Monday, March 6, 2017

Frederick Douglass -- To England and Ireland
 
Frederick’s voyage to England during the summer of 1845 mirrored what he had endured and fought against the past three years.  Traveling with white abolitionist James Buffum, he was segregated from white passengers on the steamship Cambia and forced to accept steerage accommodations.  Buffum had tried unsuccessfully to purchase a first-class ticket for Douglass and, having failed, had accepted steerage conditions as well.
 
After he had recovered from seasickness, Frederick began to fight back.  He sent several messages to the ship captain to protest his segregation.  Eventually he was permitted to come on the promenade deck when he was accompanied by Buffum.  Later he was seen walking with four Massachusetts musicians, the Hutchinsons, whom Frederick had specifically invited to accompany him to England.  These young men had already endeared themselves with many of the passengers and particularly the captain.  Soon they were passing out copies of Frederick’s book to many of the American and European passengers.
 
A group of planters from Charleston, South Carolina, resented the concessions granted Frederick, and, after having read his book, they resolved to make an issue of his presence in their midst.  The Hutchinsons appealed to the captain to allow Frederick to speak to the passengers on the forward deck.  They had seen how, before, he had pacified hostile or divided audiences; they were certain he could resolve the increasingly ugly situation.  The announcement of Frederick’s address infuriated the slaveholders, and when he appeared in front of them, with complete self-assurance, contemptuous of their sneers, they were at the point of breaking.  When he began speaking, they did, shouting, “Kill the nigger!  Throw him overboard!”
 
Douglass, seeing the intent of the slaveholders, fled to his steerage quarters.  He was saved by the timely arrival of the captain, who had been summoned from his bed by one of the Hutchinsons.  The captain threatened to put the slaveholders “in irons”; it was enough to defuse their resentment.  To the Hutchinsons, with whom he now sang “God Save the Queen,” “Yankee Doodle,” and “America,” he confessed, “I was once the owner of two hundred slaves, but the government of Great Britain liberated them, and I am glad of it” (Bontemps 108).
 
Douglass returned to the promenade deck.  His continued presence there was not challenged the remainder of the voyage.  The captain joined him and his musician friends on deck after dinner the evening of August 26, and they saw lights in the distance, the southern tip of Ireland.
 
Frederick remained in England for more than a year.  He spoke before many gatherings in England, Ireland, and Scotland, and was immensely popular.  He supported whole-heartedly the social causes that his British sponsors espoused, particularly temperance.  He was especially disturbed by the suffering of the beggars of Dublin, a consequence in part, he decided, of the consumption of alcohol.
 
He had gone out alone to explore the streets of Dublin and almost immediately they were around him, obstructing his direction.
 
“Will your honor please to give me a penny to buy some bread?”
“May the Lord bless you, give the poor old woman a little sixpence.”
 
All were in rags, dreadful rags.  Some who were without feet dragged themselves on the ground.  Some had lost hands and arms and held up their stumps for Douglass to see.  Others were so deformed their feet lapped around and laid against their backs.  Among them were women shamefully exposed by their tatters.  Some of these carried pale, emaciated infants whose sunken eyes horrified the former Maryland slave.  All were barefooted, of course.
 
 
“Oh, my poor child, it must starve!  For God’s sake give me a penny.  More power to you!  I know your honor will leave the poor creature something.  Ah, do!  Ah, do!  I will pray for you as long as I live.”
 
Frederick Douglass began emptying his pockets (Bontemps 111)
 
On his way through Ireland, Douglass saw what his antislavery hosts seemed blind to.  Reports of famine--the grim result of the first of the rotted potato crops--were in the newspapers.  Thin-armed children and their defeated mothers huddled at doorstops, as fathers tried, often unsuccessfully, to earn passage out of the ports of Wexford, Waterford, and Cork.  The antislavery people stepped around these Irish poor as they made their way into Douglass’s lectures about mistreated Africans in America.  [British] Abolitionists were generous in their concern for those who had been wronged, but in the late 1840s, a curious deafness to suffering at home accompanied their sympathetic response to what was endured across the Atlantic.
 
… In one of his finest letters, he [Douglass] wrote to William Lloyd Garrison of a mud-walled, windowless hut with “a board on a box for a table, rags on straw for a bed, and a picture of the crucifixion on the wall” and of the “green scum” covering the pit, near the door, full of “garbage & filth.  … I see much here to remind me of my former condition and I confess I should be ashamed to lift my voice against American slavery, but that I know the cause of humanity is one the world over.”
 
The physical conditions he had observed were in fact far worse than any he had experienced, but in this moving letter to Garrison he demonstrated how real for him was the chain that linked all suffering people.  He never was so rude as to call on his Irish hosts to look after the misery of their own island, and he had no plan with which to attack the starvation there.  He had pity, but no cure for the desperate needs of the beggars he saw on the streets.  In lieu of explanation, he resorted to the familiar dodge of blaming drunkenness (McFeely 126).
 
Works cited:
 
Bontempts, Arna, Free at Last, the Life of Frederick Douglass, New York, Dodd, Mead & Company, 1971.  Print
 
McFeely, William S.  Frederick Douglass.  New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 1991.  Print.