Published in (ed.) J. George The God of All Grace – Essays in honour of Origen Vesantha Jathanna, Bangalore, 2005.


On reading Adam Hochschild’s Bury the Chains: British Christian activists, slavery and opium 1780-1850

(Text written for a Festschrift for an Indian friend)


Paul Jenkins, former Archivist, Basel Mission, Hon. Lecturer in Non-Western History, University of Basel.


It was still possible in the 1980s in West Cornwall[1] to hear rumours of old Methodist families where people drank tea without sugar for a reason. Sugar, it was said, had been the product of the slave plantations of the Caribbean. As a protest in the days before the abolition of slavery their Methodist ancestors had refrained from taking sugar in their tea. And this memory was still strong in a few families which had maintained their Methodist identity in this same relatively remote area for the last two centuries – although hardly anyone in the British population as a whole had any idea in the 1980s that such a boycott had taken place.


This short essay can conveniently begin with the question how a historian should assess this rumour. Was it just another piece of quirky Cornish tradition? Cornwall is, after all, like Wales, part of the “Celtic Fringe” in Britain, and a feeling for a distinctive Celtic/non-English identity lives on there. Or was it a fragment of a serious but forgotten history, a piece of social archaeology which might lead us, as it were, to an unknown civilisation? It does, indeed, turn out to be a fragment surviving from a major Christian activist movement in protest against the slave trade as a feature of early modern globaliastion. And the purpose of this essay is to urge that a consciousness of the successes and failures of this movement – the abolition of slavery contrasted with the failure in the first half of the nineteenth century to check the opium trade – is important for anyone carrying the Christian activist identity, or concerned to understand the way in which religious activism functions in political communities with a democratic touch.


It is perhaps germane to this argument to make it clear that my concern with this issue has an autobiographical background. I grew up in the 1940s and 1950s in a Baptist pastor’s household in South-Western England in which there was no doubt at all that modern England had been decisively shaped by Christian moral sensibilities from the late 18th century onwards. One of the major programmes and major successes of the Christian activists of that time had been, by this account, the abolition of the international slave trade c.1807 and the abolition of slavery in the British Caribbean in the 1830s.


As a student of secular history in the Cambridge of 1960, however, there was nothing in the modern publications I was being set to read to indicate the size, scope or significance of the antislavery movement. On the contrary, our then academic authorities were very sceptical about religious idealism, and the key piece of modern writing on slavery – Eric William’s Slavery and Capitalism (first published in 1944) – denied that the idealism of the abolitionists had any significant impact on the abolition of slavery.[2] Eric Williams became, of course, the first Prime Minister of the independent state of Trinidad and Tobago….like his parallel, the Ghanaian leader, Kwame Nkrumah, I now suspect him of quite deliberately setting out, in the name of nationalism and intellectual independence, to undermine the authority not only of missionaries, but also of indigenous leaders of the churches the missions had founded, by attacking the image of successful idealisms they propagated. But in those days when many young English people were enthusiasts for the decolonised states, this train of thought did not occur to us, and would not, in any case have been accepted in the parameters of the academic study of history. We were expected to judge Williams’ arguments on their merits, with no-one offering the contrary view.


Later in life, as Archivist of the Basel Mission in the 1970s – and as someone interested in promoting good adult education about the history of missions and their non-western partner churches – the lack of a proper popular analysis of the British anti-slavery movement was a serious hindrance to getting Swiss and German people to take a fresh look at nineteenth century Christian activists and their response to globalisation. The conviction that nineteenth century mission had been a regrettable aberration was strong, even among supporters of the Basel Mission. It was clear that they had forgotten the episodes in their own past in which their “ancestors” had acted in a way critical of colonial authority. And an authoritative analysis of what I still suspected was the focal innovative British Christian campaign against the slave trade and slavery would have offered a much more concrete basis than I had for talking about the potential Christian activists have shown for changing the world.


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Academia, perhaps, like nature, abhors a vacuum. Certainly over recent decades a lot of research has been invested in the history of the anti-slavery movement.[3] Its publications, however, have circulated mainly among academic specialists. A new publication in February 2005 – immediately given a very laudatory review by the authoritative London weekly The Economist – has changed that. Adam Hochschild’s Bury the Chains (see footnote 3) sets out to offer a general history of the British anti-slavery movement from the 1780s to the 1830s. Its author is skilled in communicating research results to a broad public. And his intention is clearly to write a general, comprehensive history of how it came about that the British parliament took steps firstly to agree with other nations on the abolition of the international slave trade, and then three decades later to abolish slavery in the area of its main significance under British rule. His text thus touches themes which are not immediately relevant for this essay, not least giving their due to the slave revolts in the West Indies and the impact of leaders like Toussaint L’Ouverture in creating a parliamentary majority hostile to slavery. But the book begins with the formation of a committee of Quakers and Anglicans to fight for the abolition of the slave trade in London May 1787, and its main content is an assessment of the activities of Christian activists linked to this committee over the next five decades.


