Adam Hochschild: We Can Learn from the Abolitionists

Sometimes you can hear the argument that the Civil War was not about slavery but about the right of the Southern states to self-determination. The problem is, when the Southerners were talking about self-determination, they always meant white men only—says Adam Hochschild in an interview with Jakub Majmurek.

JAKUB MAJMUREK: Your book Bury the Chains portrays a history of British abolitionist movement. When that movement was starting to form at
the end of the 18th century, it seemed impossible that it may eventually achieve its goals. Slave trade and slave labor were crucial for the economy of the UK, the money of people pro ting from slaves held significant influence over the politics of the day.

ADAM HOCHSCHILD: The fact that at the beginning it looked impossible is what drew me to the story in the first place. If you’d stood at the street corner in London in the year 1786 and you’d said that slavery should be abolished, 9 of 10 people would have laughed at you. They’d say, “that’s a crazy idea,” “there has been slavery since the ancient times, at Romans and Greeks.” And the 10th person would probably say: “Well, that’s a pretty good idea, but I can’t see how is it going to happen.”

 

So what had happened that the abolitionists were eventually able to win?

In that time we didn’t have the opinion polls, so we can’t possibly say how many British people supported slavery in, let’s say, 1787. But the good indication of what were the topics of public interest were the subjects discussed at the debating societies. These were associations whose members were paying a small fee to listen to the debates about the most pressing issues of the day. For decades only very seldom the topic of slavery was debated. Suddenly, in one month—February 1788—one half of the debates were about the subject of slavery or the slave trade. So you can see that the idea of the abolition took on very rapidly. The first meeting of British abolitionists was held in May 1787.

Why did the abolitionist ideas take fire?

For a couple of reasons. It was a moment between American War of Independence and French Revolution. Many ideas about liberty were in the air at that time. British opinion was pretty divided when it came to the idea of American independence. Many people thought: “If the colonists want to have their own state, they probably should.” Also, the ideas which led to the French revolution in the 1789 were already pretty well known in Britain at that time. Even though British slavery was located in the colonies in the West Indies, there was in Britain something like the slavery itself: the institution called naval impressment. The only way Royal Navy could secure enough numbers of sailors was by kidnapping young men from the streets of British cities. If you were a strong-looking young man, walking along the street of a port city, you could be essentially kidnapped by a Royal Navy and impressed, forced to serve ve years as a sailor at sea in horrible conditions. There was enormous amount of protest against this practice. In the 18th century, the protests against naval impressment turned into street riots more than 500 times.

Did the protests against naval impressment succeed?

Not really. The protests were always defeated, because the government was reasoning: if we can’t do that, we won’t have a big navy. And everybody back then agreed that Britain has to be a naval superpower. But the issue created enormous agitation. Many people were passionately speaking against it on the street corners. And the agitators often used the analogy to the slavery. “This is no better than slavery, and these are our fine, British young men, who’re turned into slaves by the Royal Navy.” It put into the air the idea that there’s something suspicious about slavery. When people got outraged by the fact that their countrymen were in fact turned into slaves, it was a small step to get them outraged by the fact that somebody of different skin color is enslaved.

British opinion was pretty divided when it came to the idea of American independence. Many people thought: “If the colonists want to have their own state, they probably should.”

Was it really that moral outrage which finally led to the abolition of slavery? What about the economic reasons? Slave rebellions made slave-keeping economies less and less pro table.

It was both things. Moral outrage was extremely important, it animated the broad social movement for the abolition. Thousands of people demonstrated against slavery on the streets. The abolitionist movement was able to make the issue of slavery one of the most important topics of the parliamentary campaign of 1832-1833. But you’re also right about the slave rebellions in the West Indies. In America itself, in most places white people outnumbered slaves. On every island of West Indies, slaves outnumbered white people, even 20 to 1. In Barbados, which used to have the largest population of Europeans, the ratio was still 5 to 1. The slaves were reasoning: “There’re so many of us, and so few of them, we may actually succeed with the rebellion.” Also, the example of the successful slave rebellion in what is today Haiti was a great inspiration for the slaves. So there were many slave rebellions in the West Indies in the early 1800s, one in Barbados, one in British Guyana, and the most important – the big rebellion in Jamaica in 1831-1832. It lasted few weeks, hundreds of people were killed, the plantations were set on fire.

