The escaped American slave who felt an equal man in Edinburgh

Frederick Douglass, who came to Scotland in 1846 on a speaking tour for the abolition movement. PIC Contributed.Frederick Douglass, who came to Scotland in 1846 on a speaking tour for the abolition movement. PIC Contributed.
Frederick Douglass, who came to Scotland in 1846 on a speaking tour for the abolition movement. PIC Contributed.

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It was after arriving in Scotland that former plantation slave Frederick Douglass was made to feel like an equal man for the first time.

Frederick Douglass arrived in arrived in Edinburgh in 1846, eight years after escaping the brutal regime of his owner on a plantation in Maryland, and found a city where he felt “no distinction” to those of a “paler hue” and where “no one seemed alarmed to his presence”.

Following his escape, Douglass became a leading light in the US abolitionist movement and was sent to Great Britain on a speaking tour to seize strong anti-slavery sentiment at a time when the US lagged in efforts to wholly outlaw the trade.

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His trip , organised by the American-Anti-Slavery Society, was also to keep Douglass out of reach for his former owner, Captain Thomas Auld, who under law could still claim him as his property.

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On his tour, Douglas took in towns and cities such as Arbroath, Paisley, Kelso and Glasgow but it was Edinburgh that was to leave a lasting mark on Douglass.

In a letter home to his friend William White, dated July 30 1846, he wrote not only of the city’s “conglomeration of architectural beauties” but the warm welcome that he experienced there.

The letter, held by Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale University, said: “You will perceive that I am now in Edinburgh. It is the capital of Scotland, and is justly regarded as one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.

“I never saw one with which for beauty elegance and grandeur to compare it. I have no time even had I the ability to describe it. You must come and see it if you ever visit this country. You will be delighted with it I am sure. The Monument to Sir Walter Scott, on Princes Street is just one conglomeration of architectural beauties.

“The Calton Hill, Salisbury Craggs and Arthur Seat give the city advantages over any city I have ever visited in this or in your country.

“I enjoy every thing here which may be enjoyed by those of a paler hue—no distinction here. I have found myself in the society of the Combes, the Crowe’s and the Chamber’s, the first people of this city and no one seemed alarmed by my presence.”

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Douglass was born a slave in 1817 or 1818 on the Aaron Anthony plantation in Maryland. Reputedly fathered by his owner, Douglass was raised largely by his grandmother following the death of his mother when he was seven or eight.

He escaped after 10 years living under Captain Auld’s regime and escaped in 1838, heading to Massachusetts - around three-weeks walk away - where he got a job in the shipyards.

After joining AASS, he became a powerful orator and was dispatched to Britain and Ireland to garner support for abolition and apply moral pressure the US government.

His tour came after numerous Scots landowner owners in the United States and West Indies collected their share of £20m compensation paid out under the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 for the lost service of their workforce.

Douglass’s time in Scotland has been fully documented by Scotland’s Transatlantic Relations (STAR) project.

Papers held in its archive illustrate how Douglass’s campaign was to be ramped up to a new level as he clashed with the Free Church of Scotland, which at the time was planning its move to Canada.

Fresh fuel for his lobbying was in amply supply after it emerged Free Church representatives had travelled to the American South in 1845 on a fundraising mission supported by the American Presbyterian Church, which had major congregations in the slave owning states.

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Donations to the Scottish delegation were forthcoming from it Presbyterian allies, with around £3,000 raised.

As documented by Nikki Brown of the STAR project, Douglass’s campaign hooked on the rallying call of “Send Back the Money” with audience members at his many meetings chanting back the phrase to the campaigner on demand.

The Free Church forcefully denied any link to slavery with Douglass coming under strong commendation from church leaders for the insinuation.

As documented by STAR, Douglass’s tactics did not impact the Free Church, who did not give back the money and used the funds to relocate its congregation to Canada in the late 1840s.

Nikki Brown, of the STAR project, wrote in an earlier paper that, “despite infrequent racial slurs and the unmoving position of the Free Church, Douglass was incredibly gratified by the warm reception in Scotland.”

She said: “As historian Nat Huggins explained, Douglass felt himself accepted as a man for the first time in his life, nothing more or less. He even contemplated permanently settling in Edinburgh with his wife and four children.

“While the move to Scotland never came to pass, Scotland always held a special place in Douglass’s heart.”