African American Visitors to Scotland in the 1840s and 1850s
Douglass was not the only former slave to visit the country during these years. William Wells Brown, touring Scotland in 1851, he records his impressions of Stirling Castle and Aberdeen, and is heartened by the racial mixing he finds in Edinburgh. Samuel Ringgold Ward is another visitor finds much to admire in the Scottish character, but cannot bring himself to enjoy oatcakes or haggis.
In a speech in Glasgow on 30 September Douglass told his audience that
There is a recreant black man in this country going by the name of Clark. He went into that Alliance and there denounced the only true friends of emancipation – the abolitionists. if he goes through this country, as I expect he will, for I expect the Free Church of Scotland will employ him to go about and defend her, as he has the Judas Iscariot impudence to stand up in defence of her connection with the man-stealers of America; and I trust he will be informed that I arraigned him here as a traitor to his race, and as representing no portion of the black, or coloured population in the United States.
Rev Molson M Clarke – a delegate of the AME church in the United States – did indeed visit Edinburgh in May 1847 at the invitation of Robert Candlish of the Free Church, one of many black American visitors to Britain during this years.
But his politics were not typical of such visitors, who were largely fugitive slaves and freemen, travelling to Britain in the name of the abolitionist cause. The man who wrote the introduction to Frederick Douglass’ second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) was James M’Cune Smith, a black medical practitioner from New York who had studied at the University of Glasgow.
Other leading anti-slavery campaigners who found a warm welcome in Scotland included James W C Pennington and Henry Highland Garnet. Two former slaves in particular wrote evocatively of their experiences in the country in their autobiographies: William Wells Brown and Samuel Ringgold Ward.
William Wells Brown
William Wells Brown (1814-1884) was a slave in Kentucky and the Missouri Territory. In 1834 he fled north and reached Cleveland, later moving to Buffalo, and took advantage of his work on the Lake Erie steamboats to help other fugitives reach Canada. In the early 1840s he became an anti-slavery lecturer, and moved to Boston in 1847. In 1849 he travelled to Britain on behalf of the American Peace Society to counter the propaganda of the American Colonization Society, which for thirty years had been promoting the resettlement of emancipated slaves to Liberia in West Africa. The passage of the Fugitive Slave Law (1850) delayed his return to the United States until 1854, when his freedom was purchased by supporters.
He toured Scotland in 1851 in the company of two other fugitive slaves, William and Ellen Craft. In Edinburgh he attended a meeting of the Edinburgh Ladies’ Emancipation Society, breakfasted in a room in which Robert Burns had often sat, visited the Royal Institute, the Scott Monument, Edinburgh Castle, the Palace of Holyrood, and John Knox’s House.
They travelled by train to Glasgow and on to Dundee, passing Stirling Castle which was, Brown noted,
situated or built on an isolated rock, which seems as if Nature had thrown it there for that purpose. It was once the retreat of the Scottish Kings, and famous for its historical associations, Here the “Lady of the Lake,” with the magic ring, sought the monarch to intercede for her father; here James II. murdered the Earl of Douglas; here the beautiful but unfortunate Mary was made Queen; and here John Knox, the Reformer, preached the coronation sermon of James VI. The Castle Hill rises from the valley of the Forth, and makes an imposing and picturesque appearance. The windings of the noble river till lost in the distance, present pleasing contrasts, scarcely to be surpassed.
Further North, they visited
the Granite City of Scotland. Aberdeen reminds one of Boston, especially in a walk down Union Street, which is said to be one of the finest promenades in Europe.
And returned to Edinburgh by sea. On the ship, Brown notices a copy of Frederick Douglass’ newspaper, the North Star. On the way he admired the view as they rounded the coast of Fife:
On our left, lay the Island of May, while to the right was to be seen the small fishing town of Anstruther, twenty miles distant from Edinburgh. Beyond these, on either side, was a range of undulating blue mountains, swelling as they retired, into a bolder outline and a loftier altitude, until they terminated some twenty-five or thirty miles in the dim distance. A friend at my side pointed out a place on the right, where the remains of an old castle or look-out house, used in the time of the border wars, once stood, and which reminded us of the barbarism of the past.
