British Association for American Studies


“A Scene of Tumult and Uproar”: Mapping the Gruelling Lecturing Tours of Black Abolitionists

Frederick Douglass by Samuel J. Miller, 1847-52.

Frederick Douglass by Samuel J. Miller, 1847-52.

During his nineteen-month trip in Britain from 1845-1847, formerly enslaved African American Frederick Douglass travelled by bus, steamship, train and carriage. Although popular antislavery had waned in Britain in the 1840s, it had become part of a nationalist tradition that could be roused by powerful and fiery orators. Douglass – a lecturing genius – exploited this trend and thus became incredibly successful on the British stage.

My interest in black abolitionists in Britain was born from a Masters project at Royal Holloway University in 2011. Upon discovering Frederick Douglass not only visited Britain but also organised an extensive lecturing tour, I began collecting the locations of every speech I could find to build a broader – and visual – picture of his achievements. By marking his lectures on a map we can see how many hundreds of miles Douglass travelled, the gruelling speaking schedule and how he exploited abolitionist networks to spread the antislavery gospel. For the first time, this interactive map provides us with key insights into how Douglass travelled. Using the host website ZeeMaps, you can enlarge the map and see the locations where Douglass spoke (below). Some cities and towns have more than one lecture, but each has a variety of detail ranging from who spoke, where, the time, ticket price and whether the meeting in question was on behalf of a specific society.

Map of the speaking locations of Frederick Douglass in Great Britain.

Map of the speaking locations of Frederick Douglass in Great Britain.

The map visually highlights the strengths of the abolitionist network, and sometimes the contacts in each place. In Dublin for example, the Irish abolitionist Richard D. Webb organised several meetings on Douglass’ behalf and introduced him to his friends in Cork and Limerick. In Bristol, the Estlin family hired lecture halls for Douglass and in Edinburgh the Wigham family used their extensive networks to ensure Douglass had enduring fame in many cities across Scotland.

The abolitionists also exploited the emerging industrialism in Britain – a railway boom was sweeping the nation in the 1840s, and the routes Douglass travelled aligned with new railway lines. This can clearly be seen from Douglass’ route from Bristol to Exeter via Taunton in the Southwest.

Ida B. Wells

Ida B. Wells

I have gathered the majority of these locations from adverts and reports in local newspapers, and they can tell us much more than cold facts such as a time and place. For example, on Monday 11 January 1847, Douglass spoke at the Assembly Rooms in Darlington, where a “scene of tumult and uproar” took place after a particularly fiery speech by Douglass angered people in the audience. His attack on the corrupt nature of Christianity in the Southern states proved too much for the people of Darlington. The meeting led to “great confusion” and swiftly broke up.

Whilst reading newspaper accounts, I also began gathering the speaking locations of other black abolitionists who visited Britain. Each coloured pin shows a different abolitionist or preacher, including Moses Roper, William and Ellen Craft, William Wells Brown, Henry ‘Box’ Brown, Josiah Henson, Alexander Crummell and Ida B. Wells. The map highlights the sheer number of lectures and the vast distances they travelled to speak to audiences about slavery. For example, on Monday 24 June 1850 William Wells Brown gave an evening lecture in Newport on the Isle of Wight, a tiny town where few people would have ever seen a person of African descent before. He was not the only black abolitionist to travel there, however, as six years later the famed entertainer Henry ‘Box’ Brown performed there for several evenings in the Spring of 1856. According to the The Isle of Wight Observer, Brown’s panorama had been “witnessed by TWO MILLIONS of people [in Britain]…who have beheld the spectacle with combined feelings of interest and admiration.”

These maps form part of the only publicly available digital resource to Douglass’ sojourn in Britain. Still a work in progress, the site – www.frederickdouglassinbritain.com – also recounts the controversies Douglass became embroiled in during his visit.

It must be recognised that the list of lectures by Douglass and other black abolitionists is not – and can never be – the final tally. Many abolitionists gave spontaneous lectures, organised meetings that were unrecorded and many are lost to history. However, these maps give us a visual snapshot of the fire, zeal and determination of black abolitionists to travel across Britain to denounce American slavery and convince the British public of its cruelty.

The maps can be found at: http://www.frederickdouglassinbritain.com/frederick-douglass-s-mission-to-britain/map-of-speaking-locations and http://www.frederickdouglassinbritain.com/map-of-black-abolitionists


About the Author

Hannah Rose Murray completed her BA History at University College London in 2011 and the following year, she studied for a Masters in Public History at Royal Holloway University. Hannah started a project on Frederick Douglass in 2012 and after two years research on his impact on Britain, she is due to start a PhD in American Studies at the University of Nottingham in September 2014. Check out her website at - https://sites.google.com/site/frederickdouglassinbritain/