Liberation Conspiracies

<b>By Rebecca Solnit</b><br> A review of: <i>Bury the Chains, Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves</i>, by Adam Hochschild.

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By Rebecca Solnit

Mark Lombardi’s art consists of colossal drawings of networks of power, connecting politicians, capitalists, and corporations into intricate maps, like medieval cosmology or kabbalah diagrams, whose huge arcs and circles linking the small handwritten names are as visually beautiful as they are politically daunting. His most famous work was about the BCCI (Bank of Credit and Commerce International, also known as the Bank of Crooks and Criminals) banking scandal. It linked up the Bin Laden and Bush families long before Fahrenheit 9/11, even before the 2000 election and Bush’s illegitimate apotheosis as president.

New York critic Frances Richard wrote of this work:

“Lombardi’s drawings — which map in elegantly visual terms the secret deals and suspect associations of financiers, politicians, corporations, and governments — dictate that the more densely lines ray out from a given node, the more deeply that figure is embroiled in the tale Lombardi tells…. The drawing is done on pale beige paper, in pencil. It follows a time-line, with dates arrayed across three horizontal tiers. These in turn support arcs denoting personal and corporate alliances, the whole comprising a skeletal resume of George W. Bush’s career in the oil business. In other words, the drawing, like all Lombardi’s work, is a post-Conceptual reinvention of history painting….”

After September 11, 2001, the FBI visited the Whitney Museum to examine his drawings for clues they might yield about the conspiracy that gave rise to the catastrophe.

Lombardi committed suicide in March of 2000, for complex reasons, but it’s easy to imagine him as a character in a Jorge Luis Borges story dying of Borgesian reasons. For his drawings recall Borges’s library of Babel, his Garden of Forking Paths, the Zohar, Zeno’s paradox or the aphorism by Pascal Borges loved, “The universe is a sphere whose center is everywhere and circumference is nowhere.” Borges’s parables and stories are attempts to grasp the infinite complexity of the world, and his version of Lombardi would have died of despair of ever approximating the reach and intricacy of these networks.

Lombardi’s work is often regarded as evidence of sinister conspiracies by people who assume that “they” are thus linked up but “we” are not. We are, actually, at least when we try to achieve anything political. Politics is networks, rhizomes, roots, webs, to use a few of the popular metaphors from the increasingly popular studies of complexity. A more cheerful Lombardi might have charted the links that connect Naomi Klein, the Argentina Horizontalidad populist movements against neoliberalism, the Zapatistas, the Yucatan campesinos who opposed the WTO in Cancun in 2003, the internationalistas who joined them, the US campus-based anti-sweatshop movement, the Sierra Club, Arundhati Roy, anti-Monsanto agriculturalists in India and Europe, on to Nigerian activists now shutting the operations of Chevron (based in San Francisco) and San Francisco activists against Bechtel Corporation (also based here), which links us back to Bolivian activists who beat Bechtel a few years ago. (Thanks to the Internet, speaking of networks, the global justice movement has been able to link causes and confrontations into an unprecedented meta-community able to act in concert internationally.)

In fact, right-wing think-tanks are probably lining up these affiliations and solidarities right now and portraying them as a conspiracy, as they have before. That’s the rule of thumb: When we talk, it’s a network; when they talk, it’s a conspiracy. The sinister thing about Lombardi’s BCCI drawing isn’t that all these people, banks, and governments are linked up, but that they’re linked up to screw you, me, and the world. That is to say, it’s complexity that makes the drawing itself overwhelming, but intent that makes the denizens of the drawing scary.

Awakenings and Coincidences

One can imagine the characters of Adam Hochschild’s wonderful new history, Bury the Chains, Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves, as drawn by Lombardi, such is the complexity of the network Hochschild depicts while tracing the British antislavery movement from Quakers in London to slave rebellions in the Caribbean, from the 1780s when the movement began to the final, long-delayed abolition of slavery in the British Empire on August 1, 1838. The book is both a gripping history of a particular movement and a beautiful embodiment of the erratic, unlikely ways movements unfold — an unfolding that consists of multiple kinds of linkages. If Lombardi’s is post-conceptualist history painting, Hochschild’s book is likewise a kind of post-Great Man history writing, one with crowds, coincidences, and ocean currents looming up behind the key activists he delineates so beautifully.

