“Bury the Chains” by Alan Hochschild: Understanding the Past

Called Saint Wilberforce, even King Wilberforce by slaves in the West Indies, the man often credited with leading the British movement for the abolition of slavery is portrayed here as deeply conservative: he was against giving more British people the vote, expected women to be submissive, and argued against a cruel slave trade rather than for “too rapid” an emancipation, even at one point voting against the liberation of children born to slaves. He was mainly useful to the abolitionist cause as an MP, close friend to the Prime Minister William Pitt, and a compelling speaker.

This highly readable yet deeply researched “narrative history” focuses on the lesser known characters who in fact played a more fundamental part in the long battle to end the inhumane trade on which many people in the late C18 believed the British economy depended. Author Adam Hochsfield apparently set out with the aim of writing about John Newton who evolved from the callous captain of a slave ship to an Anglican clergyman, rueful abolitionist and writer of “Amazing Grace”. Through his research, the author came to realise that the real force behind the movement was Thomas Clarkson whose prize-winning essay in Latin on the slave trade brought him to the Damascene conversion “that if the contents of the Essay were true it was time that some person should see these calamities to their end”. This led him to travel thousands of miles on horseback to seek out and gain testimonies from those who had witnessed the horrors of the slave trade, and in many cases perpetrated or suffered them directly.

I was surprised by the amount and intensity of interest in slavery amongst workers in the industrial cities like Birmingham, prepared to attend meetings and sign petitions against slavery. Even children brought up in liberal households often gave up eating sugar. It was a different matter in the ports grown rich on the trade: on a tour to promote his autobiography, the remarkable Equiano, the former slave kidnapped from Nigeria who had bought his freedom and became a respected campaigner, asked the influential Josiah Wedgwood to come to his aid if he was seized by a press gang in the slave ship port of Bristol. White Britons were also at risk of being kidnapped and forced to join the Navy, and sailors on slave ships suffered brutal discipline and physical hardship, factors which further fed opposition to the slave trade.

Despite the mountain of evidence collected, including the infamous diagram of the slave ship in which slaves were packed with no room to move, which so shocked even the Tsar of Russia, apparently seeing no parallel between the plight of slaves and his own serfs, it proved impossible to end slavery in British territories until the reform of Parliament in 1832 created enough broadminded MPs to outweigh those whose family wealth depended on the income from plantations.

The case for change was also strengthened by the “crisis in the sugar colonies” caused by the increase in violent rebellions by the slaves in West Indian plantations, which meant they could no longer be relied upon as a source of wealth: St Domingue, now Haiti, “the jewel of the European colonies”, with its rich soil at one time producing a third of the world’s sugar and more than half its coffee, set the trend with its ultimately successful struggle for its independence from France.

Although freedom was clearly a necessity on moral and humane grounds, too often former slaves found themselves no better off in material terms. Those who fought for the British in the American War of Independence in exchange for freedom, had to take such drastic measures as escaping to a grim life in Nova Scotia to escape recapture by slave masters when the fighting was over. Others found that the Utopia of a free state in Sierra Leone was a myth, with the settlement of “Freetown” within sight of Bance Island, the notorious slave trading post for those captured inland and brought to the coast for transport to the West Indies and America.

Although apparently belittled by some academics for being too anecdotal, my sole criticism is that it does not explain with sufficient clarity the crucial 1807 Slave Trade Act which brought the slave trade to an end. Otherwise, this impressive book brings the key players alive, sets the fight for abolition in the context of the times, and encourages reflection on the issues raised.

Of the great campaigners, only Clarkson lived to see the “real victory” in 1838, when some 800,000 slaves in the British Empire became officially free, having served for six years without as “apprentices” for their former masters, who were also compensated with £20 million in government bonds, under a scheme including a Church of England plantation. Obliged to pay for rent and food, ex-slaves often remained impoverished but they were free, one of the first steps in changing the status quo and achieving greater social justice.

Why the Germans do it Better – Notes from a Grown-Up Country by John Kampfner: Wisdom after the Fall

Clearly driven by disappointed rage over the Brexit decision, subsequent bungling of negotiations for a trade deal and incompetent handling of the coronavirus, the author may have over-egged the pudding of German superiority, which his German acquaintances seem to disclaim or at least play down, mindful of the Nazi past which has made them continually self-questioning and reluctant to praise their country. They retain compound nouns for “coming to terms with history”, “culture of remembrance” and “collective guilt”: no longstanding national day ceremonies, no pageantry.

Kampfner sets his analysis in the context of key factors: the post war reconstruction through competent leader Erhard’s “Economic Miracle” with the Basic Law to develop political consciousness and strengthen democracy; the visionary, ambitious, inevitably costly Unification which has raised living standards and reduced pollution in the East, but not without ongoing tensions; the recent absorption of a million refugees with the pragmatic justification of easing an acute labour shortage, but at the cost of triggering the rise of the right-wing anti-immigration AfD.

The author attributes Germany’s relative success to the intelligent way decisions are made reflecting the emotional maturity and solidity of Angela Merkel. From the 1980s Germany diverged from US and UK which opted for more deregulation and a get-rich-quick, “look after number one” culture. Instead, Germans place less reliance on individual acquisitiveness as indicated by their more restrictive shopping hours and a greater tendency to save, even if interest rates low, rather than speculate.

