Last weekend I finished Adam Hochschild’s book about the British abolitionist movement — Bury the Chains.
It’s a fascinating story, which I won’t try to summarize since Hochschild himself distilled his book into an article for Mother Jones which is available on-line.
A few things that stood out to me were the sophistication of the public relations, lobbying and activist techniques both of the anti-slavery activists and of the slavery industry. In many respects, the way the abolitionist struggle was fought and fought against seemed as though it could be happening today with few changes.
Here’s a modern-day apologist for torture, in the latest edition of City Journal:
So what were these cruel and degrading practices? For one, providing a detainee an incentive for cooperation — such as a cigarette or, especially favored in Cuba, a McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish sandwich or a Twinkie unless specifically approved by the secretary of defense. In other words, if an interrogator had learned that Usama bin Ladin’s accountant loved Cadbury chocolate, and intended to enter the interrogation booth armed with a Dairy Milk Wafer to extract the name of a Saudi financier, he needed to “specifically determine that military necessity requires” the use of the Dairy Milk Wafer and send an alert to Secretary Rumsfeld that chocolate was to be deployed against an al-Qaida operative.
It’s worth noting that people just as shameless said things just as stupid about slavery back in the day:
Answering questions about conditions on the slave ships, one pro-slavery witness at the hearings swore that slaves were so relieved at escaping Africa’s barbarism that “Nine out of Ten rejoice at falling into our Hands.” Lord Rodney, a famous admiral, declared that he had never seen a Negro flogged half as severely as an English schoolboy. James Penny, a former captain, made the slaves on the Atlantic crossing sound almost like cruise passengers: “If the Weather is sultry, and there appears the least Perspiration upon their Skins, when they come upon Deck, there are Two Men attending with Cloths to rub them perfectly dry, and another to give them a little Cordial.… They are then supplied with Pipes and Tobacco … they are amused with Instruments of Music peculiar to their own country … and when tired of Music and Dancing, they then go to Games of Chance.”
It all sounds so familiar, somehow. Astroturfing? Capitalizing on anti-French sentiment? The pro-slavers did it. In-your-face guerrilla theater? Abolitionists had it in their bag of tricks:
To show what slave families endured, [Benjamin] Lay once stood outside an American Quaker meetinghouse with one leg bared, deep in snow; another time, it is said, he kidnapped a slave owner’s child for a few hours. He publicly smashed teacups in which slave-grown sugar was consumed.
I was most interested in the sugar boycott, which was the tactic that most reminded me of tax resistance. In short: cane sugar from the Caribbean was what drove the British slave trade and made it profitable. The harvesting of cane and its processing into sugar by slaves was also extremely brutal, relative even to the already inhuman institution of slavery itself.
Eventually, abolitionists came to notice that the profits from the sugar in their teacup and the rum in their barrel were what kept the slave trade in business.
[H]undreds of thousands of people had stopped using sugar. Ignited by several pamphlets, one of which sold an estimated seventy thousand copies in four months, the sugar boycott burst into life in response to Parliament’s rejection of the abolition bill. For some the boycott meant self-denial; those with an incurable sweet tooth instead ate sugar from India. As with so much else, Quakers were in the vanguard: an eighteen-year-old named William Allen had already stopped eating sugar .
[William] Wilberforce, wary of anything that smacked of stirring up popular feeling, thought the time was not right for a boycott. Careful to avoid offending him, for several years the abolition committee took no stand. But [Thomas] Clarkson spurred on the boycotters, delighted to find a “remedy, which the people were … taking into their own hands.… There was no town, through which I passed, in which there was not some one individual who had left off the use of sugar. In the smaller towns there were from ten to fifty … and in the larger from two to five hundred.… They were of all ranks and parties. Rich and poor, churchmen and dissenters.… Even grocers had left off trading in the article.… By the best computation I was able to make from notes taken down in my journey, no fewer than three hundred thousand persons had abandoned the use of sugar.”
…In several parts of the country, grocers reported sugar sales dropping by a third to a half in a few months’ time. Over a two-year period, the sale of sugar from India increased more than ten-fold.… Advertisements resembled the “fair trade” food labeling of today: “BENJAMIN TRAVERS, Sugar-Refiner, acquaints the Publick that he has now an assortment of Loaves, Lumps, Powder Sugar, and Syrup, ready for sale … produced by the labour of FREEMEN.”
