The Cambria Riot, My Slave Experience, and My Irish Mission

Frederick Douglass

Citation Information:  Frederick Douglass, “The Cambria Riot, My Slave Experience, and My Irish Mission: An Address Delivered in Belfast, Ireland, on December 5, 1845.” Belfast Banner of Ulster, December 9, 1845 and Belfast Northern Whig, December 9, 1845. Blassingame, John (et al, eds.). The Frederick Douglass Papers: Series One–Speeches, Debates, and Interviews. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979. Vol. I, p. 86.

The Cambria Riot, My Slave Experience, and My Irish Mission: An Address Delivered in Belfast, Ireland, on December 5, 1845.

Belfast Banner of Ulster, December 9, 1845 and Belfast Northern Whig, December 9, 1845.

  1. Mr. DOUGLASS then came forward, and was received with loud applause. He said he felt great pleasure in seeing so many kind and respectable people there assembled, in order to hear an account of the system of slavery from one who had experienced what it was to be a slave. He felt considerable embarrassment in thus standing before intelligent people, for the purpose of instructing them. Slavery was a poor school for acquiring moral, religious, or intellectual improvement. He had never had the advantage of attending a day school, and all that he knew of literature had been obtained by stealth, for in the country whence he came, it was considered a crime against the law to teach a slave to read; and there the coloured child was not even allowed to learn to spell the name of the God that made him. On this account they were not to expect that he should entertain them after the manner of learned men, but they would listen to his simple narrative of the arguments he might advance against slavery with those allowances which the peculiarity of his case required. (Cheers.)
  2. He ought, perhaps, before entering on the subject of slavery, to state how he came there, and why he was in their midst, and he could not do this better than by giving a narrative of the escape he had from slavery. He was born a slave in the State of Maryland, where he remained till he was nearly twenty-one years of age. Seven years ago, in the providence of God, he escaped from his chains, and by going to Massachusetts secured a partial freedom. He made that place his home till within the last four months; and for the last four years he had devoted all the leisure hours he had from labour in advocating the cause of his enslaved and down-trodden brethren. (Cheers.) He went to New Bedford, Massachusetts, and wrought by day as a common labourer for a period of three years; and till then he had never truly lived, as slavery was a living death. (Hear, hear.)
  3. In the latter end of the third year, he happened to attend an antislavery meeting, composed of white people. His heart had long before been warm in the cause, and at this meeting there was a white gentleman, who had often heard him before addressing meetings of coloured people, called for the same object. This gentleman, knowing that he was a slave, urged him to tell his experience to the meeting. He (Mr. D.) felt deeply affected, having been taught to regard white men as his superiors, and never for once thinking that he could receive from them the least countenance or approbation. After much persuasion he consented to get up; and though he spoke stammeringly, and though the audience was made up of men who favoured slavery as well as of those who opposed it, his success was great. It was a novelty to see a slave—a chattel, a thing—speak as he did in the ears of white men, and they were deeply affected. The result was, that the Anti-Slavery Society thought it might be of use to send Frederick Douglass through the New England states, to tell what he knew about slavery. (Hear, hear.) Though it was a severe task, and though he felt his inability, they, seeing the effects of the simple statements told in honesty and earnestness by one who had felt what he described, urged him to undertake the mission. He went forth, and, during the last four years, laboured day and night, in season and out of season, unswayed by the smiles of friends, fearing not the frowns of enemies, despising the opposition of words and blows (and his right arm had been broken by a ruthless anti abolition mob), whilst advocating the cause to which his energies were devoted. (Great applause.) In [the] course of time, however, a suspicion arose that he had never been a slave. It was said, “He is a man of intelligence and of education! How comes it that he, having been a slave, can yet read? Besides, he does not tell us the place from whence he came.” Thus in New England the rumour went abroad that he was an educated free negro, and he found that his usefulness would be impaired unless this report were silenced. He resolved, therefore, to publish a narrative giving a circumstantial detail of what he had seen and suffered in connexion with slavery, stating the place of his former abode, his master’s name, and other particulars. He had kept these a secret, because it would have been dangerous to tell them to the Americans, though they boasted of their country as the land of the free and the home of the brave; and though their Declaration of Independence asserted that all men are equal in the sight of God, and possessed of certain inalienable privileges, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, he durst not tell the name of the place he had left, lest he should be snatched away by the kidnapping emissaries of the slave merchants and taken whence he came.
  4. There was not a spot in all America in which he could stand securely free; no valley in it so deep, no mountain so high, no plain so expansive, as to secure him in the right of his own person. The facts which he published made him liable to be arrested. Having been extensively known by the testimony he had long made against slavery, the narrative was eagerly sought after, so that, in the period of three months, 6,500 copies of it were sold. He was apprehensive that some plan would be formed for his re-enslavement, and to get rid of the kidnapper and his galling fetters he ventured across the wave to tread the sacred soil of the Emerald Isle. (Enthusiastic cheering.)…. (But, the spirit of persecution and slavery travelled with him across the Atlantic. In the vessel in which he came over from America, there were slaveholders, apologists for slavery and democratic mobocrats. He took passage over in the Cambria, on the 16th of August, for Liverpool, and he found that a deep interest and curiosity were excited among the passengers, in consequence of his appearance on board. It was a little strange for a coloured man to take his passage for England—it was, indeed, strange in slave-holding eyes; and on board that steamer, prejudices common to American slaveholders were established. (Cries of “Shame.”) He was not allowed to take a cabin passage; but, however, he would say, that the Captain, and his whole ship’s company, treated him with the greatest kindness and cordiality. It was through the American agent, in Boston, that he was prevented from obtaining a cabin passage.
