Irish women's fight against slavery during the Great Famine

Throughout his visit to Ireland, many females rallied to help former slave Frederick Douglass in his campaign for abolition, writes Robert Hume.

Frederick's Douglass's wife, Anna Murray.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of the black abolitionist and civil rights activist who toured Ireland during the Great Famine.

Although slavery had been eliminated in the British colonies in 1833, it was still very much alive in the USA.

Born Frederick Bailey, Douglass grew up on a slave plantation in Maryland and was owned by Thomas Auld, a member of what he called: “a band of successful robbers”.

Encouraged by two Irish sailors, in 1838 he ran away to New York, where he married Anna Murray, a free black woman.

To avoid capture, he changed his name to Douglas, after a character in Sir Walter Scott’s poem ‘The Lady in the Lake’ — adding an extra ‘s’.

Thanks to local white children, who had secretly taught him to read and write, Douglass was familiar with the anti-slavery newspaper The Liberator. He spoke about his experiences as a slave, and toured the USA as a lecturer for the American Anti-Slavery Society.

Twenty-seven-year-old Douglass landed in Ireland in August 1845, after the publication of his memoir, Narrative of the Life of an American Slave, had propelled him onto the world stage. He sought refuge, and support for the abolition of slavery in the USA, but risked being seized and taken back to a life of bondage.

Frederick Douglass in his twenties.

For four months he toured Ireland, lecturing to audiences of men and women. He was a powerful orator, and newspapers complimented him on his speeches.

Many towns had anti-slavery societies. Far from being in the shadows, or “ephemeral”, as one writer puts it, women were actively involved. By the 1850s there were more women’s societies than men’s. “Philanthropy and abolition were two social arenas where women could operate in the public sphere”, says Christine Kinealy, author of a new book, Frederick Douglass and Ireland: In His Own Words.

A statue by English sculptor Andrew Edwards, representing Douglass in Ireland, aged 27

Dublin women urge boycott of slave sugar

In Dublin Douglass stayed with Richard and Hannah Webb, and their four children, on Pearse Street. The family were Quakers, known for championing humanitarian causes. Richard offered to print copies of Narrative..., priced 2s 6d, to give Douglass an income while in exile; Hannah, a skilled proof reader, helped organise Frederick’s tour to Wexford, Waterford and Cork. Dublin’s Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society had already distributed pamphlets and discouraged the purchase of sugar from West Indian slave plantations. Douglass’s five lectures “riveted the attention” of audiences who wanted to know more about American slavery, reported the Freeman’s Journal.

A hundred thousand welcomes from the women of Cork

During his five-week stay in Cork, Douglass was hosted by Thomas and Ann Jennings at their fashionable house in Brown Street (now near Paul Street Plaza). Thomas, a Unitarian, owned a factory manufacturing “non-intoxicating winter stout” for teetollallers, like himself.

Their 32-year-old daughter Isabel, who said that Douglass felt “like a friend”, was secretary of the Cork Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society, founded in 1826. Her sisters — Jane, Charlotte and Helen — also attended its weekly meetings.

A key activity of women abolitionists was to contribute to annual bazaars held by women abolitionists in the USA. Cork Society’s president, Mrs Beamish, from the brewing family, urged women to keep knitting clothes to send to the Boston anti-slavery fair, until “those that are now in bondage shall be freed”.

Isabel Jennings priced the knitwear, and saved money by undervaluing items to pay as little tax as possible. With her help, sales of Narrative reached 600 copies. She also arranged many of Frederick’s speaking engagements in October 1845.

During one lecture in the Independent Chapel, attended by the founder of the Cork Examiner, John Francis Maguire, he provided shocking examples of lashings and brandings meted out to slaves.

On October 23, Douglass spoke at the Imperial Hotel, where women had decorated the room with placards reading “Céad mile failte”, one of which he took home to his wife.

‘Large number of females present in Limerick’

In November 1845 Douglass arrived in Limerick, and witnessed typhus fever and potato blight at first hand. ,For two weeks, he lodged at Lifford House with Benjamin Clarke Fisher, a successful linen merchant, and his wife Mary, both Quakers and founding members of the Limerick Anti-Slavery Society. At least four of their 11 daughters were also involved. With two of them, Susanna and Rebecca, Douglass struck up lifelong friendships.

During one of two lectures he gave in the Independent Chapel on Bedford Row — now the The Buttery café — he brandished a selection of instruments used to torture slaves: an iron collar, taken from the neck of a young woman; a set of leg irons; a pair of handcuffs; and “a horrid whip”, which was clotted with blood when he obtained it. Cries of “Horrible!” rang out. The Limerick Reporter observed that there were “a large number of females present”, who left the chapel “incensed against the infernal traffic in human blood and flesh”.

More than 400 people from all social classes attended an anti-slavery soirée at the Philosophical Rooms on Glentworth Street on 21 November. Douglass commented:

No one seemed to be shocked or disturbed at my dark presence. No one seemed to feel himself contaminated by contact with me

Belfast women form own anti-slavery society Douglass was a keen supporter of women’s suffrage, and everywhere he lectured women came to hear him speak.

The Southern Reporter noted that when he spoke at Belfast courthouse the gallery “was thronged with ladies, who seemed to take the liveliest interest in the proceedings”.

At his final meeting it was announced that the women of Belfast were going to form their own anti-slavery society.

Campaigner Mary Ireland declared: “I am convinced that there is scarcely a lady in Belfast who would not be anxious to join in any means calculated to promote the enfranchisement of the deeply injured Africans.”

Another abolitionist, Mary Ann McCracken, 75, led the Women’s Abolitionary Committee and wore the famous blue Wedgwood brooch depicting a kneeling, chained black slave. As a girl she had read the works of Tom Paine, and was concerned that: “The world was going back, in place of advancing in just and liberal sentiments.”

Mary Ann McCracken of Belfast supported a boycott of slave-produced sugar.

For years she had abstained from eating sugar to support anti-slavery. Even at the age of 89, she would be seen at the docks handing out anti-slavery leaflets to those boarding ships for the USA.

“I have spent some of the happiest days of my life since landing in this country,” wrote Douglass, just before leaving Ireland in December 1845. He felt like “a man and not a chattel”, and could walk through the streets without fear of attack.

A year later, two more women came to his aid. Upon learning that his master intended to reenslave him as soon as he returned to America, Ellen and Anna Richardson, Quaker abolitionists from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, raised £150 to buy his freedom. Anna Richardson appears to be the sister of Ann Jennings of Cork, Isabel’s mother.

Anna Richardson from Newcastle seems to have had family connections in Cork, and paid £150 to buy Douglass his legal freedom from slavery

On December 12, 1846, Frederick Douglass legally became a free man.

Prof Christine Kinealy is Director of Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac University, Connecticut, USA.

Her book, Frederick Douglass and Ireland: In His Own Words will be launched at EPIC: The Irish Emigration Museum, Dublin, on Thursday, September 20.


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