Frederick Douglass: A Black Abolitionist in Ireland

Bill Rolston describes the impact of an erstwhile slave, who toured the Emerald Isle speaking out against slavery in 1845.

In 1845 an African-American abolitionist visited Ireland as part of an extended lecture tour to the United Kingdom. Although only twenty-seven years old, Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) was already an accomplished orator and clearly a man marked out to make a great impression on the struggle for black liberation. But paradoxically, his oratory and fame had also proven to be a problem in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he had settled after escaping from slavery in September 1838. His friends feared that his public profile would bring him to the attention of his erstwhile owners who might then seek the return of their runaway property. It seemed expedient that Douglass should ‘lie low’ for a while. An extended speaking tour of Britain seemed to be of benefit to everyone concerned.

It was already established practice that black American abolitionists travel to England, Scotland and sometimes Ireland on speaking tours. Slavery had been abolished in Britain in 1833, but the strong abolitionist lobby had turned its attention to slavery in the United States. This link was carefully cultivated by American abolitionists. Undoubtedly audiences in the United Kingdom would be as impressed by Douglass as those in America were. So, on August 16th, 1845, Douglass set sail for Liverpool. The visit would prove highly influential in Douglass’s intellectual and political development. He gave countless lectures, fifty in Ireland alone, and honed both his oratorical and political skills. It was almost two years before he returned to America.

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