To celebrate Black History Month, we present an extract from Frederick Douglass and Ireland: In his own words, edited by Christine Kinealy, and published by Routledge.
American social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman Frederick Douglass spent four months in Ireland at the end of 1845 that proved to be, in his own words, ‘transformative’. He reported that for the first time in his life he felt like a man, and not a chattel. Whilst in residence, he became a spokesperson for the abolition movement, but by the time he left the country in early January 1846, he believed that the cause of the slave was the cause of the oppressed everywhere.
This book adds new insight into Frederick Douglass and his time in Ireland. For the first time, we hear Douglass in his own words. This unique approach allows us to follow the journey of the young man who, while in Ireland, discovered his own voice.
The year 1845 proved to be a pivotal one both in the history of Ireland and in the personal life of Frederick Douglass. In May of that year, Douglass’s autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Written by Himself, had been published in the United States, to equal degrees of praise and opprobrium; in September, a destructive blight appeared on the potato crop in Ireland, marking the onset of a prolonged and deadly famine.
By travelling to the United Kingdom to avoid being recaptured into slavery, unwittingly Douglass became a witness to this unfolding tragedy, which was to develop into one of the most devastating social disasters in modern European history. Concurrently with the commencement of a famine in Ireland, the ‘fugitive’ slave, for the first time in his life, felt like a free man, and rejoiced in this transformation as he found his own voice and matured from being an American abolitionist to international human rights’ champion. Neither Douglass nor Ireland would ever be the same afterwards.
Letter from Frederick Douglass to William Lloyd Garrison
Victoria Hotel, Belfast, 1 January 1846
My Dear Friend Garrison: I am now about to take leave of the Emerald Isle, for Glasgow, Scotland, I have been here a little more than four months …
I can truly say, I have spent some of the happiest moments of my life since landing in this country. I seem to have undergone a transformation. I live a new life. The warm and generous co-operation extended to me by the friends of my despised race—the prompt and liberal manner with which the press has rendered me its aid—the glorious enthusiasm with which thousands have flocked to hear the cruel wrongs of my down-trodden and long-enslaved fellow-countrymen portrayed—the deep sympathy for the slave, and the strong abhorrence of the slaveholder, everywhere evinced—the cordiality with which members and ministers of various religious bodies, and of various shades of religious opinion, have embraced me, and lent me their aid—the kind hospitality constantly proffered to me by persons of the highest rank in society—the spirit of freedom that seems to animate all with whom I come in contact—and the entire absence of everything that looked like prejudice against me, on account of the color of my skin—contrasted so strongly with my long and bitter experience in the United States, that I look with wonder and amazement on the transition.
Eleven days and a half gone, and I have crossed three thousand miles of the perilous deep ocean. Instead of a democratic government, I am under a monarchical government. Instead of the bright blue sky of America, I am covered with the soft grey fog of the Emerald Isle. I breathe, and lo! the chattel becomes a man.
Frederick Douglass and Ireland: In his own words, by Christine Kinealy, published by Routledge, is out now.