- The Washington Times - Friday, February 11, 2005

To me the most staggering thing about the long history of slavery — which has 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 just published — “Bury the Chains” by Adam Hochschild — traces the history of the world’s first antislavery 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 antislavery movement saw their task as getting Englishmen to think about slavery — about the brutal facts and their moral implications.

Their conviction 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 bitter opposition, for the British were then the world’s biggest slave traders and this created wealthy and powerful interests defending slavery.

The antislavery movement nevertheless persisted through decades of struggles and defeats in Parliament until eventually it secured a ban on the international slave trade, and ultimately a ban on slavery itself throughout the British Empire.

Even more remarkable, Britain took it upon itself, as the world’s leading naval power, to police the ban on slave trading against other nations. Intercepting and boarding other countries’ ships on the high seas to look for slaves, the British became and remained for more than a century the world’s policeman when it came to stopping the slave trade.

“Bury the Chains” carries this incredible story forward only to the time slavery was banned in the British Empire. One can only hope that either Adam Hochschild or someone else writes an equally dramatic and compelling book on the saga of the worldwide struggle against slavery.

Chances do not look good. The antislavery movement was spearheaded by people who would today be called “the religious right” and its organization was created by conservative businessmen. Moreover, what destroyed slavery in the non-Western world was Western imperialism.

Nothing could be more jolting and discordant with the vision of today’s intellectuals than that it was businessmen, devout religious leaders and Western imperialists who together destroyed slavery around the world. And if it doesn’t fit their vision, it is the same to them as if it never happened.

As antislavery ideas eventually spread throughout Western civilization, a worldwide struggle pitted the West against Africans, Arabs, Asians and virtually the entire non-Western world, which still saw nothing wrong with slavery. But Western imperialists had gunpowder weapons first and that enabled the West to stamp out slavery in other societies as well as its own.

The New York Times’ review of “Bury the Chains” tried to suggest the ban on the slave trade somehow served British self-interest. But John Stuart Mill, who lived in those times, said the British “for the last half-century have spent annual sums equal to the revenue of a small kingdom in blockading the Africa coast, for a cause in which we not only had no interest, but which was contrary to our pecuniary interest.”

It was a worldwide epic struggle, full of dramatic and sometimes violent episodes, along with inspiring stories of courage and dedication. But do not expect Hollywood to make a movie about anything so contrary to their vision of the world.

Thomas Sowell is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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