Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery

In this book journalist and historian Adam Hochschild delves into what he refers to as the world’s first great human rights movement – the movement to abolish slavery and the slave trade in Britain in the late eighteenth century. Most British school kids learn about the anti-slavery movement but the teaching tends to focus on the role of key parliamentary actors like William Wilberforce, or the revolts by slaves themselves. Hochschild points out that these approaches are missing something vital – the way anti-slavery campaigners developed a strategy of getting members of the public to put themselves in the shoes of slaves and get a taste for what their lives were really like, as a way of inspiring them to take social action. 

The abolitionists ran a highly empathic campaign. They organised for former slaves to give public talks about their horrific experiences, they published oral testimony of the torture of slaves, and published a famous poster of the Brookes slave ship, showing how many slaves could be squeezed on board a slave ship. This was all enough to lead to mass public protest, petitions to parliament, and the world’s first fair trade boycott of sugar from Caribbean slave plantations. The abolitionists, argues Hochschild, ‘placed their hope not in sacred texts but in human empathy.’

It’s an exhilarating read, and one which shows how empathy can flower on a collective level and shift the contours of history itself. The book also offers plenty of lessons for activists and organisations to create empathic campaigns to get members of the public to step into the shoes of people who are suffering or whose rights are being neglected or abused.

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Adam Hochschild
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