Dundee: 27-29 January 1846

Dundee in 1840 (detail): artist W H Bartlett, engraver E Benjamin.

Frederick Douglass and James N Buffum arrived in Dundee on Tuesday 27 January following a series of meetings in Perth. They were welcomed by George Gilfillan, and spoke at his church on School Wynd that night and the two following, before moving to more spacious accommodation for a fourth meeting on the Friday.  The reports in the Dundee, Perth and Cupar Advertiser and the (rather less sympathetic) Northern Warder (reprinted below) cover the first two meetings; we know of the Thursday meeting, but no report of it has so far been found.1

In a letter to the chair of the Belfast Anti-Slavery Society, James Standfield, after the second meeting in Dundee, Douglass writes:

Our meetings have been of the most encouraging and heart-cheering nature; we have spoken freely in the ear of the Free Church, telling them plainly in what light they must be viewed before God and the universe, and calling upon them, in the name of all that is good, pure, and holy, to have no fellowship with slave-holders, and send back the blood-stained money? Thus far the great mass of the people have nobly responded amen, to our appeal; our cry is, disgorgedisgorge your ill-gotten gold – give up – give up the fruit of plunder – build not your houses by fraud, and support not your gospel by the wages of unrighteousness! To these words the people respond in language not to be misunderstood. Our Scotland boils like a pot under this agitating cry. In this town we have one of the largest meeting-houses to hold our meetings; it was crowded last night to suffocation, and will be again crowded to-night. We shall have another and larger house to-morrow evening. We have justice, mercy, and love on our side; with these, who can stand before us? I find many of the Free Church joining in the cry – send back the money! One good lady took me by the hand and told me she belonged to the Free Church, and said, though poor she was willing to contribute her part towards sending back the money; this feeling is becoming general. Oh, what a shock has the Free Church the power to give American slavery! They might give the monster a blow which would send him reeling as if struck by a bolt from the Most High. May God give them the heart to do so, is my humble prayer.2

The two speakers probably stayed at the Royal Hotel. Certainly Douglass wrote from there on Thursday 29 January, presumably before the evening lecture.  His correspondent was Francis Jackson. As in his letter to William Lloyd Garrison from Perth two days’ earlier, Douglass can’t resist flaunting his location, confident that his reader will recognise the romantic historical associations it has for him:

I am now as you will perceive by the date of this letter in old Scotland – almost every hill, river, mountain, and lake of which has been made classic by the heroic deeds of her noble sons. Scarcely a stream but what has been poured into song, or a hill that is not associated with some firce and bloody conflict between liberty and slavery. I had a view the other day of what are called the Grampion mountains that devide east Scotland from the west. I was told that here the ancient crowned heads use to meet, contend and struggle in deadly conflict for supremacy, causing those grand old hills to run blood, each warming cold steal in the others heart.3

He tells Jackson that he has sold nearly all the remaining copies of his Narrative and is looking foward to the delivery of a second edition from his Dublin publisher.  After all he relies on these sales to cover his day-to-day expenses, such as the hotel bill he will have to pay in a few days’ time. ‘I shall probably remain in Scotland till the middle of March,’ he says. As it turned out, except for one brief trip to London in May, he would stay until the middle of June.

Newspaper reports often imply that audiences were partly drawn to Douglass’ meetings by the novelty of seeing a ‘runaway slave’ on stage as well as the content of his speeches.  Perhaps he satisfied an ethnic curiosity more effectively than the blackface minstrel shows that were all the rage at the time. Douglass rarely comments on this, but in this letter from Dundee he wryly acknowledges the extent to which he has become a theatrical spectacle.

It is quite an advantage to be a “nigger” here. I find I am hardly black enough for british taste, but by keeping my hair as woolly as possible, I make out to pass for at least a half a negro, at any rate. My old Fr Buffum finds the tables turned upon him here completely, the people lavish nearly all their attention on the negro. I can easily understand that such a state of things would greatly embarrass a person with less sense than he, but he stems the currant thus far nobly.4


Meetings were held relative to American Slavery, in School Wynd Chapel, on the evenings of Tuesday and Wednesday. Both nights the Chapel was crowded to excess; the passages on the second night were all thronged and many had to return home, being unable to obtain a hearing.