Moral outrage was extremely important, it animated the broad social movement for the abolition. Thousands of people demonstrated against slavery on the streets.

It was one year before the English Parliament finally passed the abolition bill, ending the slavery in British colonies?

Yes, after the Jamaican rebellion the parliament held special hearings to determine what has happened there. And the plantation officials, army officers who served in the West Indies were saying: “This is going to happen again and again.” And that was the other reason for the end of slavery. We shouldn’t forget that the slave-owners were very generously compensated by the parliament for their freed slaves. We could even say that the emancipation of British slaves was the largest slave sale in history. The state bought the slaves from their owners, and set them free.

What were the tools that the abolitionist movement used to mobilize public opinion against slavery?

It’s striking how modern they were. As a student I was active in the Civil Rights Movement, many of my friends campaigned against the war in Vietnam. It’s fascinating how many things we took for granted as the tools of civic protest were actually invented by the abolitionists in the 18th century. For example, it was an abolitionist who put the consumer boycott for political purposes—boycotting sugar, produced with the help of slave labor. They came with the idea that it’s useful to establish a nation-wide organization based in the capital of the country to pressure the politicians, that it can be useful to give that organization a recognizable logo. They were campaigning using political posters. Anti-slavery organizations were keeping very detailed accounts of their meetings. Reading them you can see how they were trying different techniques and checking if they’re working or not.

And what kind of arguments were working the best?

The abolitionist learned very quickly that it’s easier to convince people not by arguing with references to the Bible, but rather by showing the public the sufferings the slaves were afflicted with. So they were giving voice to the witnesses of the horrors of slavery, putting their accounts into the pamphlets. People wanted to buy the pamphlets with the testimonies of the witnesses, not with abstract arguments. I guess, one may even say
that in some way, abolitionist campaigns invented the human rights journalism.

So you don’t think that the religious arguments against slavery were crucial for the abolition?

Well, they were definitely important. In that time everybody in England was in some way religious—with very small exceptions. But the only religious group which from the beginning took the principled position against slavery were the Quakers. It came from their own experience of religious persecution. You could not be a Quaker and hold slaves—you’d be kicked out of the church if you did. Quakers were trying for years to agitate people about slavery—but for a long time no one paid attention to them, because they were Quakers. They looked different, they wore funny hats, they had certain manner of speaking. So they realized that they can’t achieve anything if they don’t ally with the Anglicans. And that alliance was really crucial. In the end of the 18th century you could not enter the parliament if you weren’t Anglican. Of course, most Anglicans weren’t opposed to the slavery. But the movement was blessed with the few who were. The most important were two: Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce. In that alliance, the Quakers became the main manpower of the movement—even though in the end of the 18th century there were only about 20 thousand of them in Britain. But it was the Anglicans who became the face of the movement.

It’s fascinating how many things we took for granted as the tools of civic protest were actually invented by the aboli- tionists in the 18th century.

That kind of anti-slavery movement was something unique to Britain. Why did not a similar movement succeed in the US? You need a civil war to make an end to slavery.

In the US the slave economy was part of the United States itself—in Britain, slaves were 3 thousand miles away in the West Indies. The American slave owners were very successful in convincing white people who didn’t hold the slaves that they would be threatened if the slaves were set free. “If the slaves were set free, they would compete for your jobs, so we have to keep them enslaved,” ran the argument. The American abolitionists were almost exclusively focused in the North, and they had no means to influence the politics of the slave states, controlled almost completely by the slave owners.

