Sunday, January 09, 2005

On not being sentimental about abolition

I've been looking forward to reading Adam Hochshild's Bury the Chains Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves for some time, and so was glad to see a review of it in the 9 Jan New York Times together with Though the Heavens May Fall - The Landmark Trial That Led to the End of Human Slavery by Steven M. Wise.

But the reviewer - Marilynne Robinson, who teaches at the Iowa Writers' Workshop and whose most recent novel is ''Gilead'' - does not give either author an easy ride.

Robinson starts with the ringing line "The air of England is too pure for a slave to breathe in.''from the famous 1772, trial Somerset v. Steuart, the ''trial that led [eventually] to the end of human slavery.''

But she points out that there was more than a little chicanery along the way, and that while the abolitionists were extraordinary there is no place for self-regard on the part of the English in general or other most other nations.

She also recalls the extrordinary achievement of Haitian former slaves:

"First the British and then the French under Napoleon sent huge forces against the Haitians. The British sent a larger army against Haiti than it had dispatched to fight in the American Revolution. And it buried 60 percent of those soldiers in Haiti. The two greatest powers on earth went up against a population of half-starved, desperate people and were utterly defeated".

By the end of her review, my first impression is that she has made a forceful point in her criticism of at least one of these books and the intellectual climate in which they arise:

"While every good effect of an important precedent must be welcomed, the fact remains that the claim to an exclusive English purity that is the basis for the legal arguments associated with Steuart v. Somerset was and is a denial of history, a part of the great forgetting".

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