On Douglass’ return voyage, he was prevented, for a second time, from occupying the first class cabin he had paid for, and led to an exchange of views in the London Times and elsewhere.
Cunard was one of the first companies to run regular passenger services across the Atlantic, and held the contract for carrying the Royal Mail. Samuel Cunard’s promise to end discrimination – which evidently reassured Douglass – proved an empty one. Similar incidents were recorded on his ships until at least the Civil War (1861-65).
Frederick Douglass: Letter to William Lloyd Garrison
On his return to Massachusetts, Douglass writes to his friend and fellow abolitionist: published in Garrison’s newspaper, the Liberator 21 April 1847
The United States Magazine and Democratic Review (1848)
denounces the Cunard line for accommodating the views of people like ‘that black vagabond, Douglass.’
Frederick Douglass: from My Bondage and My Freedom
Douglass recalls the incident in his second autobiography, published in 1855.
To the Editor of the Times
Sir, – I take up my pen to lay before you a few facts respecting an unjust proscription by which I find myself subjected on board the steamship Cambria, to sail from this port at 10 o’clock to-morrow morning for Boston, United States.
On the 4th of March last, in company with Mr. George Monbay, of the Hall of Commerce, London, I called upon Mr. Ford, the London agent of the Cunard line of steamers, for the purpose of securing a passage on board the steam ship Cambria to Boston, United States. On inquiring the amount of the passage I was told 40l. 19s. I inquired further, if a second class passage could be obtained. He answered no, there was but one fare, all distinctions having been abolished. I then gave him 40l. 19s and received from him in return a ticket entitling me to berth No. 72 on board the steam-ship Cambria, at the same time asking him if my colour would prove any barrier to my enjoying all the rights and privileges enjoyed by other passengers. He said, ‘No.’ I then left the office, supposing all well, and thought nothing more of the matter until this morning, when in company with a few friends, agreeably to public notice, I went on board the Cambria with my luggage, and on inquiring for my berth, found, to my surprise and mortification, that it had been given to another passenger, and was told that the agent in London had acted without authority in selling me the ticket. I expressed my surprise and disappointment to the captain, and inquired what I had better do in the matter. He suggested my accompanying him to the office of the agent in Water street, Liverpool, for the purpose of ascertaining what could be done. On stating the fact of my having purchased the ticket of the London agent, Mr. M’Iver (the Liverpool agent) answered that the London agent, in selling me the ticket, had acted without authority, and that I should not go on board the ship unless I agreed to take my meals alone, not to mix with the saloon company, and to give up the berth for which I had paid. Being without legal remedy, and anxious to return to the United States, I have felt it due to my own rights as a man, as well as to the honour and dignity of the British public, to lay these facts before them, sincerely believing that the British public will pronounce a just verdict on such proceedings. I have travelled in this country 19 months, and have always enjoyed equal rights and privileges with other passengers, and it was not until I turned my face towards America that I met anything like proscription on account of my colour.
Brown’s Temperance Hotel, Liverpool, April 3
The tyranny complained of in a letter signed “FREDERICK DOUGLASS”, which appeared in our paper of Tuesday, ought not to be allowed to pass in this country without some public expression of disapprobation and disgust at a proceeding wholly repugnant to our English notions of justice and humanity. A highly respectable gentleman of colour, after visiting England, being about to return to America, had taken and paid for a berth in the steam-ship Cambria, when, on going on board with his luggage, he is informed that the accommodation he had purchased for himself has been allotted to another passenger. On seeking for an explanation of this piece of manifest dishonesty, for it is certainly dishonest to take a sum of money and refuse to perform the condition on which it has been received, the aggrieved person was told that if he wished to go by the ship he must take his meals alone, forego mixing with the company in the saloon, and relinquish to another the berth he had paid to secure. The plain fact of the matter appears to be, that Mr. DOUGLASS being a man of colour, was not allowed to go out on an equal footing with the rest of the passengers on board the Cambria. It signifies very little to us how contemptible the Americans may make themselves by the prejudices they act upon in their own country, and it concerns, perhaps, none but themselves, that they should present the anomaly of a nation talking largely of equality and liberality while practically drawing one of the meanest and most senseless distinctions that it is possible to conceive. The shame is theirs alone of giving the lie to their own boasted theory of freedom both in action and opinion, by the habitual exercise of the most despotic restraint over the former in the case of the coloured population, and the subjugation of the latter in their own case to a most paltry prejudice.
