INTRODUCTION: TWELVE MEN IN A PRINTING SHOP
Strangely, in a city where it seems that on almost every block a famous event or resident is commemorated by a blue and white glazed plaque, none marks this spot. All you can see today, after you leave the Bank station of the London Underground, walk several blocks, and then take a few steps into a courtyard, are a few low, nondescript office buildings, an ancient pub, and, on the site itself, 2 George Yard, a glass and steel high-rise. Nothing remains of the bookstore and printing shop that once stood here, or recalls the spring day more than two hundred years ago when a dozen people—a somber- looking crew, most of them not removing their high-crowned black hats—filed through its door and sat down for a meeting. Cities build monuments to kings, prime ministers, and generals, not to citizens with no official position who once gathered in a printing shop. Yet what these citizens began rippled across the world and we feel its aftereffects still. It is no wonder that they won the admiration of the first and greatest student of what we now call civil society. The result of the series of events begun that afternoon in London, wrote Alexis de Tocqueville, was “absolutely without precedent. . . . If you pore over the histories of all peoples, I doubt that you will find anything more extraordinary.” 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 plant, cultivate, and harvest most of the earth’s major crops. They earn no money from their labor. Their work often lasts twelve or fourteen hours a day. Many are subject to cruel whippings or other punishments if they do not work hard enough. 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 this 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. The age was a high point in the trade in which close to eighty thousand chained and shackled Africans were loaded onto slave ships and transported to the New World each year. In parts of the Americas, slaves far outnumbered free persons. The same was true in parts of Africa, and it was from these millions of indigenous slaves that African chiefs and slave dealers drew most of the men and women they sold to Europeans and Arabs sailing their ships along the continent’s coasts. African slaves were spread throughout the Islamic world, and the Ottoman Empire enslaved other peoples as well. In India and other parts of Asia, tens of millions of farmworkers were in outright slavery, and others were peasants in debt bondage that tied them and their labor to a particular landlord as harshly as any slave was bound to a plantation owner in South Carolina or Georgia. Native Americans turned prisoners of war into slaves and sold them, both to neighboring tribes and to the Europeans now pushing their way across the continent. In Russia the majority of the population were serfs, often bought, sold, whipped, or sent to the army at the will of their owners.
The era was one when, as the historian Seymour Drescher puts it, “freedom, not slavery, was the peculiar institution.” This world of bondage seemed all the more normal then, because anyone looking back in time would have seen little but other slave systems. The ancient Greeks had slaves; the Romans had an estimated two to three million of them in Italy alone; the Incas and Aztecs had slaves; the sacred texts of most major religions took slavery for granted. Slavery had existed before money or written law.
One measure of how much slavery pervaded the world of the eighteenth century is the traffic on the Atlantic Ocean. We usually think of the Atlantic of this period as being filled with shiploads of hopeful white immigrants. But they were only a minority of those carried to the New World. So rapidly were slaves worked to death, above all on the brutal sugar plantations of the Caribbean, that between 1660 and 1807, ships brought well over three times as many Africans across the ocean to British colonies as they did Europeans. And, of course, it was not just to British territories that slaves were sent. From Senegal to Virginia, Sierra Leone to Charleston, the Niger delta to Cuba, Angola to Braziil, and on dozens upon dozens of crisscrossing paths taken by thousands of vessels, the Atlantic was a conveyor belt to early deathhhhh in the fields of an immense swath of plantations that stretched from Baltimore to Rio de Janeiro and beyond.
Looking back today, what is even more astonishing than the pervasiveness of slavery in the late 1700s is how swiftly it died. By the end of the following century, slavery was, at least on paper, outlawed almost everywhere. The antislavery movement had achieved its goal in little more than one lifetime.
This is the story of the first, pioneering wave of that campaign. Every American schoolchild learns how slaves fled Southern plantations, following the North Star on the Underground Railroad. But England is where the story really begins, and for decades it was where American abolitionists looked for inspiration and finally for proof that the colossally difficult task of uprooting slavery could be accomplished. If we were to fix one point when the crusade began, it would be the late afternoon of May 22, 1787, when twelve determined men sat down in the printing shop at 2 George Yard, amid flatbed presses, wooden trays of type, and large sheets of freshly printed book pages, to begin one of the most ambitious and brilliantly organized citizens’ movements of all time.
A long chain of events, large and small, led to that meeting. Perhaps the most crucial moment came when Thomas Clarkson, a twenty- five-year-old Englishman on his way to London, paused, dismounted from his horse, and sat down at the roadside, lost in thought. Many months later, he would be the principal organizer of the gathering at George Yard. Red-haired, dressed in black, he was the youngest of those who entered the shop that day, perhaps ducking his head slightly as he came through the doorway, for he was a full six inches taller than the average Englishman of his time. In the years to come, his sixteen-hour-a-day campaigning against slavery would take him by horseback on a thirty-five-thousand-mile odyssey, from waterfront pubs to an audience with an emperor, from the decks of navy ships to parliamentary hearing rooms. More than once people would threaten to kill him, and on a Liverpool pier in the midst of a storm, a group of slave ship officers would nearly succeed. Almost forgotten today, he remains one of the towering figures in the history of human rights. Although we will not meet him until Part II of this book, he is its central character.
There are many others as well, most of whom were not at the meeting that day. John Newton was a slave ship captain who would later write the hymn “Amazing Grace.” Olaudah Equiano was a resourceful slave who earned his freedom, spoke out for others in bondage, and reached tens of thousands of readers with his life story. Granville Sharp, a musician, pamphleteer, and all-round eccentric, rescued a succession of blacks in England from being returned to slavery in the Americas. A London dandy named James Stephen fled to the Wes...