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Bury the Chains — the end of slavery

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Adam Hochschild’s new book, Bury the Chains, shows how black slaves and English workers made common cause, writes Hassan Mahamdallie
Issue 1946
Etching by Albert Laporte of a revolt aboard a slaver. One sailor, who helped put down the revolt depicted, said, “Even though the enemy was beaten, the victory didn’t seem to belong to us yet, and the danger became even greater in front of the resistance
Etching by Albert Laporte of a revolt aboard a slaver. One sailor, who helped put down the revolt depicted, said, “Even though the enemy was beaten, the victory didn’t seem to belong to us yet, and the danger became even greater in front of the resistance

IN 1794 a huge public meeting gathered in Sheffield, swelled by thousands of local metal workers. The words “liberty, brotherhood and equality” — touchstones of the recent French Revolution — hung in the air. The purpose of the mass meeting was to link two causes that burned deeply in the souls of the English working class — for the reform of the corrupt and undemocratic parliamentary system, and for the “total and unqualified abolition of Negro slavery”.

Adam Hochschild says, “In a striking show of solidarity across racial lines, thousands of metal workers attending the meeting unanimously endorsed freedom for the slaves, to ‘avenge peacefully ages of wrongs done to our Negro brethren’.”

Hochschild remarks that the chair of the meeting, the “fiery orator Henry Redhead Yorke”, seemed to approve of armed rebellion both in England and among slaves. Yorke wrote, “Let the African, the Asiatic, the European, burst asunder their chains, and raise a pious war against tyranny.

“Should tyrants… refuse to expiate their crimes… let the PEOPLE roll on them in a tempest of fury, and compel them to expire in agonies.” He was later jailed for two years for conspiracy.

Radical abolitionism

Bury the Chains is a marvellous book. It rights many wrongs. Ever since the end of slavery historians have been quick to paint out any radicalism behind the abolitionist movement.

They have argued that the MP William Wilberforce freed the slaves. Wilberforce was responsible for pushing abolition of the slave trade through parliament, but the role of campaigning fell to far more radical figures.

Most historians have peddled the lie that the British working class were hostile to abolition. Nothing could be further from the truth, as the Sheffield meeting and many other examples show.

Hochschild puts the struggle against slavery in the context of struggles for what we would today call human rights. As such the fight involved linking up the white working class of this island with black people forced to work on the islands of Jamaica and Barbados.

And crucially Hochschild puts back in the centre of the picture the slaves themselves and their life and death struggles for liberty. He shows that the fear and the fact of slave rebellions shook the British state to the core.

The combination of these struggles and the abolition movement at home finally forced Britain to abandon slavery.

The abolition movement can lay claim to be the first modern mass campaign in history. It invented campaign tools such as mass petitions, badges, pamphlets and speaking tours. Like all mass movements it started out as an idea floated by a few committed folk.

The British campaign against the slave trade started out in 1787 when a dozen likeminded men met in premises in the City of London.

They were headed by Granville Sharp and his “organiser” Thomas Clarkson. Hochschild writes of Clarkson, “His 16-hour a day campaigning against slavery would take him by horseback on a 35,000 mile odyssey, from waterfront pubs to an audience with an emperor, from the decks of navy ships to parliamentary hearing rooms.

“More than once people would threaten to kill him, and on a Liverpool pier in the midst of a storm, a group of slave officers would nearly succeed.”


Central to the abolition movement was the mass democratic tool of the petition. This was a time when only one in ten men had the vote. Women were excluded altogether. One of the few ways people could influence parliament was through petitions. Collecting petitions also mobilised people.

In 1787 Clarkson visited Manchester. He feared the population would be hostile—the city sold £200,000 of goods to the slave colonies each year (equivalent to £28 million today). But, to his surprise, he found a mass petition against slavery was already being organised.

Hochschild writes, “Manchester may have been so receptive to abolition because its tens of thousands of workers, flooding into this new ‘town of the uprooted’ from an impoverished countryside, knew what it was like to be strangers.” When the petition from Manchester arrived at parliament it contained 10,000 names, one out of every five people in the city.

A year later parliament had received 103 petitions for abolition, signed by up to 100,000 people. And for the first time then petitions had a “democratic” and even working class flavour.

“At least two dozen of the petitions had their start at public meetings against the slave trade, and one at Leeds explicitly invited signatures from ‘the rough sons of lowest labour’.”

The slave owners and their supporters fought back. Their propaganda included commissioning a play, The Benevolent Planters, in which two black lovers separated from each other in Africa find themselves living on adjoining plantations in the West Indies and are reunited and presumably live happily ever after!