Mr Frederick Douglass (lately a slave himself), in contrasting the atrocities of slavery with all other institutions permitted by civil laws to exist in any other country, said – He was not able to trace in any history which he had read such institutions as those of American slavery. The slave had intellect, conscience, and moral perception, prompting him to think and act one way. The slave holder, so far as he was able, took these away; – he was not allowed to act for himself, to think for himself, or to decide for himself – all these the slave holder does for him. He supplanted him of all these, and acted for him in every particular. He had assumed that right which God had forbidden man to assume – he had torn the husband from the wife. If more than seven slaves were found together without a White man, thirty-seven lashes were given; for a second offence, a greater number were inflicted; and for a third, a finger was cut off. For going off the regular path, thirty-seven lashes were given; for riding after hours on horseback, without a written permission, twenty-five lashes; and for riding in the day-time, a slave may be lashed, chained, cut, branded, with a little R, or have his ear cut away. He had seen a young woman caught in attempting to escape; she was overtaken and dragged back again, when her ear was nailed by her master against a post, and in this condition she was left for an indefinite period.

The practice of branding slaves in America was as common as the custom of marking sheep was in this country. The slave was taken out for the purpose, the furnace was heated, the branding-iron placed in the midst of the fire, and, when heated, taken sparkling from it, and applied to the ear. His cheek was scorched all over. These atrocities were not the doings of individual slave-holders, but were recognised in their full extent by the laws of an American Government.

He had seen his own master tie up a young woman by the hands, and afterwards apply for fifteen minutes the bloody cowstick. Had seen his master’s brother take up his own brother and throw him against the ground till blood gushed from his nose and cheek, for no other reason than another slave was absent who should have been present. They were very frequently cut and bruised. After enumerating other barbarities, he anticipated that many might question what purpose such atrocities could serve; and, in answer to this, he would say, that the slave had a love of liberty deeply impressed within him, which very often prompted him to evince, by symptoms, words, and sometimes deeds, that, were it in his power, he would regain his liberty; and hence their method of keeping him down. He had known a girl about seventeen years of age, who was held in slavery; her keepers came to her prison to feed her, along with other slaves; they let bread fall to her; she picked it up while they passed on to other slaves. The gate of the prison had been left open; she dropped the bread, and, before they were aware, she had cleared the gate; pursuit was made after her by the keeper; she gained a bridge; two Virginian slave-holders were coming up; meeting her, the poor girl stood; she saw slavery before her and worse than death behind; she clasped her hands, as if beseeching mercy, and then sprung over the parapet into the water, – at once preferring to appear before God, in all her sins, rather than again endure slavery.

He was forbidden by the presence of the audience before him to tell all the secrets of his prison house; they could not endure to hear him, because these secrets were so horrible. A million of female slaves were left to the lusts of the slave-holders. These might have their left hands cut off, – their heads severed from the trunk, – they might be quartered, and afterwards mutilated – yet such were the laws of Republican America. He was himself a slave, if in the United States; in no portion of that immense country was he free; over its length and breadth slavery existed. The slave-holder could set the blood-hound on his track; and, wherever American republicanism held dominion, there was no valley so deep, no hill so high, as could save him from their search.

[Christianity and Slavery]

After stating his reasons for visiting this country, and contrasting the usage which he had received since visiting it with what he had suffered in America, he regretted that his race was misrepresented by American travellers who came into this country, and the more so, that in many instances they were believed. On the free hills of Scotland he had heard strange apologies for the conduct of slave-holding Christians; but what were slave-holding Christians? There was no such anomaly as a slave-holding Christian in existence. Slave-holding religionists there were. The widow who bound herself on the funeral pyre of her husband was one, and the man who threw himself under the wheels of the car was another;5 but the slave-holder who professed Christianity, and made  barter and oppression of human blood, was no Christian. If he understood what Christianity meant, he thought it was to be Christ-like. The slave-holder claimed for himself that adoration due only to the Deity; he wrested from the sacred page this devotion. ‘Thou shalt not steal’ was violated by slavery; for what could be plainer than man was intended to be free; if not free, why was he given the desire to be so? Why was he given the liberty to think and reason? and he who could take those from him was a thief and a robber, though called a Christian.