Hochschild has, in fact, provided us with the presentation of the anti-slavery movement which has been missing during my whole adult life. And the theoretical position I adopted in adult education work on mission during my life in Basel turns out to have been thoroughly justified. He makes no bones about describing the British abolitionists as the first mass movement for human rights in human history – perhaps even more strikingly he describes them as a mass movement to promote other peoples’ human rights. As Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, it was in this respect “absolutely without precedent….If you pore over the histories of all peoples, I doubt that you will find anything more extraordinary”[4] And the people involved showed an extraordinary ability to develop forms of agitation and mass participation – “This small group of people….forged virtually every important tool used by citizens’ movements in democratic countries today”[5]


This is a convenient place to put the Cornish Methodist families’ sugar boycott in context – to outline what research starting with those families would have revealed, if anyone with a sense of the possible links of this tradition had conducted the relevant investigation. It turns out that a sugar boycott was organised as part of the campaign for emancipation, and went through two phases. In 1791 the abolitionists forced a major debate in Westminster on proscribing the slave trade. The motion was, at that stage, easily defeated. Public disappointment was considerable. Britain was enough of a unity, in terms of communication, with many uncensored local newspapers and an effective fast postal service, for the news of this defeat to be widely known and discussed. At the same time the abolitionist movement was already enough of a mass movement for the suggestion that sugar should be boycotted, as the major product of the slave plantations, to gain considerable dimensions as a reaction to this parliamentary disappointment.[6] The logic was clear. If public political pressure – in the sense of press campaigns and massive petitions – could not force parliament to change its mind, public economic pressure could at least make slave plantations less profitable and express individual peoples’ revulsion against slavery. Seventy thousand copies of one pamphlet urging the boycott were sold in the course of a few months in 1791-2. Sober judges put the number of people who joined in at between 300,000 and 500,000, the decline in sugar consumption at one-third – no small matter, since sugar was one of the largest imported commodities in 18th century Britain, perhaps the largest of all. Already in the 1790s women, as those who ran households and bought in food, were strongly involved in the boycott. When the action against the consumption of sugar flamed up again in the 1820s (there had been a lull in the abolitionist campaign after the slave trade had been declared illegal, and during the final decade of the Napoleonic Wars) women played a particularly striking role, not only reviving boycotts, but forming women’s abolitionist committees in towns large and small which were devoted to a much greater radicalism than the established committees in which men had the say[7]. Over four years in the 1820s, 80% of the households of Birmingham were visited by woman canvassers urging the sugar boycott and other forms of support for the anti-slavery movement.


What, however, inspired this popular movement? Hochschild offers two points where slavery and the slave trade touched people in Britain and inspired resistance. The first, extremely important in triggering the movement, was the fact that there was quite a big black population in large British cities, especially London. This ranged from Africans who were clearly free and part of even elite families to others in poor quarters constantly in danger of being kidnapped and shipped back to the Caribbean as slaves. Cases occurred which became famous in which English people, who had enjoyed normal social intercourse with black people, intervened to prevent the violent forced return to slavery of individuals with whom they were in some way in contact. In this way a relatively small, if influential, group of people developed in London who understood the meaning of slavery for Africans and were determined to do something about it.


