The history of the United States is full of stories of brave men who fought tyranny in order to create a land of the free and the home of the brave. Students' first experience with history relates tales of the Founding Fathers who fought the American Revolution and won. Their actions allowed this country to break away from Great Britain and become an independent and autonomous nation where all men were created equal. This naive believe in the founding of the United States, however, overlooks a series of crimes against humanity both on the shores of America and in the islands of the Atlantic Ocean, such as Jamaica. Much of the American and then the world economy were built upon the bloodied backs of enslaved black men, women, and children. Throughout the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries shiploads of slaves from Africa were sent across the Atlantic to work themselves to death in the American south in the islands of the Atlantic, like the Caribbean sugar plantations. The attitudes of the white majority in these areas were that all of the darker skinned people in the world were naturally inferior because of the color of their skin. Unwilling to continue on in this vain for generations into the future, there were several groups who went on to rebel against the slave trade by any means necessary. In the books Bury the Chains and Revolution in the Caribbean, authors Dubois and Hochschild delve into the various steps taken by these many factions who refused to longer participate in a system which they determined was both highly immoral and wholly unethical. In order to abolish this most inhumane of practices, it took some actions that were violent in nature, but also many nonviolent philosophical debates in homes and courtrooms in order to save human beings from slavery.
In combating the slave trade, abolitions led a political campaign to force governments into realizing the truth of their positions, that no man has the right to enslave or own another man through any criteria, but particularly based upon the difference between a man's skin color and that of the majority. The British who wanted to abolish slavery took to the media through pamphlets and newspapers, and then to the courtrooms that there would be a legal precedent outlawing components of slavery. This legislation would slowly but surely chip away at the legalization of slavery until there was no foundation in British law for the keeping, selling, or trading of slaves both in Britain itself and throughout the empire.
The British were initially highly involved in the slave trade. Not only did the British Empire enslave Africans and put them to work on plantations and in servitude in British colonies, but they also sold slaves to the United States and other countries, strengthening their economy by causing misery and death to other beings. In Bury the Chains, Adam Hochschild writes: "Among the sounds that defined the world of British slavery were the clatter of chains on slave ships and, on Caribbean plantations, the pistol-like cracks of drivers' whips, marking the start of work in the fields before sunrise, meal breaks, and the workdays' end" (41). Sugar was a major commodity on the continent because of its lack of availability and its inability to be grown. Consequently, the importation of the product was serious business. 6.3 million gallons of sugar were being imported to England every single year (Hochschild 54). In order to meet this demand, more and more crops had to be grown in the Caribbean. The plantation would need to utilize the services of more men to harvest the crops they had planted. Only through using slave labor could the plantations service the needs of British citizens. As long as there was a need, white plantation owners would live like kings while the Africans toiled and suffered to harvest the sugar.
In order to abolish slavery, there were moments of violence but much of the battle over the righteousness of the practice took place in courtrooms and government houses and the weapons which fought over the issue were law books and reason. One such case was that of a black man named Jonathan Strong who was badly beaten and left to die in the streets. He was represented by one Granville Sharp who found slavery to be antithetical not only to the legislation of the British law but to the religious position of a Christian man. After and during the incident, Sharp took it upon himself to turn public opinion against slavery, even writing a treatise "On the Injustice and dangerous Tendency of tolerating Slavery, or even of admitting the least Claim to private Property in the persons of Men, in England" (Hochschild 46). This pamphlet put forth the argument that neither in the eyes of the law nor in those of God should a man be deemed subservient to another because of his ethnic differences. His victory in the Strong case and in several subsequent cases forces the British public to acknowledge and understand the realities of the slavery issue.
There were similar debates in many countries throughout Europe including in France where they were facing their own Revolution against an oppressive government (Dubois 144). France had fewer colonies than Britain, but still was heavily interested in the slave trade using slave labor to harvest crops and export goods to the European continent. All imperial nations benefitted financially from the use of slave labor because they could ill-treat their workforce through rape and savage beatings to force them to work all the harder. Additionally, there is no cause to pay slave laborers for their work, no matter how many hours they toil or how dangerous the work. There is no cause to pay for aid if any of the slaves are injured. Taking care of slaves could be nothing more than allowing them to have a crudely constructed hut which they would have to fix themselves and giving them just enough food and clothing on which to survive. There was no time off for vacation, no hardships to hear about. Slaves could be kept as farm equipment, like taller cattle and there was nothing it seemed anyone was willing to do about it. That is how it was before abolition.
It becomes clear when looking at both the British and French responses to the slavery issue, that there was a dual consciousness about slavery and imperialism. By opposing the oppression of Africans by whites, they were also making political and philosophical statements about their own governmental oppression. In the United States, the colonists had rebelled against the British government because they felt that their needs and best interests were not being considered by the king. In France, the people rebelled violently because the common folk in the street were starving to death while members of royalty lived lives of abject luxury and opulence. Whites had made actions which illustrated they would no longer be ruled by those they felt did not want what was best for the people of that nation. So, when faced with the question of enslavement, the people had to look inwardly and either fight against slavery or decry themselves as hypocrites of the highest order. One cannot seek autonomy and freedom for the self without understanding how others are oppressed. The inverse was also true. A person who showed himself to be antislavery could use the arguments about the corrupt nature of enslavement to show how colonies of imperialist nations were oppressed and forced into a kind of servitude to the home country. Either by relating imperialism to slavery or vice versa, the two concepts became intrinsically linked in philosophical debates and political decisions throughout the world.
The books Slave Revolution in the Caribbean and Bury the Chains deal with the various components of creating change in the world. In the books, the most important themes are the act of revolution itself coupled with rebellion and resistance which lead to the revolution. In Bury the Chains, for example, the author makes it clear that there were not just a few attempts at revolution, but rather than be distraught over their failure, slaves continued to fight against their oppressors (Hochschild 37). In fact, not only did the slaves refuse to remain in bondage without upheaval, they made more and more violent attacks on the first step towards revolution is the rebelling against the repressive and oppressive regime.
Before many other countries adopted similar policies, the British abolitionists determined that they could no longer participate in the institution despite the economic boon the practice provided. In order to abolish the practice, British anti-slavery advocates had to use strategy which would allow others to agree with their position and relinquish their interests in the slave trade as well. One of the first groups to openly oppose slavery was the British Quakers (Hochschild 78). These people were largely ignored by the general population, their own selves, being…