A late-18th-century band of abolitionists in England begins the movement that will eventually free nearly one million slaves across the British Empire—and show the world that idealism and a passion for human rights can fill the sails of the ship of state.
Hochschild (King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa, 1998, etc.) has crafted a powerfully inspiring tale of how a few—a persistent few—can eventually convince the many to question their most fundamental beliefs. In May 1787, a dozen men, mostly Quakers, met in London to discuss ways they might bring about the end of England’s involvement in the slave trade. Among them was Thomas Clarkson (the only one to live long enough to see the deferred dream realized), an indefatigable, creative advocate for human rights. The author says Clarkson has been neglected by history, but he emerges here as a moral warrior of the highest rank. Hochschild demonstrates persuasively that Clarkson and his followers (who eventually numbered in the hundreds of thousands) created and employed techniques for public persuasion still common today: boycotting, petitioning, direct-mail fund-raising. These men, though impelled by moral motives, argued the economic case for abolition, as well, this back in a time when slavery was a pervasive feature of life on every continent, and people questioned the practice no more than we question our use of automobiles. One of Hochschild’s great strengths, indeed, is his ability to get inside the 18th-century mind and show how our ancestors’ assumptions parallel our own. Personal histories of the principals (William Wilberforce, James Stephen, John Newton) have their place, and Hochschild explains how geopolitical forces, especially England’s bitter rivalry with France, affected the movement. Some of the details about conditions on slave ships, including the brutalities of repression and retribution, are painful to read.
A chronicle of a rare and radiant victory by our better angels. (16 pp. b&w photos, not seen)