By Gerry Adams
Last week I attended the launch of Christine Kinealy’s authoritative and revealing two volumes on the life and times of Frederick Douglass, “Frederick Douglass and Ireland: In his own words.”
Douglass was born into slavery two hundred years ago this year in the United States. He escaped from slavery, wrote about his experiences and lectured widely, including here in Ireland. Christine Kinealy is the Director of Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut and has had a long association with Ireland writing on Daniel O’Connell, the Great Hunger and, of course Frederick Douglass. Quinnipiac’s Múseam An Ghorta Mór – Ireland’s Great hunger Museum, is a unique collection of art and research and resource materials on that period of Irish history. Christine’s newest book is drawn from over fifty speeches which Douglass gave in Ireland. They are a reminder of the evil and horror that was and is slavery and of the work of the anti-slavery movement that was active in Ireland in the 1840s.
Slavery had been opposed by radical Presbyterians in Belfast in the late 18th century, many of whom became United Irelanders. Efforts to form a slave company in the city were thwarted and decades later, when Douglass lectured in Belfast, one of his most enthusiastic supporters was Mary Anne McCracken, sister of the executed leader of 1798. When Douglass left Belfast in January, 1846 he left behind a Ladies Anti-Slavery Society, one of whose founding members was Mary Anne McCracken.
Slavery is not the past. It is the present. It is estimated that between twenty and forty million people across the world are in slavery. Some are women forced into prostitution, or children working in sweatshops, or men and women forced to work through fear, and threats. Modern slavery takes different forms. Human trafficking, debt bondage, child slavery. There are an estimated ten million child slaves. Think about that! Ten million children living in slavery.
For many people in Ireland, slavery is something that existed decades, even centuries ago. In the worst years of poverty and landlordism it was endemic on this island. The English landlord class and its agents cruelly exploited this situation to maximize their profits. Here is how one English writer, Arthur English, in “A Tour in Ireland 1780,” described conditions at the time: “A landlord in Ireland can scarcely invest an order which a servant, laborer or cotter dares to refuse to execute. Nothing satisfies him but an unlimited submission. Disrespect or anything tending towards sauciness he may punish with his cane or his horsewhip with the most perfect security, a poor man would have his bones broke if he offered to lift a hand in his own defense…Landlords of consequence have assured me, that many of their cottars would think themselves honored by having their wives or daughters sent for to the bed of their master; a mark of slavery that proves the oppression under which such people must live.”
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But later slavery took on different forms. It took the shape of the Magdalene Laundries, of mother and baby homes, and of the industrial schools. Today, slavery still exists globally and there is an obligation on all of us to speak out against it. The story of Douglass is a story of connections with Ireland. At the age of twelve he was encouraged to escape by two Irishmen working in the shipyard where he was a slave laborer. He made several efforts and eventually escaped at the age of 20. As an escaped slave, Douglass was still liable to be taken by pro-slaver supporters and returned to his former master.
He was reluctant to speak publicly. Eventually, however, he agreed to speak on the issue and emerged as an articulate and gifted orator. His speeches and lectures were very effective in building support for the anti-slavery movement. In 1845 he published his autobiography, “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave.” Within a few months he had sold over five thousand copies, but this success increased the possibility of pro-slave elements capturing him and returning him to slavery.
Douglass sailed for Britain in August, 1845. On his journey he was asked by the captain if he would speak to the passengers about his experience. Some pro-slavery passengers threatened to throw Douglass overboard, but an unidentified Irishman intervened and threatened to do it to them first. Shortly after he arrived in Liverpool, Douglass sailed to Dublin where on September 3 he gave his first lecture in Ireland. Over the following months he travelled to Wexford, Waterford, Cork, Limerick and Belfast. He returned to Belfast another four times.
Ireland was, in his own word, “transformative” for Douglass. In a letter to a friend in Boston he wrote: “I live a new life. The warm and generous co-operation extended to me by the friends of my despised race…and the entire absence of everything that looked like prejudice against me, on account of the color of my skin – contrasted so strongly with my long and bitter experience in the United States, that I look with wonder and amazement on the transition.” Douglass said of his time in Ireland that he had become a man, rather than a chattel. In the course of his time here he met Daniel O’Connell and others campaigning to end the union with Britain. He witnessed the awful conditions endured by Irish peasants. Consequently, Douglass increasingly saw the issue of slavery not in isolation, but as part of a wider campaign for equality and social justice.
He wrote: “I see much here to remind me of my former condition, and I confess I should be ashamed to lift up my voice against American slavery, but that I know the cause of humanity is one the world over. “He who really and truly feels for the American slave, cannot steel his heart to the woes of others; and he who thinks himself an abolitionist, yet cannot enter into the wrongs of others, has yet to find a true foundation for his anti-slavery.”
In 1848 he was one of the few men to attend the Seneca Falls Convention, the first women’s rights conference. When a dispute arose over whether they should campaign for women to have the right to vote, Douglass, who was the only African American participant, successfully argued for its inclusion in the closing Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions. In a speech in 1867, Douglass said: “Let no man be kept from the ballot box because of his color. Let no woman be kept from the ballot box because of her sex.”
Douglass’s close association with Belfast should be a matter of great public pride. It is a part of our history that needs to be told and retold. It is also a reminder that the evil of slavery still has to be ended.
“Frederick Douglass and Ireland: In his own words,” by Christine Kinealy. This is an expensive two volume publication, so if need be order it from your local library.