He had seen a husband and wife placed on the auction block – the wife was a strong, healthy, and a fine-looking woman; her limbs were brutally exposed to the examination of the purchaser; she was first put up, and sold after a lengthened contest. The man followed, his eye resting upon his wife; and from her it turned with an imploring look to him who had purchased her; and, so far was it understood, that he who had purchased the wife bade for him; but the price went too high, and he was sold to another, evincing the keenest symptoms of grief in being saparated [sic] from her who had been till then his companion. He pleaded for permission to have one kiss, but was refused. Prompted by grief, he persisted in his aim, when he was violently struck by the butt-end of a whip. He stood a moment, gazing in stupefaction and grief, on the ground, and fell down dead, – and such was slavery.

[‘A Mission of Plunder and Aggrandizement’]

After referring to the influence which the attention of this country, when properly directed to the subject of slavery, would have upon America – to the fear and horror manifested by the United States when their deeds of blood and damnation done under the star-spangled banner were alluded to – he gave a geographical sketch of what were generally supposed to be the slave-holding States. But here he stated an error existed: The whole States of America were one on the subject of slavery – they had entered into mutual agreement to return the slave who had escaped to his former holder; they had pledged their word that the Black population should remain slaves; and should they attempt to gain freedom they will shoulder musket and say to the slave – be a slave or die. America as a whole might at present be said to be on a mission of plunder and aggrandizement. They were seizing Mexico with one hand, with the other they pointed to Oregon; and staining whererever conquest led them, with the damning mark of slavery. There were in America at present three millions of slaves, and one million of these were eagerly waiting an opportunity for revolt – they would rise at the sound of the first trumpet. He did not wish to foster a spirit of war; but let England, in her claim of Oregon, decry slavery, and their slaves would flock to her banner. Were this done, there would be no war. America had enough on hand in governing her own population. Mr Douglass, after a long and eloquent speech, sat down amidst great cheering.

Mr BUFFUM, also from America, next addressed the Meeting. He came into this country, not to flatter the vanity of any class of men. Whatever errors might be observed by him, he would point out in a friendly spirit. There were what he considered errors in this country.

He had sailed down the Clyde. On landing, a beautiful hill was before him; he wished to climb this hill to obtain a prospect around him, but was stopped in his attempt by Lord Blantyre’s gamekeeper.6 If the Black population in America were not free, the hills of America were so. He had met in with other errors in Scotland: He thought it was an error of a body of professing Christians to send over to the slave-holders in America a Deputation to beg money, wrung from the sinews, and muscles, and blood of the slaves, to build churches with. (Loud cheering.)

He next referred to the speech made by his companion, Frederick Douglass. He could substantiate every sentence stated by him; in proof of which, he read advertisements from the American Newspapers. A Miss Spence, having been observed regularly to lash her slaves on the Sunday, on being inquired the reason said, it was beause they were more able to work on Monday, than had they received the lashes another day.

Last Spring, he went to Washington, and, within sight of that capital there were slaves and slave prisons. There were auctioneers who purchased licences to sell men, women, and children, from the Government itself, at 80 dollars. He went into the Senate and heard a discussion on the annexation of Texas. He heard George Duffy say within that Senate, in a long inflammatory speech, that slavery was the formation of American property, while at the same breath he spoke of the annexation of Texas as the means of extending the area of liberty. Others folowed him and spoke in the same style. He went out and stood on the steps of the Senate; a flag waved before him; on inquiring the reason why it was there, he was answered, that it belonged to a slave-trader. He dressed himself like a slave-holder, looked as savagely as he could, and went to the slave-trader, who said he was rather scarce of slaves at present, having sold thirty-six that morning. A few hours before his arrival there, thirty-six slaves had been yoked, handcuffed, and shipped to the South. On desiring to see how many remained, he was conducted to the slave prison, where eighty were confined, ten of whom were thrust within one little cell, these having all run from their masters. He asked the price of an old man, and never would he forget the answer he received – the slave-owner could not tell that man’s price; he thought he was going to die, and he did not know if he would get anything at all for him.