We are unfortunately compelled to witness in some points a deviation on the part of America from those general principles of enlightenment which are acknowledged by the people of every other civilized nation in the world. We, however, are not in any way bound to tolerate the introduction into this country of any of the degrading peculiarities of society in the United States, nor can we observe with calm indifference any tendency to import among us prejudices utterly at variance with our feelings and character. We therefore do not refrain from expressing our most intense disgust at the conduct of the agents of the Cambria, in having succumbed to a miserable and unmeaning assumption of skin-deep superiority by the American portion of their passengers. We do not know who the over-sensitive individuals may have been that feared contamination in taking out a person of colour as a fellow passenger in the Cambria, but we cannot believe them to have been superior either in education, position, or refinement, either natural or acquired, to the average run of our English colonial governors. The latter – although acting as the representatives of HER MAJESTY – do not refuse to receive at their tables this class of gentlemen when American nicety will not admit even into equal participation of the advantages of a public conveyance, which is free to all except in the land making special claim to freedom.
It is one of the most inexcusable aggravations of the gross injustice of the case we have been alluding to, that the ship in which Mr. DOUGLASS has paid for the berth, he was not allowed to occupy, on account of his colour, belongs to a partly English company, which draws an immense sum of English money annually for its conveyance of the mail, and is otherwise greatly indebted to English connexion. Common decency should have taught the agents of the Cambria not to offend our notices of justice and common sense for the sake of truckling to an unworthy prejudice of our transatlantic neighbours. Mr. DOUGLASS had, by his sojourn and reception in this country, earned at least some title to be regarded as not unfit to mix in the society of a vessel accessible to the public in general. The breach of the contract entered into with him seems to us as dishonourable, as the prejudice against him is ignorant and contemptible.
To the Editor of the Times
Sir, – I regret to find that a letter signed ‘Frederick Douglass’ has been published, in which my name is mixed up in a manner that appears to me to be very extraordinary and unjustifiable. Having been absent from Liverpool for a week on business, I had not an earlier opportunity of noticing this, which I shall now do as briefly as possible.
The first time Mr. Frederick Douglass saw or met with me was not, as he states, before, but after, he had agreed with my people to arrangements and accommodation for his passage on board the Cambria, with which he expressed his dissatisfaction to me, but the contrary. Mr. Douglass had no conversation whatever with me except in the presence of three or four other individuals, and the whole point of my remarks amounted to this – that he (Mr. Douglass) when coming from the United States some months ago in the same vessel, the Cambria, as a steerage passenger, was invited by some of the cabin passengers to enter the saloon, and was the cause, whether intentionally or unintentionally on his part, of producing, by the observations he made use of, serious disturbance on board, which required the authority of the captain to quell, in order to restore peace and safety. Under these circumstances I told Mr. Douglass that had he entered into the arrangements which had been completed, I should undoubtedly have considered it my duty to require of him, before allowing him to embark, a distinct pledge that he would neither of himself, nor at the desire of others, follow such a course as was likely to lead to a repetition of such scenes of confusion as had formerly occurred. I added that, from the conversation that had just taken place between us, it was unnecessary I should act or say more upon the subject. I moreover told him that I should have taken the same course had his name been John Jones, or anything else, instead of Frederick Douglass, or had he been the whitest man in the world. These were my words.
All I find fault with is, that Mr. Frederick Douglass has withheld the entire conversation which took place between us, and by suppressing the most material facts and giving a spurious version had misled the public.