The rapid development of a massive abolitionist movement in almost all the major towns and cities of Britain involved a rather different mechanism and was based on something different from personal contact. Hochschild describes this as the first successful application of investigative journalism to a campaign in modern history. The hero was Thomas Clarkson.[8] Clarkson, in 1787 a recent Cambridge graduate and Anglican ordinand, was the only paid employee of the Committee founded in that year, and was selected to promote the abolitionist cause publicly because of a major Cambridge prize essay he had researched and written – in Latin – about the evils of slavery. Hochschild is very enthusiastic about Clarkson, and writes that his autobiography is still a classic description of the investigative journalist’s art. And he describes vividly how, in the 1780s and 1790s Clarkson spent months on horseback, seeking out people who had experienced the slave trade, were ready to talk about their experiences, and would be prepared to testify before two important hearings instituted in London by the Privy Council and the House of Commons. The information he obtained he packed into publishable units – in the daily newspapers, for instance, or in important books put out by a member of the 1787 committee who was also a printer and publisher.[9] Finding witnesses involved Clarkson in working in some danger in the two great home ports for slavers, Bristol and Liverpool. It gave him the supplementary but very important theme of the harsh treatment and high death-rate of English sailors on the slave ships – a subject which helped him to mobilise English horror at the trade in general. And it turned out that some of his most important witnesses were doctors he found, who had been taken on slave ship voyages to try to ensure that the health of sailors and cargo was as good as possible, who were horrified at what they saw, and as educated people could give the kind of testimony which would be taken seriously by the influential and mighty.[10]


One of Hochschild’s great virtues is that he so evidently enjoyed investigating this subject. He has written a substantial book not overloaded with information, but with plenty of the sort of detail which allows the reader to analyse situations for him- or herself. This means that he is not offering a curtailed analysis of, or a superficial hymn of praise to, the abolitionist movement. This is history “warts and all”, a text which allows for differentiated analysis of what happened. This can be seen, for example, in one very important field – his account of the way that the abolitionist movement actually functioned in the House of Commons. An extremely important early development was that the 1787 committee very quickly won over William Wilberforce as their main spokesman in the House of Commons.[11] Wilberforce, at that time a young MP, was known as an Evangelical Anglican, and was later a major figure in the “Clapham Sect”. His high-level eloquence was famous. But he was a very conservative figure in most respects, a gentleman who did not enjoy attacking individuals, and after a while he seems to have settled into the habit of repeatedly introducing a bill for abolition in the House of Commons without addressing the question of how the defeated minority could become a victorious majority some time in the foreseeable future. The parliamentary vote for the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 was decisively influenced by a lawyer specialising in the law of the sea, James Stephen[12], who knew that many of the supposedly neutral ships carrying slaves to French colonies during the Napoleonic Wars were in fact British ships flying the US flag. A measure making it illegal for British ships to carry slaves for the French gained a majority in the House of Commons in 1806, decisively weakened the pro-slave-trader lobby, and paved the way for the measure which was passed to abolish the slave trade generally in 1807. Stephen stands for the political intelligence, the need to apply skill in political manoeuvring, which was also a major part of the abolitionist movement.[13]


So the Abolitionist movement deserves to be seen as a high point in the modern history of Christian activism in Great Britain, and indeed Europe. Over decades Christians came gradually to understand that slavery was an offence before God – and that in a world in which slavery in one form or another was a normal and accepted fact of everyday life. One major component of their hostility to slavery was undoubtedly the Anglo-Saxon traditional idea of freedom. (could a human being on British soil be kept in bondage? Of course not.) But it is no coincidence that the 1787 committee was founded by Quakers and Anglicans, and that in the course of Hochschild’s account Methodists and Baptists are also prominent – this was a movement fired by the general Pietist/Puritan insistence, in the decades around 1800, that human society could be reformed and built up new according to Christian ideals. From this basis a broad and powerful movement developed from the late 1780s, operating in the very pinnacle of British power in the House of Commons – and among womens’ committees in many towns and cities. It articulated a public campaign such as had never been seen before anywhere in the world. Hochschild, who shows no signs of being particularly pious, seems, among other things, to be issuing a call to the Christian activists of today to hold their heads high, and not to give in to a world which regards them with suspicion, or doubts their ability to grasp and respond to real problems.


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It would be nice to be able to leave this discussion at this point, on a wave of feeling good about forgotten past achievements, and filled with dreams about what people like us would like to achieve in the future. But there was another issue in incipient globalisation in which Britain and Britain’s Christian activists were involved in the first half of the nineteenth century, an issue in which they were appallingly slow to see what was going on, and where they suffered a key defeat in the House of Commons not many years after the successful vote to abolish slavery. That was the history of opium, produced in the hinterland of Calcutta and smuggled into China, in spite of Chinese government regulations, for many decades. It was also the history of the “Unequal Treaties” following the Opium Wars of 1839-40 and 1856-60 in which the British Government (and the Western international community) enforced free trade in opium – and open access to China for Christian missionaries.