German society is based more on “a sense of mutual obligation, shared endeavour and the belief that people need rules to keep themselves in check”. There is a high degree of consensus in underlying values – commitment to a free market economy involving organised and responsible capitalism with a legal requirement for worker representation on company boards rather than conflict in the work place, and investment in skills and productivity of workers. Wealth produced by the market is redistributed to achieve social justice and reduce inequalities between regions. Small and medium-sized family owned enterprises spread round the country play a major role in creating employment and wealth. They are typified by social awareness and active support for local communities.

If this sounds too good to be true, there are weaknesses and flaws. The Deutsche Bank investment in sub-prime mortgages, and VW’s manipulation of tests on emissions to make diesel cars appear less polluting are well known. Yet I was surprised to learn of: Germany’s slow adoption of digital innovation and Artificial Intelligence; lack of investment in infrastructure resulting in rundown school buildings, crumbling road bridges, unreliable internet and trains that do not run on time – ironical in view of Germanic concern with punctuality; an airport designed to serve the unified Berlin has been delayed for years by a plethora of faults. Austerity measures after the 2008 financial crash meant that the states were starved of cash for vital investment while the central government had run up an embarrassing surplus by 2018.

Despite the growing strength of the Green Party and the good intentions to develop wind and solar power and close nuclear power stations by 2021 and coal-fired plants by 2038, external political considerations like concerns over the reliability of a gas pipe-line from Russia and strong counter lobbying from state-subsidised east German lignite mines may well prevent this.

Although many facts will inevitably date quite quickly, this is an informative and thought-provoking read. It seems we have something to learn from a society in which compromise, cooperation and redistribution to achieve justice are accepted for ethical and practical reasons rather than regarded as naïve extremism. On the other hand, the Germans were rather hard on the Greeks…….

“Second-hand time” by Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich: “Cracking the mystery wrapped in an enigma”

Second-hand Time by [Alexievich, Svetlana]

This is an amalgam of largely unedited and at times remarkably frank, no-holds-barred interviews with individuals and fragments of conversations with groups living in the former Soviet Union after the collapse of communism in the early 1990s. The author’s personal experience of life in Belarus, and her obvious listening skills no doubt helped to draw people out.

Patterns emerge from the diverse accounts. Despite the violence, physical hardship and social oppression, those who lived under Stalin’s regime retain a nostalgia for the past which may at first seem surprising. It must be partly due to conditioning from an early age with the propaganda of patriotic songs:
“World capital, our capital/Like the Kremlin’s stars you glow/You’re the pride of the whole cosmos/Granite beauty our Moscow”.

Yet it also seems related to the past pride in being part of an empire, the sense of purpose in helping to build it through fighting on the winning side against Germany, working with one’s hands to develop it, sending Gargarin as the first man into space. There is also the lost “dream of equality and brotherhood”, and drive to “create Heaven on Earth” – the pining for community spirit and mutual support, overlooking the practice of informing on friends and neighbours. The “sovok” (Soviet man) remains appalled by the current lack of idealism, the preoccupation with obtaining consumer goods (“A Mercedes is no kind of dream”) and rewards for the crooks who control the new market system.

Then there are those born after Stalin’s death in 1953, who grew up reading forbidden books, and conducting endless debates in the kitchen about how life might be changed for the better, half-joking over the risk of a bugged light fitting. They were initially seduced by Gorbachev’s “Perestroika”, even daring on his behalf to brave the tanks on the streets in the abortive coup against him. This made their disillusion all the deeper when the unchained capitalism of the 1990s made them the victims of crooks and violent gangsters, creating large-scale unemployment for the first time, forcing even the skilled and educated to sell their possessions and work as cleaners or flog goods smuggled in from Europe, and reducing to destitution pensioners whose savings had become worthless.

I think the title “second-hand time” refers to the irony of how events have come round full circle in some ways: Russia is ruled in 2020 by an ex-KGB man who has made himself into a modern equivalent of an autocratic Tsar. There is even a “new cult of Stalin” with “everything Soviet back in style, but in the commercialised form of Soviet cafes, Soviet salami, Soviet-themed TV shows, even tourist trips to Stalin’s camps. Young people are reading Marx by choice.

The book also covers the horrors of civil war in areas like Armenia and Chechnya, where different ethnic groups who had previously intermingled came to blows once the iron hand of communist control was removed. The second-class treatment, racial and religious discrimination against migrants like the Tajik street cleaners of Moscow is another troubling aspect of recent change.

Does the lack of editing not only create a book of nearly 700 pages, too long for many people to find the time to read it, but also make for excessive repetition, or does the latter serve to reinforce important impressions? I am not sure what a reader with no prior knowledge would make of all this. Even with the useful chronology of political events from 1953, it is sometimes hard to keep track of exactly what people are referring to. Yet I kept coming across sharp observations and vivid insights which encouraged me to read on. I regret that the author did not do more to sift these out for the reader, although you may feel that the rambling, contradictory nature of the text adds to its power.

It sometimes seems as if the typical Russian man is addicted to vodka, continually beating his wife and children. Women are portrayed as neurotic, hysterical and superstitious, with a self-destructive urge to nurture inadequate men, particularly prisoners, down on their luck, who will inevitably repay their kindness with brutality in due course. Westerners, it seems, can never really understand the tortured, sentimental Russian soul…..But despite the frequent oppressive bleakness, this book encourages readers to form their own understanding of a complex situation of mingled brutal tragedy and poignant humanity. It proves a very powerful and informative aid to grasping the current nature of Russian society and how it has come about.