Mr Buffum enumerated many other atrocities; but, from what has already been stated, the reader can have some idea of American slavery.

After dwelling for some time on the difficulties which Frederick Douglass and himself had encountered in America, he counselled the people of Scotland by all means in their power to endeavour to put an end to this horrid system of bartering human flesh. He wished all other ministers and doctors of divinity were like him who presided on the occasion. He could not forget the kindness with which the Reverend Mr Gilfillan had at once granted him his chapel and his own presence, and these deeds he would tell to his brother emancipators of America. After a long and appropriate lecture, Mr Buffum sat down amidst deafening cheers.

On Wednesday the chains and manacles worn by the slaves were exhibited to the audience.

Dundee, Perth and Cupar Advertiser, 30 January 1846

AMERICAN SLAVERY.– On Tuesday evening, Frederick Douglas, a fugitive from the horrors of slavery in the United States of America, delivered a lecture on this subject in the School-wynd Chapel. The Rev. George Gilfillan occupied the chair. Mr Douglas spoke at considerable length, and with much energy. He speaks the English language with correctness and fluency, and his lecture was very effective, in some passages even eloquent. His intention, he said, was to present his audience with facts illustrative of his subject; and he stated several which seemed to excite a deep feeling of horror in the meeting. His diffuse style, however, and an apparently irresistible tendency to diverge from the point immediately under notice, kept him occupied very much with general considerations, and prevented him from adducing so many facts as he would otherwise have done.

He was suceeded by a Mr Buffum, a gentleman who has accompanied him from the States, and the object of whose visit seems to be to point out in a friendly way the various errors which may strike him in our national economy. For example, he attempted one day to ascend a hill on the banks of the Clyde,  but was stopped by the intimation of a gamekeeper that ‘His Lordship did not permit strangers here.’ Mr Buffum having ascertained that ‘his Lordship’ was Lord Blantyre, hastened to pen him a letter, in which he commented severely upon his Lordship’s exclusion of strangers from enjoying the fresh air upon his hills, and now he makes it his duty to censure publicly such conduct, and to assert that in a country where the men are free, the hills ought to be free also. After finding fault, in passing, with the Corn-laws, and with the Free Church deputations for taking money from slaveholders, he proceeded, like his companion, to give illustrations of American slavery. Last evening, the lecture and supplementary address were resumed and concluded. On both occasions the Church was thronged.

Northern Warder, 29 January, 1846


  1. The report of the 30 January meeting in the Dundee Courier (3 February 1846) refers to it as the fourth of four. Douglass himself, writing of the second meeting (on 28 January) reported: ‘it was crowded last night to suffocation, and will be again crowded to-night [29 January]. We shall have another and larger house to-morrow evening [30 January],’ Frederick Douglass to James Standfield, Dundee, [29 January 1846] (Belfast Commercial Chronicle, 4 February 1846).
  2. Frederick Douglass to James Standfield, Dundee, [29 January 1846], (Belfast Commercial Chronicle, 4 February 1846).
  3. Frederick Douglass to Francis Jackson, Dundee, 29 January 1846, in The Frederick Douglass Papers, Series Three: Correspondence, Volume 1: 1842–52, edited by John R. McKivigan (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), p. 89.
  4. Ibid., p. 90.
  5. Douglass here draws on prevailing Victorian conceptions of Hindu religious practices, whence the English loan-words suttee and juggernaut derive.
  6. When in Glasgow, Buffum was probably a guest of John Murray, who lived at Bowling Bay, twelve miles west of the city on the north bank of the Clyde. Lord Blantyre’s main residence was at Erskine House across the river, but it is likely the encounter of which Buffum speaks took place in the Kilpatrick Hills which overlooked Murray’s residence. Recalling a few days’ spent with Murray in September later that year, William Lloyd Garrison wrote of walking in ‘the lofty hills which rise somewhat precipitously behind his dwelling, and had a magnificent prospect opened up to us. James N. Buffum […] will remember this spot, and his memorable collision with one of Lord Blantyre’s servants, as well as his correspondence with his lordship, in regard to it,’ William Lloyd Garrison to the Liberator, Belfast, 3 October 1846 (Liberator, 30 October 1846).

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