Bury the Chains -- A Gripping Look at Early Human Rights Activism

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In 1787, a group of zealous individuals gathered in a London bookshop to organize what would become a landmark undertaking: A campaign that would put an end to slavery in Great Britain. The campaign wasn't a simple one, but about 50 years later, the work of this enterprising group (which included one woman) would bring about justice for those enslaved. Their tireless efforts became a blueprint for human rights activism throughout the world, including the U.S.

In the January 2005 Book Sense Pick Bury the Chains: Prophets, Slaves, and Rebels in the First Human Rights Crusade (Houghton Mifflin), Adam Hochschild explores this story in a gripping, illuminating manner, combining immense historical research with the drama of an exciting novel. The story that unfolds is sometimes heartbreaking and gruesome, yet it is ultimately triumphant and inspiring. "All the ingredients were already made up for me, and handed to me on a platter," Hochschild told BTW in a recent interview. "How can you possibly invent, if you were a novelist, someone as extraordinary as say, Thomas Clarkson."

Hochschild, who authored the acclaimed King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa (Mariner Books), paints vivid portraits of Clarkson, a whirlwind organizer who, as an abolitionist, traveled across Britain on horseback; Olaudah Equiano, an ingenious ex-slave whose memoir and accomplishments helped disprove the notion that blacks were inherently uncivilized; John Newton, a former slave ship captain turned good guy who wrote the poetic song "Amazing Grace"; Granville Sharp, a lawyer and musician; Quaker essayist Elizabeth Heyrick; and others.

"Equiano learned to read and write at a fairly early age, and put it to very good use," Hochschild explained. "He wrote this remarkable autobiography that's been somewhat rediscovered in recent years. Curiously, in the book, he omits the absolutely crucial thing that he did, which, in a way, sets this whole chain of circumstances unrolling." In 1783, Equiano spotted a news item in a London paper about a trial that resulted after slaves had been thrown overboard to their deaths, Hochschild said. Equiano went to see Sharp, insisting that something be done about what happened to the slaves. "But he omits all that from his autobiography," Hochschild continued, "although there's a great deal of other wonderful stuff in there."

The U.K. abolitionists' crusade has received far less attention in the U.S. than the U.S.'s own abolitionist movement, Hochschild noted. "I think that we Americans are in love with our own history, often to the exclusion of everyone else's," he maintained. "Look at the vast number of books written about the founding fathers [of the U.S.], the American Civil War, and so forth. And the American abolitionists certainly have gotten their due. But people writing for a general audience in this country have not paid that much attention to abolitionism in the British Empire, which to me, in many ways, is a more interesting story, because the movement was so large and so sustained over such a long period of time."

On the other hand, the story of abolitionism in the U.K. is quite well known by scholars of slavery in the U.S. and by the English general public. "I certainly couldn't have done my book without the very fine writing of a lot of people over the last 40 years, but those people were mostly writing for other scholars," Hochschild said.

Hochschild's own scholarship for Bury the Chains depended, as one might surmise, on extensive research in libraries. He explained, "I was in a very happy position of living within an hour's drive of the libraries of the University of California at Berkeley and Stanford University, which, I believe, are the third and fourth largest university libraries in this country. I was always amazed at how much material I could find. A lot of papers, letters, and diaries are available on microfilm. It was quite easy, for instance, to find Clarkson's diary from the 1820s."

Hochschild also utilized a Quaker library in London. "I remember sitting in there and looking through the handwritten diary of the abolitionist organizer William Dickson, and reading what he wrote every day, like the little reminders he jotted down," he said.

If Hochschild couldn't find what he was seeking at a particular library, then he wrote to another library.

But libraries were not Hochschild's only source of information for this trenchant volume. One of his great pleasures involved going to places where events in his book took place. He visited a number of slave castles along the African coast and traveled to Jamaica to find remnants of backwoods sugar plantations. He also visited Bristol, England, where many slave ships docked. Hochschild also stopped at 2 George Yard in London, the address of the bookshop where the abolitionists gathered, now the location of a modern skyscraper.

Hochschild is a co-founder of the magazine Mother Jones and has contributed to many other magazines including the New Yorker and the New York Times Magazine. He teaches writing at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California and has been a commentator on National Public Radio's All Things Considered.

Bury the Chains is quite relevant for people today, Hochschild noted. "I think it's a grim moment for anyone who cares about human rights and the expansion of democracy and civil liberties and all those good things, especially since the results of the election," he said. "One of the things that struck me in writing about these British abolitionists was that they had a number of grim moments. There were three or four times when everybody around them was convinced that the movement was at an end, that slavery was here to stay. But they never gave up. And they won." --Jeff Perlah