I admit, to the fullest extent, my accountability for what was actually done, or actually said, to Mr. Douglass by my people; but, he having so commenced by interpreting the conversation I myself had with him, I shall not discuss through the press, either now or again, his allegations as to what took place with others.
I am, Sir, your most obedient servant
CHAS MAC. IVER
British and North American Royal Mail Company, Liverpool April 12, 1847
To the Editor of the Times
Sir, – My accidental absence from town for a couple of days has occasioned my seeing at the same time your journal of the 7th and 8th inst., the former of which contains a letter from Mr. F Douglass and the latter some observations of your own on the subject of that communication.
You are pleased to speak ‘of your intense disgust at the conduct of the agents of the Cambria:’ expressions in my opinion equally unmerited and strong.
Allow me, as one of the principal proprietors in the Cunard Company, and as the person responsible for the directions given to its subordinate agents in this country, to place the matter fairly before your readers.
So far as we ourselves are concerned, it is really a matter of perfect indifference whether the passengers conveyed by our vessels are black, white, or copper-coloured. Non olet mummus: the fare of one man is as good as that of another. But if there exists, as I distinctly affirm that there does, an absolute and invincible disgust on the part of the great majority of white men, and particularly of white women, not less in England than in America, to come into close contact with blackamores, are we the proper parties to be blamed for this aversion and loathing? Can it be expected by any reasonable being that the proprietors of a mere carrying trade shall utterly annihilate, not their profits only, but whatever they many be, of a very great proportion of their customers? It is no longer back than the 7th of November last, that 43 first-class berths having been engaged on board this very vessel, it so happened that the 44th and 45th were taken by a black gentleman and his wife, also a black woman. On this circumstances becoming known only three days before the ship sailed, and on the London agents, who were without specific instructions on the matter, having refused to cancel the two last issued tickets, no less than 29 out of 43 berths were thrown up, and the company sustained a loss exceeding 1,100l. Of the parties thus throwing up their berths, I took the trouble to ascertain that 10 only were American, and the remaining 19, English. Are we, I repeat it, to blame for refusing to renew the costly experiment? When the sight and smell of the majority of your countrymen are so much altered as that their eyes can regale upon the colour, and their noses agreeably imbibe the odour of a negro, we shall gladly welcome the change. Until then we are compelled by our own interests as a commercial company to place upon the issue of tickets to blacks such restrictions and conditions as were specifically state to Mr. Douglass.
Of Mr. Douglass’s letter I do not wish to say a word in disparagement. He has stated the matter plainly, simply, and without exaggeration; though he ought, I must add, not to have omitted mentioning that the ticket was originally issued by a mere lad in the absence of the senior clerk, and that the instant the circumstance was discovered he was pressed to receive back the money which had been thus improperly taken.
I am, Sir, your faithful servant,
CHARLES M. BURROP,
(Of Asgill, Virginia, United States,)
Head manager of the Cunard Company of Liners
Maidenhead, Berkshire, April 8.
To the Editor of The Times
Sir, – Observing in The Times of this day a letter signed “Charles M. Burrop, of Asgill, Virginia, United States, Head Manager of the Cunard Company of Liners,” I beg to inform you that no such person, or any other individual in the United States, holds any share or interest in the steam ships alluded to, and that the statements set forth in that letter are entirely untrue.
No one can regret more than I do the unpleasant circumstances respecting Mr. Douglass’s passage; but I can assure you that nothing of the kind will again take place in the steam-ships with which I am connected.
I am, Sir, your obedient servant,
22, Duke-street, St James’s, April 13.
To the Editor of The Times
Sir, – As Mr. MacIver, in his letter contained in your impression of this day, has brought a charge against Frederick Douglass of having created a disturbance on board the Cambria during his passage in that vessel to this country, I beg to hand you a correct account of the circumstances, as detailed by him at a meeting held at Cork on the 20th of October, 1845.
I am, our obedient servant,
PETER J. BOLTON
27, New Bread-street, April 13.
