Adam Hochschild: We Can End Slavery—Again

It took just 20 years to end the British slave trade. What history teaches us about ending exploitation today.
Adam Hochschild

Adam Hochschild at the ruins of a slave hospital, built in 1797, in the back-country of Jamaica. “Plantation owners built facilities like this not out of the goodness of their hearts, but to keep their slave labor force healthy enough to continue to do backbreaking field work in a tropical climate,” he said. Photo by Horace Campbell.

"The 18th century had its own booming version of globalization, and at its core was the Atlantic boom in slaves," writes Adam Hochschild in Bury the Chains.

Between 1660 and 1807, ships sailing for the New World transported three times as many African slaves as Europeans to the British colonies. To a modern-day audience, even more unthinkable than the systemic cruelty is a worldview that reduces humans to property. "But this was the world—our world—just two centuries ago," Hochschild writes, "and to most people then, it was unthinkable that it could ever be otherwise."

Yet sparking a transformation of this world took a mere 20 years—from 1787, when 12 men who would become key abolitionists first met in a London printing shop, to 1807 when the British slave trade was banned. It’s a powerful reminder that the intense, grueling work of rooting out injustice—even at its deepest—actually can and has worked before.

Hochschild is the award-winning author of numerous historical books, including King Leopold’s Ghost, about the quest to convert the Congo into a vast and violent slave plantation. His books, which explore, in his words, "times and places when people felt a moral imperative to confront evil," remind us just how powerful a small group of visionary, courageous, and persistent people is when faced with a system too evil to ignore.

Christa Hillstrom: You came of age in the '60s. How did that help shape the way you view human rights?

Adam Hochschild: It was impossible to live through times like that—being in the crowd when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech, meeting people in Mississippi who had never been able to vote, and facing the question of fighting in Vietnam—without it having a profound and lasting effect on your life. Once I started writing history, the people I wanted to write about included those who had fought for peace and justice in other times and places.

Stuff Cover

Hillstrom: What captured you about the story of the trans-Atlantic slave trade?

Hochschild: I was just so stunned to find so many organizing techniques we use today—the consumer boycott, the political book tour, the use of powerful graphics, a political logo, a direct-mail fundraising letter, the idea of a national organization with branches around the country, and much, much more—being used by brilliant, and ultimately successful, activists 225 years ago.

Hillstrom: You’ve called slavery an issue that was morally "invisible" to people 200 years ago. How was slavery seen in a slavery-saturated world?

Hochschild: I think it’s hard for us to grasp just how widespread the idea was that one human being could be the property of another. Roughly three-quarters of the people on Earth were in some sort of servitude. I think for 90 percent or more of the population, it seemed perfectly normal. After all, there was slavery in Biblical times; the Romans and Greeks had slaves; the colonial commerce of the 18th-century world seemed to depend on it. The Church of England owned a slave plantation on the island of Barbados. Most people accepted it as the natural order of things. That’s what makes me all the more interested in those who didn't.

"I'm not sure any of this would have happened if there hadn't been a powerful push from huge slave revolts in the Caribbean."

One of the very moving things about the early abolitionists was that they tried to draw connections to things that people couldn’t see. Everyone in England had sugar in their tea, but they didn’t stop to think about who was harvesting the sugar. We deal with similar invisibility today. A laptop or cell phone may well have coltan from Eastern Congo. There may be components assembled by people working in horrible conditions in China. So there are invisible chains that link us to people all over the world, and finding ways to deal with these issues is an important job.

Hillstrom: Given that invisibility, it's all the more astonishing that the people you write about had such vision. Why do some people get it when no one else does?

Hochschild: It's mysterious and deeply moving to me when I find these people. James Stephen, a young lawyer in London, had a very tangled love life and tried to escape it by running off to the West Indies to make his fortune. His first day off the ship in Barbados, he saw a trial of four slaves who were being tried for allegedly murdering a white man. Everyone on the island said the slaves weren't guilty—but they were sentenced to death by being burned alive. This one incident seared him. He later became one of the abolitionists' chief behind-the-scenes strategists in Parliament.

In King Leopold's Ghost, the transformational moment for Edmund D. Morel [a leader in the fight to end forced labor in the Congo] came when he was standing on the dock in Antwerp and seeing ships arriving from the Congo packed to the hatch covers with rubber and ivory. He knew that gathering wild rubber was enormously labor-intensive. When the ships traveled back to Africa, they just carried soldiers and ammo. Nothing was being traded for all this wealth—so it must be being gathered by a slave labor system. That changed his life. Thousands of others had stood on that same dock, loading and reloading the ships. Why had none of them ever thought about this?

