Bury the Chains

I’m reading Adam Hochschild’s ‘Bury the Chains,’ which chronicles the history of British abolitionism, the making of the world’s first grass-roots movement.  Pioneers in activism, the “campaign’s leaders pioneered a variety of techniques that have been adopted by citizens’ movements ever since, from consumer boycotts to wall posters to lapel buttons to celebrity endorsements.”

An excerpt from the introduction:

[P]icture a world in which the vast majority of people are prisoners.  Most of them have known no other way of life.  They are not free to live or go where they want.  They plant, cultivate, and harvest most of the earth’s major crops.  They earn no money from their labor.  Their work often lasts twelve or fourteen hours a day.  Many are subject to cruel whippings or other punishments if they do not work hard enough.  They die young.  They are not chained or bound most of the time, but they are in bondage, part of a global economy based on forced labor.  Such a world would, of course, be unthinkable today.

But this was the world – our world – just two centuries ago, and to most people then, it was unthinkable that it could ever be otherwise.  At the end of the eighteenth century, well over three quarters of all people alive were in bondage of one kind or another, … of various systems of slavery or serfdom.

The era was one when, as the historian Seymour Drescher puts it, ‘freedom, not slavery, was the peculiar institution.’ … Looking back today, what is even more astonishing than the pervasiveness of slavery in the late 1700s is how swiftly it died.  By the end of the following century, slavery was, at least on paper, outlawed almost everywhere.  The antislavery movement had achieved its goal in little more than one lifetime.

This movement had its beginning in marginalized Quakers, an outraged businessman, and a former slave who bought his freedom and always had to be wary of being kidnapped and re-enslaved.  At movement’s end, after the slaves had been emancipated, one of its founders who had lived long enough led a thanksgiving service in Jamaica, symbolically burying an iron punishment collar, a whip, and chains.

More later…

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