Friday, June 05, 2015

What Douglass Didn't Say About Great Britain

Frederick Douglass
circa 1847-1852

I have been reading My Bondage and My Freedom by Frederick Douglass. It was first published in 1855. Chapter 24, titled "Twenty-One Months in Great Britain", describes Douglass' stay in Ireland, England and Scotland from late 1845 to the Spring or 1847. Douglas wrote early in his trip (when he was in Ireland):
My opportunities for learning the character and condition of the people of this land have been very great. I have traveled almost from the Hill of Howth to the Giant's Causeway, and from the Giant's Causway, to Cape Clear. During these travels, I have met with much in the character and condition of the people to approve, and much to condemn; much that thrilled me with pleasure, and very much that has filled me with pain. I can not, in this letter, attempt to give any description of those scenes which have given me pain. This I will do hereafter. I have enough, and more than your subscribers will be disposed to read at one time, of the bright side of the picture. I can truly say, I have spent some of the happiest moments of my life since landing in this country. I seem to have undergone a transformation. I live a new life. The warm and generous cooperation extended to me by the friends of my despised race; the prompt and liberal manner with which the press has rendered me its aid; the glorious enthusiasm with which thousands have flocked to hear the cruel wrongs of my down-trodden and long-enslaved fellow-countrymen portrayed; the deep sympathy for the slave, and the strong abhorrence of the slaveholder, everywhere evinced; the cordiality with which members and ministers of various religious bodies, and of various shades of religious opinion, have embraced me, and lent me their aid; the kind of hospitality constantly proffered to me by persons of the highest rank in society; the spirit of freedom that seems to animate all with whom I come in contact, 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. In the southern part of the United States, I was a slave, thought of and spoken of as property; in the language of the LAW, "held, taken, reputed, and adjudged to be a chattel in the hands of my owners and possessors, and their executors, administrators, and assigns, to all intents, constructions, and purposes whatsoever." (Brev. Digest, 224). In the northern states, a fugitive slave, liable to be hunted at any moment, like a felon, and to be hurled into the terrible jaws of slavery—doomed by an inveterate prejudice against color to insult and outrage on every hand (Massachusetts out of the question)—denied the privileges and courtesies common to others in the use of the most humble means of conveyance—shut out from the cabins on steamboats—refused admission to respectable hotels—caricatured, scorned, scoffed, mocked, and maltreated with impunity by any one (no matter how black his heart), so he has a white skin. But now behold the change! Eleven days and a half gone, and I have crossed three thousand miles of the perilous deep. Instead of a democratic government, I am under a monarchical government. 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. I gaze around in vain for one who will question my equal humanity, claim me as his slave, or offer me an insult. I employ a cab—I am seated beside white people—I reach the hotel—I enter the same door—I am shown into the same parlor—I dine at the same table and no one is offended. No delicate nose grows deformed in my presence. I find no difficulty here in obtaining admission into any place of worship, instruction, or amusement, on equal terms with people as white as any I ever saw in the United States. I meet nothing to remind me of my complexion. I find myself regarded and treated at every turn with the kindness and deference paid to white people. When I go to church, I am met by no upturned nose and scornful lip to tell me, "We don't allow niggers in here!"
I would note however, that things were not so great in Ireland around the time he visited. There was a history of anti-Catholic prejudice and legislation in Ireland. The potato famine began with the destruction of potato crops in 1845 and was in full swing in 1847. A million or more Irish died as a result, while food was being exported from Ireland to England. Millions of desperate people emigrated, many to America, and some on plague ships. The poor, non-English speaking Irish immigrants were the lowest of the low; in the South they were given jobs judged too dangerous for slaves (if a slave died or was incapacitated, his owner lost the value of his investment). Certainly by 1855 when this book was published, the extent of the tragedy should have been visible in the United States.

Douglass continued to be well received in peoples homes in England and Scotland, and he is not discriminated against in public transportation or public facilities as he would be in the United States. Indeed, as a result of publicity he receives he is able to address large groups, and appears to be very much encouraged by a public outcry against the Church of Scotland receiving funds from related churches that supported slavery in their countries. He apparently felt that he was not the subject of racial discrimination there.