One kind of linkage is coincidence. Another is friendship and the affinities of interests and emotions upon which friendships are based. Bury the Chains begins, in fact, with two remarkable series of coincidences that deliver up as their results two of the principal activists against slavery. Granville Sharp was the youngest of eight siblings who played music together and shared an evangelical piety. King George III thought he had the best voice in England. His brother, William Sharp, the king’s physician, provided free medical care to the London poor. Jonathan Strong, a slave whose owner had pistol-whipped him viciously about the head and then threw him out on the street to die, came for treatment. Granville happened to be visiting that morning, and the brothers got Strong into a hospital; then, after his months of convalescence, they found him a job with a pharmacist. One day his owner encountered on the streets of London his former property healthy and fit, seized Strong, and sold him to a Jamaican plantation owner, arranging for him to be jailed until he could be shipped to the West Indies. The Sharp brothers intervened and managed to free him. “With this case,” writes Hochschild, “the thirty-two-year-old Granville Sharp became by default the leading defender of blacks in London, and indeed one of the few people in all of England to speak out against slavery. And speak he would, vehemently, for nearly half a century. The fight against slavery quickly became his dominating passion.”

Only one coincidence, the meeting with Strong, made Sharp an activist. But the string of events that brought the most pivotal activist into being was far stranger and more Lombardian. An antislavery activist, Olaudah Equiano, a former slave from what is now Nigeria via Barbados and Virginia whose autobiography later had a huge impact on the movement, saw a letter in the Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser on March 18, 1783. The letter recounted a case involving the British slave ship Zong. Equiano called on Sharp, and Sharp made the case a minor cause célèbre. It was an insurance case, on the face of it. The insurers challenged the claim of the Zong’s captain that he had ordered 133 African captives thrown overboard alive in the mid-Atlantic because the ship’s drinking water was running out. Jettisoning slaves insured as cargo would have led to compensation under those circumstances.

Human rights were never a consideration in the case. But the chief mate, afflicted with pangs of conscience, testified that there had been plenty of water. The murders took place to collect insurance on slaves who were sick and dying and therefore would not, on reaching land, become marketable commodities. The court found in favor of the captain and the ship’s investors. Sharp then wrote indignant letters to several prominent clergymen, who mentioned the case in their sermons and writings.

The case of the Zong was far from over, and as the concerns it raised migrated onward through England, linkages began to build that would spark a potent anti-slavery movement. One Church of England clergyman who took up the case was Dr. Peter Peckard, who soon after became Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University. When it was his turn to set the subject for the school’s prestigious annual Latin composition prize, he chose Anne liceat invitos in servitutem dare? — “Is it lawful to make slaves of others against their will?” It was by no means a particularly likely choice. The Church of England’s Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, governed in part by divinity professors from Oxford and Cambridge, derived significant revenues from Codrington, one of the biggest Barbados plantations. The place relied on branding, whipping, murdering, and constant terror to keep up the labor that worked the slaves to death. Slavery was outside the moral universe that even those propagating the gospel concerned themselves with, as Hochschild points out; the former slaver who wrote “Amazing Grace” worried about all sorts of minor sins long before he noticed that slavery might be a problem.

A scholarship student, Thomas Clarkson, won the 1785 Cambridge Latin Prize after devoting two months to researching and writing about slavery. But the winning mattered little, except that it drew attention to the essay and its writer, who would publish it in English as an antislavery tract. The publisher Clarkson found was a Quaker who introduced him to the few others, also Quakers, who not only believed slavery should be abolished but were willing to work for the great unlikelihood that someday it might be.