But these signs are fast disappearing. The plough and roller have passed over many of these foundations, and the time will soon come, when the antiquarian will look in vain for those places that history has pointed out to him, as connected with the political and religious struggles of the past.
In Edinburgh he visited the Infimary,
and was pleased to see among the two or three hundred students, three coloured young men, seated upon the same benches with those of a fairer complexion, and yet there appeared no feeling on the part of the whites towards their coloured associates, except of companionship and respect. One of the cardinal truths, both of religion and freedom, is the equality and brotherhood of man. In the sight of God and all just institutions, the whites can claim no precedence or privilege, on account of their being white; and if coloured men are not treated as they should be in the educational institutions in America, it is a pleasure to know that all distinction ceases by crossing the broad Atlantic. I had scarcely left the lecture room of the Institute and reached the street, when I met a large number of the students on their way to the college, and here again were seen coloured men arm in arm with whites. The proud American who finds himself in the splendid streets of Edinburgh, and witnesses such scenes as these, can but behold in them the degradation of his own country, whose laws would make slaves of these same young men, should they appear in the streets of Charleston or New Orleans.
Samuel Ringgold Ward
Samuel Ringgold Ward (1817-1864) was born in Maryland of slave parents who escaped to New York shortly after his birth. He was active as a journalist in the abolitionist movement and visited Britain in 1853 as the representative of the Anti-Slavery Society of Canada.
In his Autobiography of a Fugitive Negro (1855) he records how he was invited to Scotland by the Committee of the Glasgow New Abolition Society. There he was presented with
a copy of Burns’ poems, from his own library. That was almost equal to proffering me the freedom of Glasgow, or making me a Scotchman! Well did I use that volume, while sojourning in the country which gave birth to it and its immortal author! O that I liked oaten cakes, haggis, cockie-leekie, or BAGPIPES, as much as Burns! May my Scotch brethren forgive me for being so incorrigible a creature as to cling to old-fashioned likes and dislikes, acquired before I went to Scotland!
He visited Edinburgh and joined the wife of abolitionist J B Tod and her daughter on a tour of Holyrood House, and was also in Dundee and Greenock.
Reflecting on the character of the people, he wrote:
Society in Scotland differs from that in England, as does the society of Boston and Massachusetts generally from that of Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. I was struck with this while travelling northwards. The northern people are more familiar, more democratic. A Scotchman does not feel under the particular necessity of sitting next you all day in a railway carriage without saying a word, as an Englishman does. Betwixt different classes there is more familiarity, less distance, in Scotland, than in England. The different orders of society seem to approach more nearly to each other, without either losing or forgetting its place. There is less of the feeling, so prevalent in small towns in the South, that merchants and professional men must by all means avoid contact with shopkeepers. The chief order of nobility is the clergy, and all join to pay deference to them; but the general spread of religion, and the very upright and pious habits of the population–the familiarity of the ministers with people, join to produce a brotherly feeling of oneness, which is abundantly apparent in the national character and in the state of society.
Besides, I do not think that mere ceremony is half so much studied by the Scotch. They are great believers in realities; they are a substantial people; and what is merely formal, unless it be formal after the Scottish mode, is not commendable to them, and it costs them but little to say, “I canna be fashed wi sic clishmaclaver.” Hence, you get at a Scotchman’s heart at once. He will not profess to be what he is not. When you go to his house, and he extends his hand and says, “Come away,” you may know you are welcome. I like this straightforward way of doing things: it is far more expressive of true generosity than the set courtly phrases of mere conventionalism.
A sort of independence of character is far more prevalent and observable in the Scotch peasantry than in either the English, the Irish, or the Welsh. Everybody expects to find it so; if not he will find himself much mistaken. Several anecdotes have been given me illustrative of this; but as I am not at home in telling Scotch tales, I dare not insert any of them. The fact, however, is most palpable. Doubtless the universal diffusion of education has much to do with it.
How readily, and how generously, did the Scottish people respond to the claims of the anti-slavery cause!