One spring evening in 1847, a large and rapturous audience gathered in Essex to hear a lecture by Frederick Douglass, a formerly enslaved and self-emancipated African American. The meeting was so crowded that people were forced outside and the eager amongst them craned their necks to listen through an open window. According to a local newspaper, Douglass spoke for two hours and gave a “very vivid description” of American slavery, and at the end of the meeting many people “pressed forward to shake hands with him” (Essex Standard, 19 March 1847). This incident alone speaks volumes about Douglass’ celebrity – the desire to not only hear him speak but to physically touch him, and to witness a formerly enslaved individual in the flesh. By this time, Douglass had been travelling in Britain for nineteen months and he spoke to thousands of people about antislavery, temperance and suffrage.
Born enslaved, Douglass grew up on the Auld plantation in Maryland. He escaped to Massachusetts in 1838 and married a free black woman, Anna Murray. In the early 1840s, he attracted the attention of William Lloyd Garrison, who enlisted Douglass as a lecturer for his abolitionist society. Garrison helped to publish Douglass’ autobiography, but urged him to lie low abroad as the book would undoubtedly bring unwanted attention from his former owners. Garrisonian abolitionists had an extensive network across Britain, reaching as far as Dublin, Bristol, Edinburgh and Darlington amongst other places. When Douglass arrived in Britain in 1845, he visited those towns where support was strongest, and friends of the cause would usually meet him at a train station or write to Douglass directly instructing him where to meet and whom to stay with. (Webb, to Chapman 1845).
As a result of his powerful voice, people flooded churches and town halls to hear him speak: in one meeting in Leicester, the town hall was “filled literally to overflowing” and hundreds had to return home disappointed, as they could not find a space to listen. (Leicestershire Mercury, 6 March 1847). In an attempt to cope with the demand, abolitionists sold tickets and for one lecture in Newcastle in December 1846, a “special train” left Gateshead station at 10.15pm to allow people from Sunderland and North and South Shields to attend Douglass’ lecture. (Newcastle Guardian, 12 December 1846). The Liverpool Mercury declared it was Douglass’ arrival in Britain that had led to a “revival of that [antislavery] feeling in this country” and in a speech addressing nearly three thousand people Douglass was “received with vehement manifestations of applause” and denounced the religion of the South:
Whips, chains, gags, blood-hounds, thumb-screws, and all the bloody paraphernalia of slavery lie right under the drippings of the sanctuary and instead of being corroded and rusted by its influence, they are kept in a state of preservation. Ministers of religion defend slavery from the bible – ministers of religion own any number of slaves – bishops trade in human flesh – churches may be said to be literally built up in human skulls, and their very walls cemented with human blood – women are sold at the republic block to support a minister, to support a church – human beings sold to buy sacramental services and all of course with the sanction of the religion of the land. (October 28 1846).
Douglass’ powerful language forced British audiences to confront the foul nature of slavery, and he urged British Christians to refute all fellowship with American churches, unless they wanted to support a twisted form of Christianity that relied on torture to sustain an oppressed people. (Dundee Courier, 5 May 1846).
Douglass created several controversies in Britain, the most successful of which concerned the Free Church of Scotland. In 1843, Thomas Chalmers and his supporters separated from the Established Church of Scotland, calling for an institution free from authoritarian control. A new organisation was formed – the Free Church – and to raise money for its survival Chalmers sent a small deputation to America. This mission raised ten thousand pounds, a third of which came from slaveholders in the South. Douglass was outraged at the Church’s conduct, and began his campaign against them in Ireland, seizing on the mantra, ‘Send Back the Money!’ When he reached Scotland, he lectured in numerous towns, including Edinburgh, Glasgow, Paisley, Dundee and Aberdeen (Blassingame, 1979: 240). Mary Welsh, a Garrisonian abolitionist in Edinburgh wrote that Douglass and his supporters had “done wonders in opening the eyes of the public” to the Free Church campaign, and thoroughly believed the excitement was unparalleled in Edinburgh’s history of antislavery (Welsh, 1846). The London Daily News reported that Scotland was “the scene of a movement provocative alike of mirthful and dolorous emotions” and Douglass’ mantra of “Send Back the Money!” was painted on walls and pavements, and thus far had created a “perfect hurricane of indignation.” (London Daily News, 29 June 1846). The campaign raised serious questions as to whether a Scottish church should revoke all fellowship with American slaveholders, a debate which was circulating Britain in the 1840s. Although the ‘blood-stained’ money was never returned, the influence of Douglass, a formerly enslaved individual and powerful orator, was the main reason why the Free Church controversy occurred when it did.
Over the course of nineteen months in Britain, Douglass lectured over three hundred times to thousands of people. In their 15th Annual Report the Garrisonian abolitionists had received more money and donations for their Boston Bazaar than ever before, and a petition signed by over 10,000 women in Edinburgh was sent to the United States as a direct result of Douglass’ agitation. His celebrity led to the formation of numerous antislavery societies, including the Antislavery League, the Free Church Antislavery Society, plus several local branches of the League in cities such as Belfast, Exeter, Bristol and Dundee. He sold 13,000 copies of his narrative and by March 1847 a third British edition was circulating the country.
In contemporary America, Douglass is lauded as perhaps the most famous black American of the nineteenth century. His British adventures are somewhat overlooked but his fame in Britain is beginning to resurface. The International Slavery Museum in Liverpool and the American Museum in Bath highlight Douglass’ life and in 2013 a heritage plaque was erected to Douglass in London. It is impossible to predict whether Douglass’ legacy will become more widespread in contemporary Britain. This same thought must have occurred to British abolitionists when Douglass left for America in 1847. Abolitionist Mary Estlin did not speculate on Douglass’ long-term impact on Britain, but it was clear to her that as Douglass sailed home across the Atlantic, “many hearts had followed him” (Estlin to Chapman, 1847).
Contributed by Hannah-Rose Murray of the Department of American and Canadian Studies at the University of Nottingham.
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