Resurrection Reading: Bury the Chains by Adam Hochschild

I finished reading this nonfiction account of the campaign to end the British slave trade in late February, about the time I went on blog break. Then, sometime in March I went to see the movie Amazing Grace, a treatment of the same subject, at the movie theater with twelve year old Brown Bear Daughter. I thought the book and the movie dovetailed and gave me a much fuller picture of this episode in history than I would have gotten from either alone.

The push to end the trade in human slaves by British merchants took place in the late eighteenth century and in the early 1800’s, the time of poets Wordsworth and Coleridge, just after the American Revolution (or the loss of the American colonies, as the British themselves would have named it). During the decades that Wilberforce and his supporters worked to end the slave trade, the French Revolution devastated France and threatened the British aristocracy and later Toussaint L’Ouverture led the slaves in Haiti to revolt, and Napoleon became an even bigger threat to the British monarchy. Wilberforce and his cohorts, Thomas Clarkson, Granville Sharp, and others, tried to keep the focus on the abolition of the slave trade, but of course the other events that were shaking their world and forming public opinion could not help but influence the course of their movement. Wilberforce began to campaign against the slave trade in 1787; the trade was finally abolished on March 23, 1807. The movie, Amazing Grace was released on March 23 of this year to mark the 200th anniversary of the abolition by Parliament of the slave trade by British subjects.

“To the British abolitionists, the challenge of ending slavery in a world that considered it fully normal was as daunting as it seems today when we consider challenging the entrenched wrongs of our own age:
—the gap between rich and poor nations
—the spread of nuclear weapons
—assaults on the earth, air and water
—the habit of war.

I don’t know Mr. Hothchld’s political persuasion, but these are the analogies he sees when he compares the campaign to abolish the slave trade to the need to end evil institutions in our time. I immediately see a different analogy: the Abolition of Abortion. These and other similarities have been noted before by others, but they are striking:

It’s all for the best: Slave owners and slave traders argued, outrageously, that the slaves were happy to leave a barbaric existence in Africa, to sail across the ocean in near-luxury on slave trading ships, to work for kind Christian masters on delightful Caribbean islands. The reality was, of course, much grimmer and likely to end in disease, dismemberment, or death for the “happy slaves.”
Abortion proponents argue, outrageously, that aborted children are better off dead. They would not have wanted to be born into poverty or into abusive families. In both cases the claim to read minds and to know that death and slavery are best for another person is hubris and infamously cruel.

Property rights: Slaves were property, argued the slave owners and traders, and couldn’t be freed without compensation to the slave owners.
Unborn babies are the property of their mothers (not fathers for some reason), and abortion cannot be abolished unless we compensate those mothers who will be forced to bear unwanted children.

Out of sight, out of mind: British slaves were, for the most part, far away from England on Carribean island sugar plantations.Abolitionists had to demonstrate the evils of slavery to a population, most of whom had never seen slavery enacted nor even met a slave in person. Some of the British people may have known slave owners, absentee plantation owners, but not know the source of their great wealth. (The Church of England actually owned vast sugar plantations worked by slaves in the Caribbean.)
Similarly, abortion in the United States takes place almost clandestinely. I may know an abortionist, or someone who has had an abortion, probably I do, but I have no idea who it might be.

The Means to Abolition: In his book Hochschild writes that the abolitionists learned that “. . . the way to stir men and women to action is not by biblical argument, but through the vivid, unforgettable description of acts of great injustice done to their fellow human beings.”
I believe that we will end the evil of abortion, finally, not by appeals to Scripture nor even to reason, but rather when we are able to demonstrate to enough people, especially young people, what a violent and abhorrent act it is to murder an innocent child who has barely even had the opportunity to begin his or her life.

The slaves in the British West Indies were finally freed on August 1, 1838. On that date, over fifty years after Wilberforce first took up the cause of ending slavery, nearly 800,000 men, women, and children throughout the British Empire officially became free. In the United States, during the next two and a half decades prior to the Civil War, free blacks in the North and many sympathetic whites celebrated August 1, Emancipation Day, with parades, outdoor meetings, and church services—and with hope that emancipation and the abolition of slavery would come to the slave states of the United States, too.

William WIlberforce’s epitaph in Westminster Abbey:

“To the memory of William Wilberforce (born in Hull, August 24th 1759, died in London, July 29th 1833); for nearly half a century a member of the House of Commons, and, for six parliaments during that period, one of the two representatives for Yorkshire. In an age and country fertile in great and good men, he was among the foremost of those who fixed the character of their times; because to high and various talents, to warm benevolence, and to universal candour, he added the abiding eloquence of a Christian life. Eminent as he was in every department of public labour, and a leader in every work of charity, whether to relieve the temporal or the spiritual wants of his fellow-men, his name will ever be specially identified with those exertions which, by the blessing of God, removed from England the guilt of the African slave trade, and prepared the way for the abolition of slavery in every colony of the empire: in the prosecution of these objects he relied, not in vain, on God; but in the progress he was called to endure great obloquy and great opposition: he outlived, however, all enmity; and in the evening of his days, withdrew from public life and public observation to the bosom of his family. Yet he died not unnoticed or forgotten by his country: the Peers and Commons of England, with the Lord Chancellor and the Speaker at their head, in solemn procession from their respective houses, carried him to his fitting place among the mighty dead around, here to repose: till, through the merits of Jesus Christ, his only redeemer and saviour, (whom, in his life and in his writings he had desired to glorify,) he shall rise in the resurrection of the just.”

The Amazing Change: How You Can Help to End Modern Day Slavery.

Study guide to accompany Amazing Grace, the movie.

Ending Slavery: An Unfinished Business, a study guide on the history and current status of slaves and slavery around the world.

BBC Interactive Map on the Abolition of British Slavery.

Books by and About William WIlberforce.

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