Then, as now, the full workings of a globalized economy were invisible, and the boycott caught people’s imagination because it brought those hidden ties to light, laying bare the dramatic, direct connection between British daily life and that of slaves. The poet Southey spoke of tea as “the blood-sweetened beverage,”… William Cowper wrote:
I own I am shock’d at the purchase of slaves,
And fear those who buy them and sell them are knaves;
What I hear of their hardships, their tortures, and groans,
Is almost enough to draw pity from stones.
I pity them greatly, but I must be mum,
For how could we do without sugar and rum?
Especially sugar, so needful we see,
What? give up our desserts, our coffee and tea!
Like many such actions today, the sugar boycott was partly symbolic. Systematically giving up all slave-grown products would have required Britons to also stop using tobacco, coffee, and cotton clothing (much of it woven in the mills of staunchly antislavery Manchester). Nonetheless, a boycott of sugar was potentially a powerful weapon because the country consumed so much of it. In , sugar was Britain’s largest import.… ¶ Everyone could understand the logic of the sugar boycott, even children.…
Quietly but subversively, the boycott added a new dimension to British political life. At a time when only a small fraction of the population could vote, citizens took upon themselves the power to act when Parliament had not. “The legislature having refused to interpose, the people are now necessarily called on,” wrote one boycotter. The boycott was radical in yet another way, made explicit in at least one pamphlet: it struck not just at the slave trade but at slavery itself. And, finally, the boycott was largely put into effect by those who bought and cooked the family food: women.
This is important, among other reasons, because although the abolitionist movement in Britain was founded and given its initial energy largely by men, it was groups of abolitionist women who later radicalized the movement at a crucial time. After the sugar boycott was disrupted by slave revolts in the Carribean (which had a greater effect on the price of sugar, and did more to make slavery untenable, than abolitionist boycott efforts did), and after the abolitionist movement suffered from a general British crackdown on activism and organizing in response to labor unrest and the French Revolution, it was abolitionist women who lit a fire under the movement and got things going again:
The strongest such voices were those of women, and foremost among them was Elizabeth Heyrick, a former schoolteacher and convert to Quakerism. In she published a widely read pamphlet called Immediate, not Gradual Abolition. A blast of fresh air, Heyrick, unlike virtually every other writer on the subject, roundly criticized the mainstream antislavery figures for their “slow, cautious, accomodating measures.”…
Heyrick began campaigning among the people of Leicester to promote a new sugar boycott, visiting all of the city’s grocers to urge them to stock no slave-grown goods. Her message was clear and bracing: “The West Indian planter and the people of this country, stand in the same moral relation to each other, as the thief and the receiver of stolen goods.… Why petition Parliament at all, to do that for us, which … we can do more speedily and more effectually for ourselves?” As in , the boycott was an inherently radicalizing tactic, because its effectiveness depended on everyone’s participating; men and women, rich and poor. Heyrick hoped that the poor, in particular, would rally to the cause, because they “have themselves tasted of the cup of adversity.” Inspired by her, women’s societies put out boycott pamphlets and began compiling a national list of everyone who pledged to abstain from West Indian sugar.
You’d have to read the previous three-hundred-and-some pages of Hochschild’s book to really see how radical Heyrick’s message was. The equation of using slave-produced merchandise with receiving stolen property, the calling on people to ignore Parliament and take things into their own hands — nothing like this comes up in the plaintive attempts at prodding legislators and documenting the evils of the slave trade by the earlier generation of abolitionists.
While the older groups worked diplomatically to try to persuade legislators to gradually end slavery, the newer radical groups were having none of it:
The women’s societies were almost always bolder than those of the men. Women in Worcester not only stopped buying slave-grown sugar; they refused to patronize bakers who used it and shopkeepers who sold it. This was the first time on record that the sugar boycott had been used this way, making it a sharper political tool and less a matter of virtuous personal sacrifice. The Birmingham women declared that they would give their annual £50 donation to the national antislavery society only “when they are willing to give up the word ‘gradual’ in their title.”
Unanswered by Hochschild is the question of what practical effect the boycott had on the slave trade (certainly it had some, but it’s hard to say how much and whether its impact was swamped by other happenstance swings in the sugar economy caused by wars, slave rebellions, and the like). He is more able to gauge, and puts more emphasis on, the impact the boycott movement had on bringing together abolitionists in common cause, and in strengthening the idea of popular protest and of political action by people denied power in the political establishment.
As I said, the sugar boycott was a part of the story that I was very interested in, but it’s really just a small part of a book that has much more to say and says it well.