By Martin Gleeson
The African American Frederick Douglass was born into slavery on a plantation in Talbot County, Maryland, in February 1818. Born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, the social reformer, orator, writer and statesman later changed his name to Frederick Douglass. He was reared by his grandmother, who was a slave.
When Douglass was six, he was moved to another plantation. From there, he was “given” to Lucretia Auld, whose husband Thomas sent him to work for his brother Hugh in Baltimore. Hugh’s wife Sophia taught Douglass to read and write, and for the rest of his life, he continued reading and educating himself.
When he was hired out to work for another plantation owner, he began teaching the other slaves to read, using the Bible. When his “owner” heard about this, he transferred him to Edward Covey, a farmer who was known for his brutal treatment of slaves. Douglass was only sixteen and he was regularly whipped by Covey. After several attempts at running away, Douglass escaped form Covey’s farm and travelled by train through Delaware to New York. There he married the black woman who had helped him to escape. He later moved to Massachusetts.
Frederick Douglass began attending meetings of the Abolitionist movement and he became a leader in this anti-slavery movement.
In 1845 Douglass published his autobiographical book Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. It was immensely popular and even today people read it. It made Douglass the most famous black person in the USA.
After the American Civil War and the three amendments that abolished slavery in the United States, Douglass served in many government positions, including ambassador to the Dominican Republic, thus becoming the first black man in the US to hold high office. Douglass was an advocate for women’s rights and continued to fight for equality and human rights until his death in 1895. He has been depicted on stamps and coins in the United States.
Visit to Ireland
To avoid being recaptured as a slave under the Fugitive Slave Act, in 1845 Douglass crossed the Atlantic to visit Britain and Ireland. He was forced to travel steerage on the new Cunard ship Cambria because of his colour. He embarked on a two year lecture tour, intending to stay for four days in Ireland, but he spent four months here.
The Great Famine was just starting. Nevertheless, Douglass later told friends that he spent some of the happiest moments of his life in Ireland, and he said: “I am now safe in old Ireland, in the beautiful city of Dublin.” He wrote: “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.”
Douglas delivered lectures in Belfast, Waterford, Cork and Limerick. He visited Belfast four times. And Douglas visited Ireland again, forty-two years later in 1887, when he spoke in favour of Irish Home Rule.
Douglass had been told that Daniel O’Connell was a fierce opponent of slavery, and when in Dublin on September 29th 1845, he attended a speech made by the Liberator, who was seeking the repeal of the Act of Union. When Douglass had pushed his way through the crowd outside the Conciliation Hall and into the building, the words he heard hardened his determination to remove the shackles of slavery. He later said: “I have heard many speakers within the last four years – speakers of the first order, but I confess I have never heard one by whom I was more completely captivated than by Mr. O’Connell. His power over an audience is perfect.”
As the event was ending, Douglass was introduced to O’Connell and was asked to deliver some words to the dwindling crowd. He said, “The poor trampled slave of Carolina had heard the name of the Liberator with joy and hope, and I myself have heard the wish that some black O’Connell would rise up among my countrymen and cry agitate, agitate, agitate!” As a result, Douglass was often referred to as the Black O’Connell.
In a letter to another anti-slavery campaigner in the US, Douglass wrote: Upon the subject of slavery in general and American slavery in particular, Mr. O’Connell grew warm and energetic, defending his course on this subject. He said, with an earnestness which I shall never forget, “I have been assailed for attacking the American institution, as it is called – Negro slavery. I am not ashamed of that attack. I do not shrink from it. I am an advocate of civil and religious liberty, all over the globe, and wherever slavery rears its head. I am the enemy of the system, or the institution, call it by what name you will. I am a friend of liberty in every clime, class and colour. My sympathy with distress is not confined within the narrow bounds of my own green isle. No, it extends itself to every corner of the earth. My heart walks abroad and wherever the miserable are to be succoured or the slave set free, there my spirit is at home and I delight to dwell.”
In October 1845, Douglass arrived in Cork for a three week visit, and gave a series of lectures on slavery. He met with the temperance campaigner, Tipperary born Fr. Theobald Matthew, an ardent opponent of slavery. Douglass took the pledge of abstinence from Fr. Theobald, who had been converted to teetotalism by the Cork Quaker and anti-slavery agitator, Billy Martin.
Douglass believed that slave owners dulled the slaves’ spirits by plying them with alcohol on Sundays or holidays like Christmas.
At that time, Cork businessmen were connected to the slave trade by selling provisions to slave owners in the Caribbean. On the other hand, there was a strong body of people in the city, particularly among the Quaker community, that favoured abolishing slavery.
Recently more than 2,000 people in Cork signed a petition to rename a street in the city after Frederick Douglass.
Douglass visited Limerick in November 1845 and stayed for two weeks. He gave two lectures in the Independent Chapel in Bedford Row. He agreed with many people in Ireland who had told him that the Irish were “slaves” under the Act of Union because they had been dispossessed of their land, evicted and discriminated against.
He said: “If slavery existed in Ireland, it ought to be put down. But there is nothing like American slavery on the soil on which I now stand. Negro slavery consisted not in taking a man’s property but in making property of him.”
Douglass read out a list of slave laws from states where slaves were being held. He then showed the listeners some implements that were used to subdue blacks. The sight of an iron collar taken from a young black woman, a set of leg irons used to chain a slave, and a whip clotted with blood appalled the Limerick people. When he finished, there were cries from the audience of “horrible” and they left “incensed against the infernal traffic in human blood and flesh.”
And Limerick people today have not forgotten his parting words: “Whether at home or abroad, I will never forget the very kind manner in which I was received in Limerick.”
The great anti-slavery campaigner, Frederick Douglass, died on Febuary 20th 1895, and will be remembered forever as an inspiration to all people striving for civil rights.