Hidden Chains

Issue section: 

John Charlton, Tyne Bridge Publishing, £10

John Charlton's book on the slave trade in the North-East of England is a regional history with a far wider - transatlantic - reach.

But it is not just a book. It is a research project dedicated to trawling through archives to look for evidence of the slave trade and its opponents, and a popular local history initiative that has seen its author go on a speaking tour to explain what the project has uncovered. That has led to numerous reviews in local papers and no doubt, welcome publicity for the North East Labour History Society that Charlton helps to run.

The book explains the origins and development of the anti-slavery movement in the North-East, underlining its connections to religious dissent and the role played by prominent Tyneside politicians. At the same time it demonstrates the huge popular support the movement had and seeks evidence, previously ignored, of women's support for anti-slavery petitions at a time when politics was very much a male sphere.

Charlton expertly links the situation on Tyneside with national political developments, again taking the book beyond the reach of a local history. He underlines how opposition to slavery ebbed and flowed between the late 18th century and the American Civil War in the 1860s, sometimes relying on a handful of dedicated activists, at other times blossoming into a mass movement.

In the second half of the book the focus is on the North-East slave trade itself. This has remained largely hidden from history, with the centres of the slave trade taken to be Bristol and Liverpool. Newcastle was not in the same league, but the links between ships sailing out of the port and sugar plantations and slavery are expertly teased out - the hidden chains as Charlton calls them - underlining how slavery was intrinsic to the developing capitalist economy of the region.

The story ends in the 1860s with a new generation of anti-slavery activists, led by the radical Tyneside MP Joseph Cowen, agitating not just for emancipation of slaves but making the political point that black and white workers were "brothers".

A point that immediately strikes the reader is the production quality of the book with its numerous colour plates. But this is not a coffee table book. The pictures, often of notices for anti-slavery meetings and petitions, are both intrinsic to the subject matter and serve to underline that the book is the product of a significant research effort.