To me the most staggering thing about the long history of slavery — which encompassed the entire world and every race in it — is that nowhere before the 18th century was there any serious question raised about whether slavery was right or wrong. In the late 18th century, that question arose in Western civilization, but nowhere else.
It seems so obvious today that, as Lincoln said, if slavery is not wrong, then nothing is wrong. But no country anywhere believed that three centuries ago.
A very readable and remarkable new book that has just been published — “Bury the Chains” by Adam Hochschild — traces the history of the world’s first anti-slavery movement, which began with a meeting of 12 “deeply religious” men in London in 1787.
The book re-creates the very different world of that time, in which slavery was so much taken for granted that most people simply did not think about it, one way or the other. Nor did the leading intellectuals, political leaders, or religious leaders in Britain or anywhere else in the world.
The dozen men who formed the world’s first anti-slavery movement saw their task as getting their fellow Englishmen to think about slavery — about the brutal facts and about the moral implications of those facts.
Their conviction that this would be enough to turn the British public, and ultimately the British Empire, against slavery might seem naive, except that this is precisely what happened. It did not happen quickly and it did not happen without encountering bitter opposition, for the British were at the time the world’s biggest slave traders and this created wealthy and politically powerful special interests defending slavery.
The anti-slavery movement nevertheless persisted through decades of struggles and defeats in Parliament until eventually they secured a ban on the international slave trade, and ultimately a ban on slavery itself throughout the British Empire.