This chain of encounters and awakenings steered Clarkson away from a religious career into a passionate championing of the rights and humanity of the slaves in the British Empire. He quickly became the most effective activist the movement would have, one who gave the rest of his life — nearly half a century — over to the cause. Writing, investigating, talking, riding tens of thousands miles on horseback, he recruited, inspired, and connected the recruited and inspired into a movement. The Quakers who had organized a little earlier to abolish slavery had long needed a mainstream Anglican champion. In Clarkson they found a superb one, in close sympathy with them; he was by the end a Quaker in all but name.

Making a Movement

Some activists are born into their disposition and vocation, but many of the most passionate lead ordinary lives until some injustice or atrocity strikes them like lightning and they are reborn dedicated. Clarkson was such an activist, and he even had a transformative moment like Saint Paul on his way to Tarsus: riding to London, he got off his horse and sat down “disconsolate on the turf by the roadside and held my horse. Here a thought came into my mind, that if the contents of the Essay were true, it was time some person should see these calamities to their end.”

With luck and dedication, he became that person. His movements and contacts among slave-ship doctors as well as theologians, Liverpool as well as London, amount themselves to a network whose complexity is comparable to some of Lombardi’s diagrams. Like most high-profile activists, he had a committee behind him — nine Quakers, Granville Sharp, and another Anglican — who with him founded what was almost unprecedented then and common now, a nongovernmental organization, or as the shorthand for them goes, an NGO. (He also circulated the famous diagram of slaves packed into the hull of a ship that his Quaker colleagues published as a poster — a diagram still widely known and one of the great visual icons of inhumanity of all times.)

At various moments during the antislavery campaigns, there were widespread petitions to Parliament at a time when “petitioning” was one of the few rights available to ordinary citizens, sugar boycotts, since sugar was the principal West Indies slave product; local antislavery groups and sympathetic Parliamentarians; all the accoutrements, as Hochschild points out, of later human rights movements. The main sympathetic Parliamentarian was the wealthy, pious William Wilberforce, who opposed labor organizing and other extensions of rights and powers to the underclasses, but devoutly opposed slavery. (In the interim, he argued that whipping should not be abolished, but done only at night: some compromise is strategic, but some — like the Democrats looking for a nicer version of the war — is moral compromise.) Timid and conventional, he made an odd pairing with the radical, far-ranging Clarkson, but they remained friends for life.

Compromise ran all through this movement, or rather some of its members, while others were ardent revolutionists eager to see all the rights of man — and when women took over leadership in the 1820s, of women — granted. In this movement and any other, the utility of compromise is an arguable point (or one can argue instead for a kind of symbiosis of unbending activists and back-room-dealing ones, whereby the revolutionists extend the argument and make the reformers look reasonable — which is how the Sierra Club often looks at groups like Earth First! — and in due time, even revolutionists come to look reasonable, as did abolitionists once they had won).

For example, the movement long campaigned against the slave trade rather than the existence of slavery itself in the British Empire, on the grounds that it was a more winnable battle — and it was. (British sugar plantations were so energetically murderous that they required constant replenishment of the slave population from Africa, which is why it looked as though British slavery, unlike slavery in the United States, could be undone simply by closing down the maritime trade in human beings — i.e., the supply of fresh slaves.) The slave-trade struggle was won in 1807, while the abolition of slavery took more than another quarter century and even then limped forward with a six-year interim period when the slaves’ labor was somehow to further compensate their masters, who had already been compensated in cash for loss of ownership of their fellow human beings. The most radical antislavery activist, Elizabeth Heyrick, had long before suggested that it was the slaves who were due compensation for their lives and labor. Still, the antislavery movement kept its eyes on the prize, clear that it was more important to free the slaves by any means necessary than to punish slavery’s perpetrators.

