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Frederick Douglass: The Scottish Connection

Alan Johnstone describes the connection of the great anti-slavery writer and orator Frederick Douglass with Scotland.

by Alan Johnstone



4 min read

During the recent G-7 summit, Boris Johnson, the UK’s prime minister presented the US president, Joe Biden, with this photograph of a mural of Frederick Douglass in Edinburgh, Scotland. Both politicians deserve to be reminded of a genuine advocate of freedom, but it is doubtful whether either is capable of emulating the courage of Frederick Douglass.

It is time for workers who oppose capitalism to step up and speak up. As Douglass said:

The general sentiment of mankind is that a man who will not fight for himself, when he has the means of doing so, is not worth being fought for by others, and this sentiment is just.

 Frederick Douglass arrived in Scotland on a speaking tour in 1846 from the United States, 13 years had passed since Britain enacted the Slavery Abolition Act.

Colonial slaves had gradually been freed and Britain’s slaveowners were financially compensated for the loss of “their property.”

Douglass’s 19-month visit to Britain and Ireland began in 1845 — seven years after he himself fled slavery in the US South.

“One of the things about his travels in Scotland was his Scottish surname,” said Alasdair Pettinger, author of the forthcoming book Frederick Douglass and Scotland, 1846: Living an Antislavery Life. “He picked up the fact that Douglas [or Douglass] was a name that resonates in Scottish history.”

Douglass often connected with Scottish audiences by referring to himself as “the Black Douglas.” The original “Black Douglas” — so named on account of his black hair — was Lord James Douglas, one of the commanders in the 14th-century wars of Scottish independence.

The new “Black Douglas” was born around 1818 as Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. When he arrived in Massachusetts as a fugitive he needed a new name. Nathan Johnson, a free person of color who gave him shelter, had been reading The Lady of the Lake, a narrative poem by the Scottish author Walter Scott, which had a 16th-century character named James Douglas. So he renamed himself Douglas(s).

Douglass impressed Scottish audiences with powerful speeches against slavery in the US, which had yet to end the practice. He worked as Scotland’s anti-slavery agent from an address in Edinburgh, where there is now a commemorative plaque in his honour, and toured the country’s cities and towns – including Glasgow, Paisley, Dundee and Perth – between January and October 1846. Delighting in the warm Scottish welcome, he described a “conglomeration of architectural beauties” in Edinburgh, and even contemplated settling there with his family.

He demonstrated his literary knowledge of Scotland by visiting the birthplace of Robert Burns. According to Pettinger, the first book Douglass bought after escaping from slavery was an edition of Burns, and he was known to quote the 18th-century Romantic poet as another way of engaging with Scottish audiences.

Douglass arrived amid controversy over the separation of the Free Church from the Church of Scotland. The Free Church required funds, which saw it accept donations from pro-slavery churches in the US. Douglass latched on to the issue and denounced the Free Church by repeatedly calling to “send back the money” on his tour. His talk at Edinburgh’s Music Hall was attended by 2,000 people.

 The Scottish capitalists’ appetite for making money fed off the back of human misery. Scottish merchants and doctors often staffed Africa-bound British slave ships that took enslaved African people and transported them to colonies in the Caribbean.  By around 1800, a staggering 30% of slave plantations in Jamaica, where there are still Scottish surnames and place names, were owned by Scots. As Scotland’s Tobacco Lords reaped great wealth from their investments, Glasgow boomed. Glasgow street names mark city merchants who amassed extraordinary wealth from the transatlantic slave trade, like Glassford Street, named after Scottish Tobacco Lord, John Glassford.  Other connections include Jamaica Street, named after the island where slave plantations saw the city’s industrialists grow fat on the proceeds of sugar and rum.  In Edinburgh, Henry Dundas, a prominent Scottish politician who infamously delayed Britain’s abolition of slavery by 15 years, is immortalised by a statue.

As for Douglass, he visited Scotland again between 1859 and 1860. After his first tour, he arrived back in the US in 1847 a free man, after supporters in England made provision to buy his liberty.

“I have found that, to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one. It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible, to annihilate the power of reason,” he explained in his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave (1845).

Most honest observers would concur with Frederick Douglass when he said:

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sound of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanks-givings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.

Here are three extracts from Douglas’ My Bondage and My Freedom (1855):

When Col. Lloyd’s slaves met those of Jacob Jepson, they seldom parted without a quarrel about their masters, Col. Lloyd’s slaves contending that he was the richest, and Mr Jepson’s slaves that he was the smartest, man of the two. Col. Lloyd’s slaves would boast his ability to buy and sell Jacob Jepson, Mr Jepson’s slaves would boast his ability to whip Col. Lloyd. These quarrels would always end in a fight between the parties, those that beat were supposed to have gained the point at issue. They seemed to think that the greatness of their masters was transferable to themselves. To be a SLAVE , was thought to be bad enough; but to be a poor man’s slave, was deemed a disgrace, indeed.

Were I again to be reduced to the condition of a slave, next to that calamity, I should regard the fact of being the slave of a religious slave-holder, the greatest that could befall me. For of all slave-holders with whom I have ever met, religious slave-holders are the worst. I have found them, almost invariably, the vilest, the meanest and the basest of their class. Exceptions there may be, but this is true of religious slave-holders as a class.

When Douglas goes to work as a caulker in a shipyard in Baltimore and works besides white wage workers, he writes about the resentment of white workers towards the black slaves:

In the country, this conflict is not so apparent; but, in cities, such as Baltimore, Richmond, New Orleans, Mobile etc; it is seen pretty clearly. The slave-holder with a craftiness peculiar to themselves, by encouraging the enmity of the poor, labouring white men against the blacks, succeeds in making the said white men almost as much a slave as the black slave himself. The difference between the white slave, and the black slave, is this: the latter belongs to ONE slave-holder, and the former belongs to ALL the slave-holders, collectively. The white slave has taken from his, by indirection, what the black slave had taken from him, directly, and without ceremony. Both are plundered, and by the same plunderers. 

Once again Frederick Douglass demonstrates his social insight:

The old master class was not deprived of the power of life and death, which was the soul of the relation of master and slave. They could not, of course, sell their former slaves, but they retained the power to starve them to death, and wherever this power is held there is the power of slavery. He who can say to his fellow man, “You shall serve me or starve,” is a master and his subject is a slave.

More than a century and a half ago Douglass said: 

If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightening. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.

We end this article with Frederick Douglass advising us:

Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.

Alan Johnstone

For a general article by Michael Schauerte on the life and work of Frederick Douglass, see here.

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