Again, let me comment on some of the less pleasant aspects of life in Great Britain. Life expectancy in Great Britain hovered around 40 years until 1850. I quote from a paper on daily life in Britain in the 19th century:
In the 1840s many people came from Ireland, fleeing a terrible potato famine......In Victorian Britain at least 80% of the population was working class........The first effective (child labor) law was passed in 1833. It was effective because for the first time factory inspectors were appointed to make sure the law was being obeyed. The new law banned children under 9 from working in textile factories. It said that children aged 9 to 13 must not work for more than 12 hours a day or 48 hours a week. Children aged 13 to 18 must not work for more than 69 hours a week. Furthermore nobody under 18 was allowed to work at night (from 8.30 pm to 5.30 am). Children aged 9 to 13 were to be given 2 hours education a day.......(Early in the century) Conditions in coalmines were often terrible. Children as young as 5 worked underground. However in 1842 a law banned women and boys under 10 from working underground. In 1844 a law banned all children under 8 from working.........Living conditions in early 19th British century cities were often dreadful......early 19th century cities were dirty, unsanitary and overcrowded. In them streets were very often unpaved and they were not cleaned. Rubbish was not collected and it was allowed to accumulate in piles in the streets. Since most of it was organic when it turned black and sticky it was used as fertilizer.........At the end of the 19th century more than 25% of the population of Britain was living at or below subsistence level. Surveys indicated that around 10% were very poor and could not afford even basic necessities such as enough nourishing food. Between 15% and 20% had just enough money to live on (provided they did not lose their job or have to take time off work through illness). If you had no income at all you had to enter the workhouse. The workhouses were feared and hated by the poor. They were meant to be as unpleasant as possible to deter poor people from asking the state for help. However during the late 19th century workhouses gradually became more humane........In the early 19th century housing for the poor was often dreadful. Often they lived in 'back-to-backs'. These were houses of three (or sometimes only two) rooms, one of top of the other. The houses were literally back-to-back. The back of one house joined onto the back of another and they only had windows on one side. The bottom room was used as a living room cum kitchen. The two rooms upstairs were used as bedrooms. The worst homes were cellar dwellings. These were one-room cellars. They were damp and poorly ventilated. The poorest people slept on piles of straw because they could not afford beds. However housing conditions gradually improved. In the 1840s local councils passed by-laws banning cellar dwellings. They also banned any new back to backs. The old ones were gradually demolished and replaced over the following decades.......In the early 19th century most of the working class lived on plain food bread, butter, potatoes and bacon. Butcher's meat was a luxury. 
Great Britain did have a strong, early abolition movement. An act of parliament abolished slavery throughout the British empire in 1833 "(with the exceptions 'of the Territories in the Possession of the East India Company,' the 'Island of Ceylon,' and 'the Island of Saint Helena'; the exceptions were eliminated in 1843)." While I accept that Frederick Douglass was well received by his hosts and many in the general public, The Scramble for Africa  seems to suggest that racial prejudice against Africans was alive and well in at least a portion of the British population and government.

I would also point out that American produced cotton was very important to the English economy. I quote from an article by Henry Louis Gates Jr.:
What did cotton production and slavery have to do with Great Britain? The figures are astonishing. As Dattel explains: “Britain, the most powerful nation in the world, relied on slave-produced American cotton for over 80 per cent of its essential industrial raw material. English textile mills accounted for 40 percent of Britain’s exports. One-fifth of Britain’s twenty-two million people were directly or indirectly involved with cotton textiles.”
The Civil War resulted in a blockade of the South, and England began to import cotton from other sources, notably Egypt. However, Gates also points out:
(C)otton productivity, no doubt due to the sharecropping system that replaced slavery, remained central to the American economy for a very long time: “Cotton was the leading American export from 1803 to 1937.”
The political elites in England could not have been unaware of the role that their industry was playing in the economic support of the slavery system and later Jim Crow system that produced cotton in the United States.

While the purpose of Douglass' 1855 autobiography was clearly to support the fight against slavery and racism in the United States, and while he admits he is not writing about the darker aspects of life in Great Britain at the time of his visit, there was such a darker aspect. Indeed, I wonder if his lack of formal education and the warm reception he received from the British abolitionists may have reduced his ability to understand and appreciate the problems of the nations he was visiting,

I suspect that Douglas, in his talks in Great Britain against slavery, helped raise public opposition to the Arab slave trade in Africa. This in turn was part of the public support for British imperial participation in the scramble for Africa that came after 1876. Of course, the British imperial masters, having wrested control of a huge swath of Africa, often and for a very long time treated the native Africans badly.

1 comment:

John Daly said...

In 1850 Douglass did write: "It is often said, by the opponents of the anti-slavery cause, that the condition of the people of Ireland is more deplorable than that of the American slaves. Far be it from me to underrate the sufferings of the Irish people. They have been long oppressed; and the same heart that prompts me to plead the cause of the American bondman, makes it impossible for me not to sympathize with the oppressed of all lands. Yet I must say that there is no analogy between the two cases. The Irishman is poor, but he is not a slave. He may be in rags, but he is not a slave. He is still the master of his own body, and can say with the poet, "The hand of Douglass is his own." "The world is all before him, where to choose;" and poor as may be my opinion of the British parliament, I cannot believe that it will ever sink to such a depth of infamy as to pass a law for the recapture of fugitive Irishmen! The shame and scandal of kidnapping will long remain wholly monopolized by the American congress. The Irishman has not only the liberty to emigrate from his country, but he has liberty at home. He can write, and speak, and cooperate for the attainment of his rights and the redress of his wrongs.

"The multitude can assemble upon all the green hills and fertile plains of the Emerald Isle; they can pour out their grievances, and proclaim their wants without molestation; and the press, that "swift-winged messenger," can bear the tidings of their doings to the extreme bounds of the civilized world. They have their "Conciliation Hall," on the banks of the Liffey, their reform clubs, and their newspapers; they pass resolutions, send forth addresses, and enjoy the right of petition."