Hillstrom: Their epiphanies about the system seemed to humanize slaves for them. Historians used to connect the abolition of slavery to the industrial revolution, but you talk about a revolution of empathy.

Hochschild: In 1787, people were suddenly really empathizing with people they couldn't see who were working in intolerable conditions on the other side of an ocean. The majority of people in England had never seen a black person. It was a marvelous thing that they were able to feel this empathy. The question is, why did a large, popularly based antislavery movement come into being in England when there were half a dozen other European countries that had slave colonies in the Americas, where nothing like it happened?

I think a part of it had to do with the fact that people in England had more democratic rights than in most of those other countries. There was a very strong tradition of free speech.

Hillstrom: Sometimes we mistake the tipping point at the end of a long struggle for an isolated moment of sudden change. What other influences converged to end the slave trade?

"If slavery is wrong, what about gross wealth and extreme poverty?"

Hochschild: People in Europe had been thinking about, talking about, and fighting for basic human rights for centuries. John Locke wrote about the idea that government should be based on consent of the governed, but Locke himself had stock in the Royal African Company, which owned, and traded in, huge numbers of slaves. It takes a while, sometimes generations, for people to realize the full implications of their own ideas.

Also, I'm not sure any of this would have happened if there hadn't been a powerful push from huge slave revolts in the Caribbean. Often these were sparked by news of abolitionist activity in Britain. And certainly the French Revolution of 1789 showed slaves in what today is Haiti that their French masters were deeply divided. It’s no accident that their own massive revolt began only two years later.

Hillstrom: And even women, who couldn't vote, were forcing their voices into the public sphere. What about the sugar boycott?

Hochschild: In 1792, to bring pressure on Parliament, hundreds of thousands of people in England stopped eating sugar. Because decisions about household food-buying were usually made by women, this was a dramatic, pioneering moment in women's activism.

Sugar was the oil of the day: the most valuable single commodity in international commerce. It began as a luxury and then felt like a necessity: you had to have sugar with the naturally bitter tea, coffee, and chocolate.

Hillstrom: Good comparison. Imagining a world without oil is nearly impossible today. In King Leopold's Ghost, Morel saw the Congo as an evil supersystem. Eradicating symptoms like slavery is important, but that doesn’t uproot the system itself. For the last months, we’ve been puzzling over how to reduce the human cost of stuff in a complex, obscure production system. And while we found plentiful points of intervention—people creating solutions all over the world—it's also clear that changing the direction of the whole boat is incredibly difficult.

Hochschild: You're right. It's a massive job to change the entire global economic system. Nobody said it was going to be easy. It’s not going to happen quickly. But you have to take advantage of moments when you have an opportunity to move forward. Take the growth of renewable energy: every rooftop solar panel means less coal and oil coming out of the ground. This is a start. We need—and there have been—a thousand other starts in a thousand other fields.

Hillstrom: Would you say the first abolitionists fundamentally transformed something much bigger than the slave trade when it comes to how we think about self-determination and the treatment of others?

Hochschild: I think they did ignite something that had reverberations far beyond what they first envisioned. Because ending one injustice invites more questions. If people are no longer slaves, shouldn’t they have full human rights? If not, why not? And if former slaves have full human rights, why not women? And if slavery is wrong, what about gross wealth and extreme poverty?

Hillstrom: At the same time, in Bury the Chains you discuss how, even though we win battles against evils like slavery, they keep emerging in different guises. The people in your books fought so hard to end slavery, genocide, and exploitation. Yet here we are, putting together a magazine issue on slavery and exploitation.

Hochschild: Yes, exploitation does still keep popping up again under other names. But still, wouldn’t you rather live in today's world? In this and many other countries, everybody—men, women, people of all colors—can vote; education is universal; most developed countries have a national health care system.

Hillstrom: So in today's world where things like factory collapses and human trafficking happen, how can we spark our own empathetic revolution when it comes to global supply chains?

Hochschild: Empathy is mysterious, and it's often hard to guess what will ignite it, although it can be a powerful force once ignited. Sometimes the spark is a book: think about the effect of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Sometimes it's an image: the diagram of bodies packed into a slave ship, which so shocked people when it was first produced in 1788. All I know is that those of us who care about justice in the world have to make an effort to find those sparks. That's what will make the change spread.