June 14, 2007

When the abolition of slavery seemed quixotic

The text below is a compilation of extracts from the book « Bury the Chains – Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves », written by Adam Hochschild(1) and published in 2005 by Houghton Mifflin. This book tells the history of the campaign for the abolition of slavery in Great-Britain in the 18 and 19th century. I recommend this book to anybody who wishes to understand how a minority of abolitionists won to their cause the majority of public opinion – initially indifferent, sometimes even hostile – to this aim which seemed absolutely quixotic to their contemporaries.
Antoine Comiti

If, early that year [1787], you had stood on a London street corner and insisted that slavery was morally wrong and should be stopped, nine out of ten listeners would have laughed at you off as a crackpot. The tenth might have agreed with you in principle, but assured you that ending slavery was wildly impractical.

It was a country where the great majority of people, from farmhands to bishops, accepted slavery as completely normal. It was also a country where profits from West Indian plantations gave a large boost to the economy, where customs duties on slave-grown sugar were an important source of government revenue, and where the livelihoods of tens of thousands of seamen, merchants, and ship-builders depended on the slave trade. The trade itself had increased to almost unparalleled levels, bringing prosperity to key ports, including London itself. Furthermore, nineteen out of twenty Englishmen, and all Englishwomen, were not even allowed to vote. Without this most basic of rights themselves, could they be roused to care about the rights of other people, of a different skin color, an ocean away?

This world of bondage seemed all the more normal then, because anyone looking back in time would have seen little but other slave systems. The ancient Greeks had slaves; the Incas and Aztecs had slaves; the sacred texts of most majors religions took slavery for granted. Slavery had existed before money or written law. This was the world -our world- just two centuries ago, and to most people then, it was unthinkable that it could be otherwise.

If pressed, some Britons might have conceded that the institution was unpleasant -but where else would sugar for your tea come from? Where would Royal Navy sailors get their rum? The slave trade "was not an amiable trade," as a member of Parliament once commented, "but neither was the trade of a butcher an amiable trade, and yet a mutton chop was, nevertheless, a very good thing."

There were voices advocating an end to slavery, but they were scattered and few.

A latent feeling was in the air, but an intellectual undercurrent disapproving of slavery was something very different from the belief that anything could ever be done about it. The parliamentarian Edmund Burke, for example, opposed slavery but thought that the prospect of ending even just the Atlantic slave trade was "chimerical". Despite the uneasiness some people in late-eighteenth century England clearly had about slavery, to actually abandon it seemed a laughable dream.

When the twelve-man abolition committee first gathered in May 1787, the handful of people in Britain who openly called for an end to slavery or the slave trade were regarded as oddballs, or at best as hopelessly idealistic. The task they had taken on was so monumental as to have seemed to anyone else impossible. How even to begin the massive job of changing public opinion?

The twelve men saw slavery as both outrageous and solvable, and believed that because human beings had a capacity to care about the sufferings of others, exposing the truth would move people to action.

Within a few short years, the issue of slavery had moved to center stage in British political life. There was an abolition committee in every major city or town. More than 300,000 Britons were refusing to eat slave-grown sugar. Parliament was flooded with far more signatures on abolition petitions that it had ever received on any other subject.

There is always something mysterious about human empathy, and when we feel it and when we don't. Its sudden upwelling at this particular moment caught everyone by surprise. Slaves and other subjugated people have rebelled throughout history, but the campaign in England was something never seen before: it was the first time a large number of people became outraged, and stayed outraged for many years, over someone else's rights. And most startling of all, the rights of people of another color, on another continent. No one was more taken aback by this than Stephen Fuller, the London agent for Jamaica's planters, an absentee plantation owner himself and a central figure in the proslavery lobby. As tens of thousands of protesters signed petitions to Parliament, Fuller was amazed that these were « stating no grievance or injury of any kind or sort, affecting the Petitioners themselves. ».

The abolitionists succeeded because they mastered one challenge that sill faces anyone who cares about social and economic justice: drawing connections between the near and the distant. Often we do not know where the things we use come from, or the working conditions of those who made them. The abolitionists' first job was to make Britons understand what lay behind the sugar they ate, the tobacco they smoked, the coffee they drank.

(1) An interview with Adam Hochschild about his book : http://www.motherjones.com/news/qa/2005/01/hochschild.html


Anonymous said...

Dear Antoine:

You may not be aware that an abolitionist movement is developing largely focused on the writings of Professor Gary Francione of Rytgers University in the U.S.A. His theory of abolition, which he developed in the 1990s, rests explicitly on veganism as a moral baseline. You might wish to visit his website:


His video presentations are already in French (as well as in English) and will soon be available in Spanish, Portuguese, and German.

There was an essay on Francione's work entitled "Pour l'abolition de l'animal-esclave" in Le Monde Diplomatique in August 2006.


Antoine Comiti said...

Thanks Sandra. I actually know about Gary Francione's advocacy for the "abolition of animal exploitation". As you probably saw, this blog is dedicated to a movement for the abolition of meat "only" (which, in practice, will mean abolition of most -if not all- animal agriculture), not the "abolition of animal exploitation".

So that you better understand the difference: think that the movement for the abolition of human (legal) slavery was not the same as a movement for the "abolition of all human exploitation". Neither was it a movement for human equality. There certainly were abolitionists who were for human equality (and who saw the abolition of slavery as part of this struggle), but many people who supported the abolition of slavery (and thus made it possible) were quite racists. Racists, but still they saw slavery as "crossing the red line".

I do no mean that there is no connection between the two movements (abolition of meat / abolition of animal exploitation), as there is, but still it is not the same approach. In particular, one of the main point of the movement for the abolition of meat, as I see it, is that you can argue for it on the basis of ideas most people already agree with. For instance its goal is not to turn people into anti-speciesists first. Its goal is just to abolish meat. Obviously if you think (like I do) that specism is wrong, then you probably support the abolition of meat. But you can also support it if you are specist.

Anonymous said...

Referring to the international movement for the abolition of meat, Antoine Comiti writs: "(Its goal is not to turn people into anti-speciesists first. Its goal is just to abolish meat. Obviously if you think (like I do) that specism is wrong, then you probably support the abolition of meat. But you can also support it if you are specist."
You are right, Antoine. And that is exactly why I’m not in favour of campaigning for the abolitiion of a specific speciesist practice if that campaign is not accompanied by an unrelenting and clear call for the abolition of all institutionalized animal exploitation all forms of which are rooted in speciesism.
MY goal is to eradicate the root of the problem.

Anonymous said...

I know many around the world. I know of only 1 vegan, I do not think the movement for abolition of meat or animal ownership is doing very well. I myself Love my steak and Love my animals.