Clarkson and his colleagues built a network consciously and conscientiously, recognizing that in doing so they were laying the foundations for the undoing of slavery. It stretched from the vast numbers of ordinary citizens who signed petitions and followed boycotts to the sympathetic witnesses who brought information back from Africa for what were, in essence, the first official human rights hearings in history, to the slaves themselves who turned up in London to testify or rose up in the Caribbean. (One of the things that distinguished the British abolition movement from the American was the fierce, effective slave revolts that terrified slaveholders and played a role on the road to abolition.) More fortuitous, or fortunate, or mysterious is the string of coincidences that brought the Zong to trial, the trial to Equiano’s attention, Equiano into friendship with Sharp, Sharp to write to Peckard, Peckard to set the Latin prize topic as slavery, and Clarkson to be as inspired in his Latin as passionate in his conscience. It’s one of those for-want-of-a-nail conundrums: how would it have come about had any element been absent?

Friendships and Atmospheres

Clarkson shows up on the periphery of other histories and other networks. In the 1790s, he moved to England’s Lake District and became close friends with a poet who had also written a gold-medal-winning composition on slavery at Cambridge, this time an ode in Greek in 1792: the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Clarkson’s wife became Dorothy Wordsworth’s close friend and key correspondent, and with this leap from the advancement of human rights to the advancement of British poetry, Hochschild bumps into a dizzyingly broad network of radical ideas stretching from the French Revolution to the vast slave revolution against the French in Haiti.

At that moment, some sense of what it means to be human was shifting, and the antislavery movement was part of that shift, as was the Romantic movement, with its cultivation of introspective awareness and its enthusiasm for liberation and revolution. Clarkson turns up briefly in Jonathan Holmes’s Coleridge biography as someone who supported him in the depths of his opium addiction, while Wilberforce was close friends with Wordsworth’s kindest uncle. Wordsworth himself wrote a sonnet to Toussaint l’Ouverture, who led the Haitian slave uprising, and William Blake and J. M. W. Turner both addressed slavery in their visual art (the moral if not the aesthetic ancestors of Lombardi). Others, such as the Wedgwood family, link the antislavery and poetry movements while branching into the sciences, the invention of photography, and beyond.

Hochschild’s account of all this is certainly testimony to the smallness of Britain’s intelligentsia then, but also to the largeness of ideas about human freedom that were moving through and then beyond these networks, the ideas and passions that constitute the atmosphere of an age. Of all the networks he deals with, this one made up of ideas and ethical stirrings is the most important and the most nebulous. The changed spirit and beliefs that link these people in the first place are explicable up to a point and then ultimately mysterious. Why is it that suddenly slavery, which had existed in one form or another throughout history, becomes urgently intolerable not only to the slaves but to privileged people an ocean away from most of the suffering in Africa and the Americas? What had made the Zong’s first mate testify against his captain about the murder of those slaves? What made a Cambridge student abandon his career in the church and give his life over to a cause? What made tens or hundreds of thousands of anonymous Britons give up sugar, take up letter-writing and committee-meeting? The networks can be traced, but the stirrings remain mysterious.

Without popular opinion at least periodically rising to meet them, Clarkson and the Quakers would have just been eccentrics and historical footnotes, the rebellious slaves a sad side-story, rather than begetters of a new era. Bury the Chains quotes Wilberforce as writing in his diary “How popular Abolition is, just now! God can turn the hearts of men.” But it’s clear that it was other men and women, uprisings and revolts, books and pamphlets that did the turning, that the change was mysterious, magnetic or catalytic, but far from divine.


