nevertheless, he makes a compelling argument for the view that wide-scale social action can begin with the convictions of a few people. He also gives readers an understanding of how both West Indian slave uprisings and political reform in England combined with social action to bring an end to British slavery.