The abolitionist learned very quickly that it’s easier to convince people not by arguing with references to the Bible, but rather by showing the public the sufferings the slaves were afllicted with.

The emancipation of American slaves was soon followed by Jim Crows laws, a different form of forced segregation and discrimination. How did the situation of British slaves in the West Indies look like after their liberation? Was it similar?

There certainly were many similarities. The most important was the fact that both in the US and the British colonies, when the freedom came, the economic conditions of the former slaves did not change radically. They still worked on the plantations as it usually was the only job accessible in the area they lived in, being paid very small amount of money for their labor. They had to pay their former owners a rent for the miserable hut they were inhabiting. But there was one significant difference between the Southern US and the West Indies. In the West Indies people thought in three racial categories: black, colored (which means part white, part not), and black. And unlike in the United States, those in the middle category in the era of slavery were usually free. If a white master had some children with his slave, they were in most cases set free. After the abolition of slavery–to this day–white people controlled the biggest part of the economy of Caribbean Islands, but those of mixed race occupied a place in the middle of the social structure. There was no similar group of colored people in the US.

How is the heritage of slavery shaping American politics today? Some time ago we could see the riots in Charlottesville, Virginia, where white nationalists were protesting against the removal of a statue of Confederate commander, Robert E. Lee.

The white nationalists in Charlottesville would never say that they want to bring back the slavery. They’d probably argue that they were just defending the historical monument from tearing it down.

Yes, but in the debate following that events we could actually hear that the slavery wasn’t that bad, that we should put that into the context of the times, and so on.

Sometimes you can hear that argument. More often you’d however hear that the civil war was not about slavery, but about the right of the Southern states to self-determination. There’s something noble about the right of every state to determine its fate. The problem is that when the Southerners were talking about self-determination, they always meant white men only. And in that kind of notion of self-determination, I find nothing noble at all. In the US we have elected a madman, a racist president. And he’s appealing in a subtle—and sometimes not even that subtle—ways to a deep racist prejudice, which is still strong in the US. The Civil War has ended, the slavery has ended, the economic and political positions of African Americans have improved greatly, but there’s still enormous amount of discrimination and economic differences and racist feelings, lurking beneath the surface.

The issue of slavery is still far from resolved, it’s still a problem even in such apparently developed countries as Brazil.

Yes, and unfortunately we don’t pay enough attention to it. There’re some organizations who work on that issue. One of them is the London-based Anti-Slavery International. It’s a direct descendant of the old, British anti-slavery society. And when I was doing my research for this book and I wanted to nd certain documents and pamphlets from the late 1700s I went to their library. And there’s one section of that library devoted to the things from the 18th century, but there’s also another, filled with materials from the 20th or even 21st century. You can find there DVD and video cassettes documenting slave labor in Bangladesh, Sudan, and other countries.

What in your opinion is the greatest obstacle to fighting slavery today?

I think that, paradoxically, what makes the work on the issue of slavery so complicated now is the fact that it’s officially illegal virtually everywhere. I think that no country would be allowed into the United Nations if it would make slavery legal. So slavery’s o cially against the law everywhere, but it’s nonetheless practiced in many places. And I’ve seen it myself. I went as a journalist to Congo—7 or 8 years ago. The eastern part of the country suffered terrible wars in the last decades. One of the most horrific things that happened during that war was the fact that people were kidnapped and made slaves, belonging to different military forces. I’ve talked with such people. With men, who were used to carry the loads for the troops, with the women, who were turned into sex-slaves, etc.

In the US the slave economy was part of the United States itself—in Britain, slaves were 3 thousand miles away in the West Indies.

What in your opinion is the relationship between slavery and capitalism? On the one hand, capitalism is supposed to be based on free labor, on the other, we could see how the plantations based on slave labor were capitalist enterprises, and the relatively cheap sugar they were producing facilitated the industrial revolution in England of the 18th century.