On this theme too a certain autobiographical background is important. At home when I was young we may have discussed the history of the Abolitionist movement. I do not think the Opium Wars were ever mentioned. Nor were they something “every history student should know” in the Cambridge of 1960. I began to sense that there was a concealed scandal only when I began to accompany research work in the Basel Mission archive over the decades. But it was Jon Miller’s essay on British missionaries and the Opium Trade (see footnote 14) which opened my eyes to this theme and warned me how appalled we need to be about this episode in the history of our Anglo-Saxon tradition of Christian activism.


Unfortunately we have, as yet, no Hochschild writing about this theme. The sources on the history of opium in their specific reference to British missions have, however, been collected and analysed by the University of Southern California sociologist Jon Miller.[14] From this research certain vital points are quite incontrovertible. Firstly the amounts of opium being smuggled into China in – say – the 1830s, are impressive. They are certainly to be measured in the high hundreds of thousands of Kilograms per year – perhaps even at the level of 1 million Kilograms per year. And we who have experienced the impact of drugs on the population of Europe in recent decades can have some idea of the malign impact this trade must have had in China.


Secondly, judging by the quantity involved and its strategic importance, opium production around Patna and Benares must have been a major occupation there and a major source of wealth. But the ethics of opium production seem not to have been an issue for the British missionary societies working in this region, at least not until the 1840s. Indeed Miller’s investigation of the correspondence of William Carey (someone who was basically very interested in agriculture) has turned up no reference to opium at all.


Thirdly the missionaries on the China coast in the decades before the First Opium War were closely involved with the communities of merchants who were supplying the opium for smuggling into China. Of course, until the founding of Hong Kong in 1842 there was no way of living on the China coast other than in the merchant communities permitted by the Chinese government. But the contact was closer than that of two groups with a common identity merely living together. Most British missionaries were primarily employed by the trading companies as translators and secretaries and did their missionary work – especially at this stage studying the Chinese language and translating the Bible and other Christian documents – as it were “on the side”.


Jon Miller’s primary arc of investigation concerns the question how missionaries and missionary societies – individuals and groups with a high regard for the truth they are currently propagating – come to change their minds about what they are doing. With regard to opium, Miller writes in a key sentence “missionaries began with silence, occasionally tilted into connivance, and ended with challenge” – though this challenge is largely a matter of the

second half of the nineteenth century.[15] Nevertheless his work does enable us to attempt analyses in parallel to that offered on the anti-slavery movement by Adam Hochschild. His geographical focus is primarily directed to the South China coast and to the regions around Patna and Benares, so detailed Hochschild-type information on what was going on politically in Britain is, largely, missing. But he does make one point clear. The decision to pursue British interests in China by war was taken in the House of Commons in 1839. One factor in creating this majority was the parliamentary work of a merchant in the China trade whose name is still famous – William Jardine (of Jardine and Matthieson ). As a member of the House of Commons Jardine seems to have been much more successful in his advocacy of the opium trade than the pro-slavery lobby had been in the fifty years before. This defeat for political forces in Britain who were beginning to see the opium trade as the scandal it was creates an immediate parallel with the history of the abolitionist movement. At the crucial moment it seems that the talents of a James Stephen were missing among the anti-opium forces. And had there been an anti-opium Clarkson? Were Quakers as active in their opposition to the Opium trade? I, at least, do not know the answer to these questions.


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This short essay has been about memory and consciousness, about forgotten successes, and forgotten failures. It has concerned the broad Anglo-Saxon intellectual community, and the specific Christian segment of that community. One would expect both groups to have had a fairly comprehensive knowledge of their recent history. But this seems not to be the case, at least when we refer to the history of Christian activism.


The immediate operational importance of the material discussed here concerns relations between the Christian world and China. “We” may have forgotten the close links between the opium trade and Christian missions in the first half of the 19th century on the Chinese coast – but the intellectual community in China remembers. At a time when unreformed, un-decolonised ideas of crusades and mission are again in the ascendant in parts of the West, it might be well for us all to spend time and energy recalling this scandal in Christian history, and reflecting on its implications.


The emphasis on China, Africa and the Caribbean in this essay could, in a more extended context, be brought to include the history of India. The history of key votes in the House of Commons on critical issues in globalisation needs to be extended by reference to the two votes to renew the charter of the East India Company in 1813 and 1833 – both of which inspired a debate about ethics and relations between cultures, commerce and religion.


