Frederick Douglass wasn’t the first African American abolitionist to visit Scotland in the three decades before the Civil War. Nor was he the last. Here are some of his fellow travellers.
His path was prepared by several public figures who had crossed the Atlantic during the previous decade or so, some of them for extended stays. They travelled for a variety of reasons. Nathaniel Paul came to raise money for the Wilberforce Colony in Ontario. James McCune Smith studied medicine at Glasgow University. Robert Purvis visited his father’s family in Fife. Moses Roper trained as a misionary. Charles Lenox Remond toured Scotland after attending the first World Anti-Slavery Convention in London, while James W. C. Pennington was a delegate to the second. Moses Grandy sought to raise funds to purchase the freedom of relatives.
But all of them attended or addressed antislavery meetings in Scotland, and those who had grown up enslaved (Roper and Grandy) recounted their experiences both on the lecture platform and in autobiographies published in Britain and Ireland, which (like Douglass) they sold on speaking tours. McCune Smith played an active role in the Glasgow Emancipation Society.
Some of them subsequently returned to Britain, including Pennington (three times before the Civil War), while Roper, after two years in Canada, came back in 1846 to arrange a new edition of his Narrative of the Adventures and Escape of Moses Roper from American Slavery, and lectured, mostly in Scotland and Ireland, at the same time as Douglass, although there is no evidence they met.
Douglass’ Response to Fellow Travellers
Douglass enjoyed close relationships with some of these other travellers. He had campaigned alongside Remond in Massachusetts and named his third child after him. Pennington was the church minister who had married him and Anna in New York shortly after the daring escape from Baltimore. And McCune Smith later became the New York correspondent for Frederick Douglass’ Paper as well as writing the preface to Douglass’ second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom, published in 1855.
But we shouldn’t assume there was a natural solidarity between them. Indeed, differences of approach were sometimes remarked on in the press.
While a Free Church paper like the Northern Warder condemned the ‘grossly abusive style of declamation’ of Douglass and his colleagues, it found the more strictly autobiographical lectures of Moses Roper more congenial, praising him for the way in which he ‘exercises more discretion in his vocation’ by focusing on ‘his own sufferings under slavery’. That Roper was not touring on behalf of (or supported by) a formal abolitionist network increased his distance from the Garrisonians. In a speech in Edinburgh on 25 May 1846 Douglass’ friend George Thompson refers in passing to ‘another slave [who] has come from America to plead the cause’ without naming Roper, whom he casually dismisses with faint praise. While not promising ‘that he will be quite so eloquent and effective as Mr Douglass, still his plain and simple story will no doubt produce its effects.’ Meanwhile Douglass himself makes no public reference at all to Roper during his tour, exercising his own discretion perhaps.
But Douglass did speak out against another African American touring Britain at the time. This was Mollison Madison Clark, a delegate of the African Methodist Episcopal Church to the Evangelical Alliance conference in London, an international gathering of evangelical church leaders Douglass denounced for refusing to ban slaveholding ministers from taking part.
In a speech in Glasgow on 30 September 1846 Douglass told his audience
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.
Clark subsequently reviewed his support for the Alliance and published a retraction. Yet this is almost the only evidence we have of Douglass engaging with other notable Black people in Britain, whether they were visitors or long-term residents.
The celebrated actor Ira Aldridge – based in Britain since 1824 – played to theatres in the west of Scotland in early 1846. He and Douglass both attracted extensive press coverage for their public appearances and while their itineraries did not converge, they must have known of each other. However any traces of mutual recognition they may have expressed remain private.
When visiting the north east Douglass may have been told of Selim Aga, a Sudanese survivor of slavery who published his life story in Aberdeen that year. In Paisley surely someone made him aware of Peter Burnett, an African American who had lived in the town since the 1780s, a local celebrity honoured in a biographical sketch that went through several editions. And there was the militant Chartist William Cuffay, well known enough to be lampooned in Punch. But Douglass left no indication that he was aware of them either.
Of less prominent individuals whose paths crossed with Douglass’, there are scattered hints. At a meeting in Edinburgh Douglass told the audience how the day before in Liverpool he encountered an old acquaintance from the Baltimore shipyards, a man probably called J R Bailey. He hadn’t seen him for eight years and discovered that he too had escaped slavery. His friend told him how he jumped ship in the Bahamas and secured freedom under the British flag vowing never to return to the Southern States.
And when he was in Arbroath, Douglass was almost certainly introduced to the wife of Rev Alexander Sorley, who had previously welcomed abolitionist speakers to his church. As his associate Henry Clarke Wright reported, she ‘was a COLORED WOMAN, the daughter of a slave’ and ‘the cherished object of respect and affection among all the people of this town.’ The archives can confirm that her name was Elizabeth Greenfield whose father is described in her marriage certificate as ‘late a merchant of Jamaica’. She was probably educated in Edinburgh and she outlived her spouse to leave a substantial legacy to her step-daughter in 1885.
And while that is about all we know of their lives and their encounters with Douglass, it is worth thinking of people like J R Bailey and Elizabeth Greenfield who also reached Britain’s shores but fashioned very different kinds of antislavery lives, away from the public gaze.
Some Later Visitors
Recent research has charted the Scottish speaking engagements of several African American abolitionists who toured in the wake of Douglass, including Ellen and William Craft, Josiah Henson, Sarah Parker Remond and J Sella Martin. For more details see the excellent maps devised by Hannah Murray and the Our Bondage & Our Freedom project.
Two formerly enslaved authors in particular wrote evocatively of their experiences in the country in their autobiographies: William Wells Brown and Samuel Ringgold Ward. 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 who finds much to admire in the Scottish character, but cannot bring himself to enjoy oatcakes or haggis.
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!