Well, I think that the slavery can be found in every type of society that we know historically. Some of the Native American societies practiced different forms of slavery. In pre-capitalist Africa, most of the societies we know held slaves. And that’s why European captains sailing along the coast of West Africa could so easily find the slaves to buy. When I was in South Africa few years ago, I found a logbook of Dutch captain, who found it so peculiar that the tribe he met didn’t hold slaves, that he feel obliged to write it down. By the way, that tribe used to live around the area where Nelson Mandela came from. So I think that slavery can exist in any form of society.

The white nationalists in Charlottesville would never say that they want to bring back the slavery. They’d probably argue that they were just defending the historical monument from tearing it down.

Some time ago, I’ve seen the Oscar-nominated documentary 13th, investigating American prison system. The movie was essentially arguing that the American prisons are capitalist institutions based on unfree labor and that they’re predominantly filled with African Americans—the descendants of the former slaves.

That is all unfortunately true. The America has one of the highest per capita rates of incarceration, higher even than China, or Putin’s Russia. I was actually studying that case two years ago, and back then only one place had higher incarceration rate—the Seychelles Islands. And it was only because there was some kind of coup there, after which they locked a lot of people up. It’s also striking how the US prisons are working in comparison with the EU. Some time ago I had a book tour in Finland. The publisher asked what I’d like to see, so I’ve said: nd me a prison to visit. He managed to arrange me a visit. In American prisons, the prisoners are working all day, receiving some tiny wages for their travail. In Finland, you mainly have different classes all day. And when the prisoner leaves, the social worker goes with him and checks if he has a place to stay and a job—to make sure he won’t return behind the bars. And it works—they have incarceration rate 10 times lower than the US.

Do you think that any American politician would be able to convince American taxpayers to pay for a similar system in the US?

Well, honestly, I don’t think so. (laughter) But on the other hand, there’s been a lot of talk about our prison system recently. People from both left and right start to agree that it can’t go on like this. People from the right, like the notorious Koch brothers, are seeing how much does it cost, what part of budget it’s eating up. But it’s going to take a lot of time before America changes its attitude towards crime and criminal o enders.

I think that the slavery can be found in every type of society that we know historically. Some of the Native American societies practiced different forms of slavery.

The abolition of slavery in Britain was a great story of success of the grassroots social movement. What contemporary social movement can draw from that example? Is there any social struggle you would compare to the abolitionist campaign?

I had very interesting experience with Bury the Chains. You can learn who’s reading your book by looking at who’s inviting you to speak about it. When it was published back in 2005, all the invitations I had were from black history groups, classes on slavery and race relations, etc. The last four or ve invitations to speak about that book have all come from organizations fighting against climate change.

The last four or ve invitations to speak about that book have all come from organizations fighting against climate change.

There was even a review of the book—like seven years ago—in the academic journal for the climate scientists. And it was written by a climate scientist, who said: “You wonder why I’m reviewing a book about 18th century anti-slavery movement? Because I think it’s relevant for what we have to do today, which is to convince people that something they take for granted—that we can forever pump oil and put the greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere—can no longer be treated that way, if we don’t want to bring about an ecological disaster.” And I agree. Climate change is the biggest collective challenge the world is facing—provided that Donald Trump does not start a nuclear war. And we have to use every organizing technique to face that challenge. Doing so we can learn a lot from the abolitionists of the 1780s.


Adam Hochschild

is an American author, journalist, and a longtime lecturer at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. He has also been a Fulbright Lecturer in India, Regents’ Lecturer at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Writer-in-Residence at the Department of History, University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Hochschild has also written for The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, The Atlantic, Granta, the Times Literary Supplement, the New York Review of Books, the New York Times Magazine, The Nation, and other publications. He was also a commentator on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. His best-known works include King Leopold’s Ghost (1998), Bury the Chains (2005), The Mirror at Midnight (1990), and most recently Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939.

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