But the main issue seems to me to be more general. It cannot be good if something as potentially iconic as the history of the anti-slavery movement in Britain is so radically forgotten that it might never have been. A differentiated view of its successes and failures could provide a sort of “Acts of the Apostles” to inspire later generations – and to warn them about the complexities of the situations in which Christian activism has to operate. Moreover the variety of different callings which file before our eyes as we read Hochschild – ordained theologians gradually changing their minds about the morality of the world around them, Christian business men devoting their organisational talents to an early NGO, brilliant journalists, men of principle in public life, politicians capable of bringing together new coalitions, women breaking out of their subordination to the male sex and family organisation – deserve our careful attention. Successful Christian activism is not fundamentalist, authoritarian and simplistic, but integrative and many-sided. It is not automatically successful, but has to live from the ability to create political majorities and inspire grass-roots support. Happy is the Christian activist, man or woman, with wide sympathies, a sense of the different talents God has given His people, and an ability to relate to them all, high and low.


[1] For readers not familiar with Great Britain, West Cornwall is the most south-westerly district of England. You reach it conveniently by travelling the historic main railway line from Paddington Station in London to Penzance, a few miles short of Land’s End. At the time of the Abolition campaign Cornwall in general was a major world centre of metalliferous mining. Since then the area has declined steadily in economic significance, and is the original home area of many British immigrants to the USA, South Africa, Australia etc, It now counts as one of the poorer regions of Europe, qualifying for European Community aid.

[2] Williams, Eric Capitalism and Slavery, Chapel Hill, 1944.

[3] See the Bibliography and notes in Hochschild, Adam, Bury the Chains – the British Struggle to Abolish Slavery, 467 pp., New York and London 2005, here pp. 373-447.

[4] Hochschild, op cit p. 1.

[5] Hochschild, op cit p. 6.

[6] Hochschild, op cit pp. 192-196

[7] Hochschild, op cit pp. 324-7.

[8]   If I had more space I could also write about the ex-slave publicist, Oulado Equiano, whose influential autobiography was published at this time, and who travelled through Britain giving public readings.

[9]   The history of the Abolitionist Movement as a communication phenomenon occupies Hochschild for many fascinating pages. He discusses, as one example, the drawings of the slave ship Brookes, produced by abolitionists in Plymouth, and put at Clarkson’s disposal. It became, according to Hochschild, an “iconic image”: “You have seen this diagram. Rare is the illustrated schoolbook of world history….that does not show the famous top-down schematic view of the Brookes, with the slaves’ bodies as close together as anchovies in a can. Part of its brilliance was that it was unanswerable. What could the slave interests do, make a poster of happy slaves celebrating on shipboard? Precise, understated and eloquent in its starkness, it remains one of the most widely reproduced political graphics of all time.” (Hochschild, op cit, pp 155ff.)

[10] One interesting feature of Clarkson’s work is that people like innkeepers in the main ports who were involved in recruiting crews for the slave ships, typically through getting sailors drunk enough to sign on, were indeed prepared to speak to him knowing full well that he was investigating what was happening in order to get it changed. Lincoln Steffen, the great muck-raking American journalist of political corruption c.1900 met the same phenomenon – people deeply involved in corruption who unburdened themselves when faced with an honest observer who intended to do something to change the situation.

[11] Hochschild, op cit, pp. 122-124. One of the serious questions about the anti-slavery movement, incidentally, is how principled Christians could operate in the deeply corrupt pre-1832 British political system. Hochschild shows, with Wilberforce, that there were degrees of corruption. Wilberforce was a man of principle who did not give his vote lightly in the House of Commons. But even this man of principal understood that at election time he had to make the appropriate gestures to his (small) electorate, keeping, for example, a record in which he noted which part of a roast chicken each one of them liked best when called to join in an election banquet….

[12] In his general effort to upgrade the historical reputation of the Abolitonists, Hochschild points out how many distinguished Victorians and Edwardians were descendants of key figures in the movement. James Stephen, for instance, was the Great-Grandfather of Virginia Woolf. (Hochschild, op cit p. 353).

[13] Hochschild, op cit, pp. 301-3.

[14] See Miller, Jon and Stanczak, Greg, “Religion, Commerce and Politics: British Missionary Societies, the East India Company, and the India-to-China Opium Trade”, an unpublished 23,000 word essay. Corresponding author: Jon Miller, <> , fax 001 213 740 3535.

[15] One new landmark for me in the history of Christian activism and Christian critiques of social and political situations is, following my reading of Miller and Stanczak op cit, the Canton periodical China Repository, founded by the American missionary Elijah Bridgeman in 1833. Much of the early discussion between merchants and missionaries about the morality of the opium trade went on in the China Repository, beginning in 1836.