“I will briefly tell you what passed during my voyage to this country, which will illustrate the feelings of our people towards the black man. I took passage at Boston, or rather my friend Mr. Buffum, the gentleman who lived in the same town with me, went to Boston from Lynn to learn if I could have a cabin passage on board the vessel. He was answered that I could not, that it would give offence to the majority of the American passengers. Well, I was compelled to take a steerage passage, good enough for me. I suffered no inconvenience from the place – I kept myself in the forecastle cabin, and walked about on the forward deck. Walking about there from day to day my presence soon excited the interest of the persons on the quarter-deck, and my character and situation were made known to several gentlemen of distinction on board, some of whom became interested in me. In four or five days I was very well known to the passengers, and there was quite a curiosity to hear me speak on the subject of slavery – I did not feel at liberty to go on the quarter-deck – the captain at last invited me to address the passengers on slavery. I consented – commenced – but soon observed a determination on the part of some half a dozen to prevent my speaking, who I found were slave-owners. I had not uttered more than a sentence before up started a man from Connecticut, and said, ‘That’s a lie.’ I proceeded without taking notice of him, then shaking his fist, he said again, ‘That’s a lie.’ Some said I should not speak, others that I should – I wanted to inform the English, Scotch, and Irish on board on slavery – I told them blacks were not considered human beings in America. Up started a slave-owner from Cuba, ‘Oh,’ said he, ‘I wish I had you in Cuba!’ ‘Well,’ said I, ‘ladies and gentlemen, since what I have said has been pronounced lies, I will read, not what I have written, but what the southern legislators themselves have written – I mean the law. I proceeded to read – this raised a general clamour, for they did not wish the laws exposed. They hated facts – they knew that the people of these countries who were on the deck would draw their own inferences from them. Here a general hurry ensued – ‘Down with the nigger,’ said one; ‘He shan’t speak,’ said another. I sat with my arms folded, feeling no way anxious for my fate; I never saw a more barefaced attempt to put down the freedom of speech than upon this occasion. Now came the captain – he was met by one of the other party, who put out his fist at him – the captain knocked him down; instead of his bowie, the fallen man drew out his card, crying, ‘I’ll meet you at Liverpool.’ ‘Well, said the captain, ‘and I’ll meet you.’ The captain, restored order, and proceeded to speak:- ‘I have done all I could from the commencement of the voyage to make the voyage agreeable to all. We have had a little of everything on board. We have had all sorts of discussions, religious, moral, and political, we have had singing and dancing, everything that we could have, except an anti-slavery speech, and since there was a number of ladies and gentlemen interested in Mr. Douglass, I requested him to speak. Now, those who are not desirous to hear him, let them go to another part of the vessel. ‘Gentlemen,’ he said, ‘you have behaved derogatory to the character of gentlemen and Christians,’ ‘Mr. Douglas,’ said he, ‘go on, pitch into them like bricks!’ (Laughter.) However, this excitement was such that I was not allowed to go on. The agitation, however, did not cease, for the question was discussed to the moment we landed at Liverpool. The captain threatened the disturbers with putting them in irons if they did not become quiet – these men disliked the irons – were quieted by the threat; yet this infamous class have put the irons on the black.”
Letter from Frederick Douglass
The following letter from Mr. Douglass, respecting his treatment at Liverpool by the agent of the Cunard line of steamers, will be read with surprise and indignation by the friends of justice and equal rights on both sides of the Atlantic. So, the, the spirit of American slavery is able successfully to dictate to British navigators, what shall be the treatment shown to colored passengers across the Atlantic!
LYNN, April 21, 1847
MY DEAR FRIEND,
I hasten to inform you of my safe arrival at home. I left Liverpool per steamship Cambria, at 12 o’clock on Sunday, April 4th, and reached Halifax on Sunday evening, the 18th, and here on Tuesday afternoon, about 6, – thus performing the voyage in sixteen days and six hours.
My passage was not the most agreeable; for, aside from the head winds, a rough sea, and the innumerable perils of the deep, I had the cruel, and almost omnipotent and omnipresent spirit of American slavery with which to contend.