The planters tried to organise their own pro-slavery petitions—but could only drum up four. The planters had a narrow social base, but it was a powerful one with great influence. In 1791 Wilberforce introduced his first bill to end the slave trade. Pro-abolition MPs won the debate but lost the vote when “commerce clinked its purse”.

It was a defeat but it took place against a background of rising militancy sparked by the 1789 French Revolution—Clarkson was solidly pro-revolution, whereas Wilberforce was utterly opposed to it and to any extension of liberty on English soil. The fight against slavery turned away from parliament and once again towards the people.

Blood sweetened beverage

A boycott of the principal export from the slave plantations — sugar, which made tea the “blood sweetened beverage” — gathered pace. About half a million people refused to buy sugar from the West Indies. “Fair trade” sugar grown in India became a fashionable alternative.

But if there was one single act that hastened the end of the slave trade it was the St Domingue revolution. St Domingue (it reverted to its original name Haiti when the slaves took power) was the jewel in the crown of the French economy.

It produced 30 percent of the world’s sugar and more than half of its coffee.

The island had the largest slave population in the West Indies—vastly outnumbering the whites. As one commentator put it, the white elite slept “at the foot of Vesuvius”. The volcano blew in 1791 when the slaves revolted.

They had been stirred by reports of the British abolition movement, but the spark was the revolution of “white slaves” on French soil two years earlier.

A guerilla army was forged by the slave general Toussaint L’Ouverture. This force crushed both the French army and a British military expedition sent to prevent rebellion spreading.

The British had a right to be fearful: “There was no way British planters could contain news of the uprising. Within a month Jamaican slaves were singing songs about it, and rumours spread that slave blacksmiths were secretly forging cutlasses. The slaves seemed to think that freedom was imminent: one who was whipped said to her tormentor, ‘Slapp me again if you please, ’tis your time now, but we shall drink wine before Christmas’.”

Although the revolt did not spread at that point to the British islands, Toussaint and his army had in effect put a time limit on West Indian slavery.

A psychological barrier had been broken on both sides — the slaves now knew it was possible to gain their liberty, and the slave owners could never again feel safe in their beds.

In the years to come slave revolts in Jamaica, Barbados and Demerara, on the South American coast, would make the business of slavery too expensive for the British state to sustain.

St Domingue split the abolitionist movement. Wilberforce retreated and the top of the movement lost momentum for over a decade. Clarkson was not sure that the mass support was there when, in 1807, he prepared for another parliamentary bill to abolish the slave trade.


So Clarkson got on his horse and toured Britain again. He found to his delight that the feeling on the ground was just as strong. This put the wind back in the sails of Wilberforce who succeeded in pushing through a bill abolishing the slave trade.

The abolition bill cut off new supplies of slaves to the plantations. “But to more than half-million blacks in the British Caribbean at work in baking hot fields, sugar mills, and boiling houses, their situation did not seem humane nor the British character pure ermine. They were, after all, still slaves.”

It would take more campaigning and more slave rebellions before slavery in the British colonies was finally abolished in 1833. It would also take a new generation of more radical campaigners to push the fight forward.

Wilberforce had always been against total emancipation, putting it off until some time in the future, but for activists such as schoolteacher Elizabeth Heyrick this was not good enough.

In 1824 Heyrick published a popular pamphlet entitled Immediate, Not Gradual Abolition. She had no problem with defending slave revolts and called on women to spearhead anti-slavery societies. Heyrick led another sugar boycott and called for election candidates for parliament to be vetted on whether or not they supported slavery.

Heyrick was undoubtedly inspired by a new mood against tyranny at home, one which would directly lead to the setting up of the Chartist movement, the first working class mass movement in history.

In 1830 a mass meeting in London relaunched the abolition campaign.

News quickly reached Jamaica, helping to spark a huge revolt across 200 plantations led by slave leader Sam “General” Sharpe. Although bloodily suppressed it was the final nail in the coffin for slavery.

In 1833 a bill abolishing slavery in British territory was passed. When enacted, in 1838, it freed 800,000 slaves.

The campaign had taken 51 years, but it was a massive achievement both by the abolition movement and the slaves themselves. The “winds of freedom” were let loose. As the clock ticked towards midnight 31 July 1838 a Jamaican congregation placed in a coffin an iron punishment collar and whip and chains.

“As midnight drew near, the congregation sang: The death-blow is struck — see the monster is dying/He cannot survive till the dawn streaks the sky/In one single hour, he will prostrate be lying/Come, shout o’er the grave where soon he will lie.”

Bury the Chains — The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery by Adam Hochschild, is available from Bookmarks. Phone 020 7637 1848

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