Adam Hochschild, 'Bury the Chains: The First International Human Rights Movement'

IssueNovember 2006
Review by Gabriel Carlyle

At the end of the 18th century well over three-quarters of humanity lived in bondage of one form or another, in a world in which, in the words of one historian, “freedom, not slavery, was the peculiar institution”. This amazing book - packed full of unforgettable heroes and villains - tells the story of the pivotal role played by popular campaigning in the termination of two of the worst manifestations of this global system: the British slave trade and Britain's West Indian slave plantations.

Assembling in 1787, British abolitionists confronted almost insurmountable odds: building a popular campaign against slavery in a country where most people considered slavery to be perfectly normal, where profits from the plantations provided a large boost to the economy, where customs duties on slave-grown sugar were an important source of Government revenue, and where only 5% of Englishmen had the vote. Nonetheless, they succeeded, and fifty years of sustained popular action - coupled with a series of slave insurrections in the colonies themselves - brought the twin edifices of British slavery down. This was a movement without historical precedent: “the first time a large number of people became outraged and stayed outraged for many years, over someone else's rights.” What's more, it took on one of the worst of human injustices in the most powerful empire of its day - and won. As such, it is both lesson and inspiration for all those struggling for peace and social justice in today's world.


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