Sunday, March 27, 2011

April 3, 1847 --- Frederick Douglass at Sea

A regrettable incident concludes the freed American Negro Frederick Douglass' 19-month lecture tour across Britain.

In Liverpool to board the Cunard liner Cambria, sailing for America, he is informed by the dockside agent that his booking is no longer valid. Further, he will not be allowed to board unless he agrees to remain in his cabin throughout the voyage, meals included. Anxious to return home, Douglass agrees. But, before sailing, he complains in a letter to The Times.  Douglas stated that he had inquired at the London ticket office "if my color would prove any barrier to my enjoying all the rights and, privileges enjoyed by other passengers" and he had been assured it would not. Douglass, whose journals had sold 13,000 copies in England, noted that he had been treated with "utmost kindness" while in Britain. He observed, with irony, "It was not till I turned my face towards America that I met anything like proscription on account of my color."

The outcry is immediate. The Times labels the dockside dispute "a proceeding wholly repugnant to our English notice of justice and humanity." Cunard officials explained that on Douglass' voyage. to England, he had been the cause of a near riot aboard the Cambria. During the revelry that marks the last night at sea, the Captain had invited Douglass up from steerage to address the saloon passengers. He was heckled with cries of "Down with the n****r" while others argued to let him speak. The brawl ended with burly crewmen clapping some of the drunken combatants into leg-irons. The Cunard representative insisted that any passenger would have been required to make the same assurances "had he been the whitest man in the world."

When a bogus letter from "a Cunard director" appeared in the papers claiming that the passengers had objected to Douglass' smell, the great Sam Cunard himself came forward to declare:  No one can regret more than I do the unpleasant circumstances respecting Mr. Douglass' passage; but I can assure you that nothing of the kind will again take place."  Douglass was given a stateroom for the voyage but was required "not to place himself in view of the other passengers" during the sixteen day crossing.

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