After an interesting tour of twenty months through the British Isles, – during which, I made use of all the various means of conveyance, by land and sea, from town to town, and city to city, my feelings as a man, and my rights as a passenger, sacredly regarded, and never being able to detect the slightest dislike to me on account of my color, – I bid farewell to monarchical England, and look toward democratic America; and while yet three thousand miles from her shores, at the first step, I am smitten with the pestilential breath of her slave system! I came home a proscribed man; and this, solely to propitiate American pro-slavery hate. The American public demanded my exclusion from the saloon of the steamship, and the company owning the steamer had not the virtue to resist the demand. The dominion of slavery is no longer confined under the star-spangled banner, but extends itself, and bears sway, even under that of Great Britain. But, without further preface, I will at once put you in possession of the facts of the case.
On the 4th of last March, in company with my friend, Mr. George Moxhay [sic], of the Hall of Commerce, London, I called upon the agent of the Cunard line of steamers, for the purpose of securing a berth in one of the Company’s vessels, to sail for the United States on the 4th of April. I was informed by the agent that there was but one berth unsold, and that was berth 72 in the Cambria. This berth I took, and paid for – paying first-class price. I then asked the agent, whether there would be any difficulty in my enjoying any of the rights and privileges on board the ship, granted to white passengers. ‘Certainly not,’ was the reply. On hearing this, I left the office.
Reposing on the honor and the integrity of the Company, and never dreaming of the possibility of a contingency to deprive me of my berth, I made myself perfectly easy till the afternoon of the 3d April, the day previous to our contemplated departure from Liverpool to Boston. I then went on board with my baggage; and here, to my surprise, disappointment and mortification, I learned that my berth was given to another – that on account of the color of my skin, it had been decided that I should not have the berth for which I had paid, and to which I was justly entitled! Confused and confounded by this intelligence, I went to the office of the agent in Liverpool, for an explanation of what I had heard on board the steamer, which was now lying in the Mersey, about two miles from the shore. The agent, Mr. McIver, with the harshness of an American slaveholder, told me that the agent from whom I had purchased my ticket, had no right to sell it to me. I replied that I knew nothing more of the authority of the agent to sell tickets, than what I had learned from the public press. He was there advertised as the authorised agent of the Company, and persons wishing to secure passage in the Company’s ships were requested to call upon him. I had as much right to regard Mr. Foord [sic] as the agent in London, as to regard Mr. McIver the agent in Liverpool. They were both the advertised agents of the Company. But here was not the difficulty, as I afterwards compelled him to confess. This was a deceitful stratagem, (I will say nothing of its meanness,) to deprive me of my berth, without openly incurring the responsibility of trampling upon, and robbing a traveller of his rights, on account of the color of his skin.
The agent said, that great disatisfaction had been given to the American travelling public, by my having been permitted on the quarter-deck, when crossing the Atlantic in the summer of 1845, and that much ill-feeling had been created against the line in America by what I had said against American slavery during the voyage; and that while he would not undertake to defend American prejudice, he must, nevertheless, prevent the recurrence of any such event again; and that, if I went home in the ship, I must go in an apartment wholly separate from the white passengers; but that I should have every accommodation in the way of attention, and apartments enjoyed by other passengers. Subject to this restriction, I must never enter the saloon, – the part of the ship the most commodious, and where other passengers took their meals. I must eat alone – sleep alone – be alone. These were my limits on board the British steamship Cambria. By this regulation, I was not only deprived of the privilege of eating in the saloon, but also shut out from religious worship. We had two Sundays during the voyage, and in conformity to the religious ideas of the Company, as well as of the British public, had regular religious services performed on board. They called upon ‘our Father’, the creator of the heavens and the earth – the God who has made of one blood all nations, the black as well as the white – to bless them – while they cursed and excluded me on account of the color of my skin. This, I thought, was American slaveholding religion, under British colors, and I felt myself no great loser by being excluded from its benefits.
