Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Bury the Chains

A former colleague drew my attention to a key series of texts to read in the field of 'development studies', one of which I happened to be reading: Adam Hochschild's 'Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery."

Reading it you can see why.

First because it is a hopeful book where what was simply a commonly accepted reality became, within a relatively short time frame, a great injustice. Second because the great injustice was campaigned against utilising many of the now recognisable tools - the use of mass petitions, newsletters to keep supporters up to date, paid organisers and such like. These were invented first during the campaign against slavery. Third because this campaign seeded many others, for example, against child labour in Britain, where comparative use of  the imagery of slavery was an essential rallying point.

But also, on the shadow side, in the recognition that no campaign is ever fully complete. Emancipation was won but the material and political conditions of newly freed slaves in the West Indies and elsewhere were not greatly improved and the struggle against colonialism and for equality and freedom would last for more than another century (if arguably it does not continue today).

It is, also, as a book, a wonderful illustration of 'cognitive dissonance'. Your passionate commitment to a particular cause - abolition - did not necessarily make you a thorough radical. Wilberforce, abolition's parliamentary standard bearer, was in virtually all other areas of his life and concern a thorough-going conservative and defender of privilege (though in his private actions he continually demonstrated a care for others such that his behaviour was not always, or often, of his own opinion). It would be good to remind ourselves of this when we hurl accusations of 'hypocrisy' at one another. We are manifold beings, multiply souled, of many contradictions.

It, also, raises powerful moral questions in the epilogue about the passage of time. You visit a Jamaican plantation house on a holiday and there find a wax figure of a white woman being served tea by a wax figure of a black woman. You do not find in the neighbouring fields wax figures of pregnant women cutting sugar cane or wax figures of black men being maimed as they feed the sugar mill. Nor would you imagine seeing at a former concentration camp a set of wax figures formed as an orchestra playing for the guards or indeed entering a gas chamber. How have we permitted ourselves to sanitise slavery in a way we would not sanitise the genocide of the twentieth century? You can say that slavery was not genocidal, which is true, but does organised suffering and death allow such subtle differentiations and if so why?

But, finally, it is a story that justifies Margaret Mead's observation that what changes the world is the catalytic effect of a few, determined just people. The first committee to abolish the slave trade was an assembly of twelve, mostly Quakers and the remarkable Anglican Deacon, Thomas Clarkson. Hochschild would add to being just, being able to feel empathy with the suffering of others but perhaps in the book's only false note, he wishes to separate that from the faith the twelve had in 'sacred texts' and the author of the texts. It is true you can have one without the other but it was not true for the abolitionists. Their empathy was both felt and a sacred duty.

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