In both Britain and the United States, women who became involved in the antislavery movement began to question the enslavement of their gender, and so goes another long trajectory of links and steps in the expansive history of human rights these last two centuries. I have been reading another book lately, still in manuscript, my friend Susan Schwarzenberg’s Becoming Citizens: Family Life and the Politics of Disability. The book traces a group of Seattle-era mothers from the birth of their mentally disabled children to the discovery that their children were denied access to public education to those mothers’ engenderment of an educational rights movement. That movement, with interim victories in Washington State, culminated in the 1975 IDEA — Individuals with Disabilities Education Act — some decades after these women decided to change the world to make room in it for children like theirs, not quite two centuries after those nine Quakers and Clarkson met to launch a human-rights movement. The two stories are akin, with initial private moments of realization, the interim building of public associations and communities, and eventually the overhauling of society. Bury the Chains is a kind of template for how the world gets changed, sometimes, for the better. Hochschild’s book, like his King Leopold’s Ghost before it, often reads like an exciting novel, as one character chases another, or an idea, or a ballot issue across the years. But it pauses periodically to take in the larger landscape of change, and its original subtitle was The First International Human Rights Movement.

The book begins with a kind of trumpet cry: “To understand how momentous was this beginning, we must picture a world in which the vast majority of people are prisoners. Most of them have known no other way of life. They are not free to live or go where they want…. They die young. They are not chained or bound most of the time, but they are in bondage, part of a global economy based on forced labor. Such a world would, of course, be unthinkable today. But that was the world — our world — just two centuries ago, and to most people then, it was unthinkable that it could ever be otherwise. At the end of the eighteenth century, well over three quarters of all people alive were in bondage of one kind or another, not the captivity of striped prison uniforms, but of various systems of slavery or serfdom.”

Midway through his story, he halts the narrative to cast about for a reason why the British should have been so much more ready than, say, the French to oppose literal slavery. Here, Hochschild lands upon the essential enslavement of sailors in both the British Navy and its merchant marine, with their press gangs, beatings, kidnappings, horrific conditions and high mortality, which kept the empire whole and the slave trade going. But why should empathy have been extended from sailors to slaves? The answer would make this into another, more speculative book.

The book that Hochschild gives us is valuable instead for its magnificent portrait of how activism works — by coincidences, friendships, patience, and stubbornness, by carefully built networks and belief systems that change slowly or suddenly like climate or the weather. There is the protracted timeline of change: a preliminary state in which almost no one cares about slaves; another moment when it seems like everyone in England does; moments during the Napoleonic wars when it seems like everyone except a few diehards is too frightened — by their own government more than threats from abroad — to say anything about slavery at all; then decades more to go until a final victory. There are interim victories. There are moments of despair. Most of all there are people giving over their lives to a battle that turns out to take more than a lifetime for most of them. And then there are the arguments over how the history will be written — Wilberforce’s sons tried to write Clarkson out of it, and succeeded until 1989, when biographer Ellen Gibson Wilson revived his stature as the pivotal figure in the antislavery movement.

You can think of the nuclear freeze movement, which in 1982 had a million proponents gathered on its behalf in New York’s Central Park, though few of those stuck with it long enough to realize the “peace dividend” that the collapse of the Soviet Empire was supposed to spawn, or to push further the opportunities for disarmament that arose. The current bout of nuclear proliferation can be blamed in part on Bush, but it is due as well to those who expected a three-year struggle rather than a sixty-year one; any eventual victories will be due in large part to the dedicated minority who have not been realistic, not gone home, not succeeded yet — but might. Or think of the anti-apartheid movement, which like the anti-slavery movement two centuries before combined the nonviolent and the violent, governmental and citizen action, domestic and foreign action, boycotts and educational campaigns to dismantle, piece by piece, slowly, with setbacks, a racist regime (but which, with the moderation that made victory possible, though far less of a victory, never dismantled the extreme financial injustices some call economic apartheid). That story, however, is still unfinished. So, for the record, is the global history of slavery. And what was once the British and Foreign Antislavery Society, founded in 1839 to continue the good work after the signal victory of the year before, is still active as Antislavery International, based in Thomas Clarkson House in London.

Rebecca Solnit lives in a dense atmosphere of conspiracies, digressions and marginalia somewhere in San Francisco. Her most recent book, speaking of conspiracy, is Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities.

Copyright C2004 Rebecca Solnit

This piece first appeared at, with an introduction by Tom Engelhardt.


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