Aside from this proscription, I was as well provided for as any other passenger. Indeed, my apartments were much to be preferred to any which I saw on board. I was treated with the utmost politeness by every officer on board, and received every attention from the servants during the whole voyage. It may be asked, then, why do I yet complain? The answer is, that my position was one of coercion, when it ought to have been that of option. The difference is as wide as that of freedom and slavery; and the man who cannot see the one, cannot see the other.
In haste, yours sincerely,
from the United States Magazine and Democratic Review
The Cunard steamer line from Boston to Liverpool, are coming hereafter to New-York, as the proprietors are alarmed at the rivalry so suddenly evidenced by the appearance of the American line of steamers from New-York, via. Southampton to Bremen. So far, these transatlantic steamers have been wholly supported by American patronage, which, if once withdrawn, will throw them probably on their beam-ends. And this is a result likely to occur from present symptoms. If the American line prove itself to be equal in safety and speed – and who can doubt that American skill is not equal to British any day, on sea or land – it is beyond all question certain, that every true hearted American will cheerfully lend every encouragement to his own country’s enterprise. There is anothe reason stronger still why we should give a rebuke to this English Cunard line, which, in the day of its ascendancy, dared to venture upon a brutal display of hostility to American prejudice that should be remembered now.
Only last year, that black vagabond, Douglass, who spent his time in England propagating his filthy lies against the United States, which were greedily swallowed by English hyprocrites and fools, returned to this country in the Cambria, under the especial protection of Capt. Judkins, who first insisted that this offensive negro should sit at table with American gentlemen, and, failing in this, he magnanimously gave up to his odorous protege his own bed and state room. The year before that, Capt. Judkins, whose black propensities are strong in the ascendant, authorized this self-same negro to hold forth on his deck against the cruelty and infamy of lying America, that talked of liberty in one breath, and refused to live cheek-by-jowl with their nigger brethren in the next. On remonstrances being temperately made by some American gentlemen, this insolent cub of the sea, Capt. Judkins, threatened to put them in irons! Ought we not to get him up a public dinner, and a cold bath to boot, on his advent in New-York? This suggestion, we learn, is under meditation.
Frederick Douglass – from My Bondage and My Freedom
Proposing to leave England, and turning my face toward America, in the spring of 1847, I was met, on the threshold, with something which painfully reminded me of the kind of life which awaited me in my native land. For the first time in the many months spent abroad, I was met with proscription on account of my color.
A few weeks before departing from England, while in London, I was careful to purchase a ticket, and secure a berth for returning home, in the Cambria – the steamer in which I left the United States – paying therefore the round sum of forty pounds and nineteen shillings sterling. This was first cabin fare. But on going aboard the Cambria, I found that the Liverpool agent had ordered my berth to be given to another, and had forbidden my entering the saloon!
This contemptible conduct met with stern rebuke from the British press. For upon the point of leaving England, I took occasion to expose the disgusting tyranny, in the columns of the London Times. That journal, and other leading journals throughout the United Kingdom, held up the outrage to unmitigating condemnation. So good an opportunity for calling out a full expression of British sentiment on the subject, had not before occurred, and it was most fully embraced. The result was, that Mr Cunard came out in a letter to the public journals, assuring them of his regret at the outrage, and promising that the like should never occur again on board his steamers; and the like, we believe, has never since occurred on board the steamships of the Cunard line.
It is not very pleasant to be made the subject of such insults; but if all such necessarily resulted as this one did, I should be very happy to bear, patiently, many more than I have borne, of the same sort. Albeit, the last of proscription, to a man accustomed to equal social position, even for a time, as I was, has a sting for the soul hardly less severe than that which bites the flesh and draws the blood from the back of the plantation slave. It was rather hard, after having enjoyed nearly two years of equal social privileges in England, often dining with gentlemen of great literary, social, political, and religious eminence – never, during the whole time, having met with a single word, look, or gesture, which gave me the slightest reason to think my color was an offense to anybody – now to be cooped up in the stern of the Cambria, and denied the right to enter the saloon, lest my dark presence should be deemed an offense to some of my democratic passengers. The reader will easily imagine what must have been my feelings.