By Shelley Marsden
IF ever there was an opportune time to pen a book about slavery’s great abolitionist Frederick Douglass, this was it.
The Oscar-winning film 12 Years A Slave), Colum McCann’s novel TransAtlantic and President Obama’s 2011 speech in Dublin, which name-checked him, have brought slavery – and Douglass – back into public consciousness.
Obama’s said during his Dublin speech: ‘When we strove to blot out the stain of slavery and advance the rights of man, we found common cause with your struggle against oppression. Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave and our great abolitionist, forged an unlikely friendship in Dublin with your great liberator, Daniel O’Connell.’
Douglass, a slave from birth, escaped his Maryland home/prison in September 1838 and went north to New York and then Massachusetts where he was welcomed on stage at anti-slavery meetings.
He rose to prominence in early 1840s America as one of the leading anti-slavery activists and speakers. He came to even further prominence when he penned his 1845 memoir, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. It caused a wave of consternation in America, and he was advised to get out of dodge for a while, which is how he ended up in Ireland, then Britain, for the bones of two years between 1845 and 1847.
Cork writer Laurence Fenton, has now written Frederick Douglass in Ireland – ‘The Black O’Connell’ (Collins Press), a compelling account of the escaped slave’s visit to Ireland in 1845, exploring why he was so inspired by his four-month stay in a country on the brink of famine.
Douglass delighted in the openness with which he was received there, writing that ‘the chattel became a man in the soft grey fog of the Emerald Isle’. But he was shocked at the poverty he encountered and was conflicted at asking an impoverished people, especially those suffering the effects of the potato blight, to help strangers in a far-off land.
Laurence Fenton, the author of said what convinced him there was a book in the man’s story was the timing of it. “He arrived just as the Great Famine was beginning, and as he travelled through a good part of the country, I thought it was also a good opportunity to use his journey as a portrait of Ireland on the cusp of the famine.”
As Laurence’s book portrays, Douglass’s time in Ireland was an adventure from start to finish, beginning with his journey across the Atlantic. Aged 27, the first time he’d set foot outside of America was his three-week boat trip, to a country he’d heard of but didn’t really know.
During the choppy journey over on The Cambria, he was invited to give a speech about slavery, but a number of the passengers were pro-slavery Americans, so there a ruckus ensued in which there were threats to throw him overboard – only quietened when the captain threatened to put the troublemakers in chains for the remainder of the journey.
It was a busy time for him in both Ireland and Britain. He was welcomed in most places, but there was a bit of controversy in Belfast at one point over his attacks on the free church of Scotland, with placards appearing reading ‘Send Home the Nigger’. When he got to England, Douglass met leading statesmen and editors like William Gladstone. A group of English abolitionists eventually bought his freedom so, when he did return to America in 1847, it was as a free man.
Laurence’s book gives the impression of a passionate, but sometimes difficult man. Says the author: “He was tall, striking and impressive but yes, he could be prickly. He fell out with plenty of people including Richard Webb, a Quaker who organised his visit to Ireland, a friend of William Lloyd Garrison – head of the abolitionist movement in America. Douglass and Webb fell out quite spectacularly, and for years afterwards Webb would snipe about him to others.
He adds: “Douglass was very alert to any signs of condescension and would react strongly. You have to remember, he was a slave in the South, but when he escaped north it wasn’t lovely there – there was still racism and segregation. He could be a difficult man, but I think that’s forgivable when ever fibre of you is committed to a great movement.”
As for Ireland and the Irish, Laurence says Douglass he not only liked the place and its people, who gave him an extremely warm welcome, but he credited the country with changing his view of the world. He made sure during a tour of Europe that he returned to Ireland in 1887, the place had affected him so much.
“As soon as he was in Ireland, he was writing back marvelling about how he was free to go wherever he wanted, whenever he wanted. He felt a great sense of liberation”, explains the author.
“There was no ‘White Door’ or ‘Coloured Door’ –it encouraged him to be more his own man as opposed to America, where he’d been a lieutenant to people like Garrison and other abolitionist leaders. After Ireland, he was happy to go his own way and when he returned home, left the Garrison movement, set up his own newspaper and became his own movement, in a way.”
For more, see this week’s edition of the Irish World newspaper (August 9)