  5. There was a deep interest excited among the cabin passengers about him, knowing that he had been a slave, and that he had already spoken on the subject of slavery. They wished him to speak to them on the matter, but he would not do so unless the Captain of the vessel desired him. He had with him a number of copies of his narrative; and, through these, the greater number of the passengers soon became well acquainted with him. The Captain’s leave was obtained for him to speak when they were in smooth water, near Ireland; and he asked him to deliver an address to the passengers on the subject of slavery.
  6. Soon, an audience was convened. When he went forward to the saloon-deck, to address them, there was one party which was resolved that he should not speak. He found them cursing and swearing, and uttering the most horrid sentiments with reference to him; but the Captain, after a hymn had been sung, introduced him to the kindly notice of the passengers assembled. He proceeded to address them, but he had uttered hardly five words, when one of the slaveholders stepped up to him, shook his stick in his face, and said it was a lie. Three times, in succession, he pronounced what he said to be lies. He (Mr. Douglass) then said to the audience that, since all he had said was pronounced to be lies, he would give them a few facts, in regard to slavery, as shadowed forth by their own Legislature.—At once the slaveholders knew he was about to expose them; for there is nothing they more dread or avoid than letting strangers know their laws with reference to the unfortunate creatures over whom they hold absolute sway and uncontrolled dominion. (Mr. Douglass then read a list of laws from the slaveholders’ code of regulations with regard to the slave, in which the most cruel and barbarous punishments, such as lashings on the back, the cropping of ears and other revolting disfigurements, were awarded for the most venial crimes, and even frequently when no crime whatever had been committed.)
  7. The reading of these before the audience caused the slaveholders, on the occasion, to writhe in utter agony—for those laws were not intended to be known to the Christian world, and they were crying out on every side, shaking their fists at him. One would say, “Oh! I wish I had you in Cuba!” Another, “Oh!” I wish I had you in New Orleans!” And another, “I wish I had you in Savannah!” (Loud laughter.) But nobody said that they wished they had him in Ireland. (Renewed laughter, and loud cheers.) One of them said, that he would be one of a number to throw him overboard. What a discreet man that was! (Laughter.) He would be one of an indefinite number to throw him overboard! and only one!
  8. There happened to be on board an Irishman—a man of gigantic size—of the name of Gough; and Mr. Gough, looking down upon this man with his glass in his eye, and coolly surveying the discreet gentleman who would be one of an indefinite number to throw him (Mr. Douglass) overboard, hinted that two might possibly play at that game—(loud cheers)—and that two might possibly be thrown overboard. (Cheers.) That had a very good and salutary effect upon the young man.
  9. Threats of the most bloody character were urged by the slaveholders against him (Mr. Douglass); but the Captain said, that he must have a respectful hearing, for he was Captain of the ship, and he would see that order was maintained. (Cheers.) A little man, from New Orleans, said that he should not speak; but the Captain turned him round with a scarce perceptible motion of his hand, and the poor fellow had like to have fallen. The Captain, in sea phrase, could have broken every timber in his body. The little man got into a fearful rage, and he put his hand into his pocket, and felt about for something. He (Mr. Douglass) thought that he was going to draw out his bowie knife, or, perhaps, his pistol.—But he pulled out his card, handed it to the Captain, and cried, “I will meet you—I will meet you—I will meet you in Liverpool!” (In a sepulchral tone)—”Very well,” said the Captain, “I’ll be there!” (Loud cheers, and laughter.)—He heard but little more of him.
  10. Some of them were so outrageous in their conduct, that the Captain at last said, he would put them in irons—the irons were brought forward, and the slaveholders, who were going to fight, and who, the moment before, had been so brave and courageous, sneaked away to different parts of the ship. (Cheers.)—John Bull had but to speak to them, and they were all quiet. (Loud cheers.)
  11. The slaveholders of America wanted to keep their system of slavery covered up—all they wanted was perfect quiet. And, when the slaveholders found, that, in Belfast—a place famed for its intellect and moral superiority—one of their spacious Meeting-houses was thrown open to Frederick Douglass, to expose the infamous system of slavery, it would cause a feeling of agony to thrill through their hearts;—but that system could not long continue, while the power, and moral rectitude, and religious influence of the civilized world were arrayed against it. (Loud cheers.) They want the subject shut out from the light altogether. Their language is, “Let us alone.” John C. Calhoun called upon the lovers of American institutions (and these were synonymous with slavery) and American freedom to suppress the anti-slavery agitation; but it will not down at his bidding. It was progressing in America, and the interest taken in the subject in Britain had a great effect upon its advancement in the States. And this was the reason he was there present.
  12. It seemed meet that a slave should rise up in the midst of his brethren to proclaim the outrages which they had suffered, to counteract the prejudices under which many laboured, and to expose the false statements of the apologists of the accursed system of slavery. (Cheers.) And he was glad to see the friendly manifestations of those present. When the slaveholder learnt that an anti-slavery meeting had been held in this town, so populous, thriving, and intellectual, that one of their churches had been thrown open to him, and that some of the most respectable of the inhabitants were there to hear him, and that they responded to his sentiments, he would be troubled in conscience, and a thrill of agony would convulse him, as he felt that his system could not continue when the morality and intellect of the civilized world were being arrayed against it. (Great cheering.)
  13. Since he had come to Ireland he had been thus accosted—”We are slaves here as well as your countrymen in America;” and his answer was, “if you have slaves they ought to be emancipated; if the people here are tyrannized over, they ought to be relieved from oppression; but let us inquire what slavery really is, and see whether you are in that state.” The error which people who spoke in the way he had stated fell into was, that they did not sufficiently distinguish between certain forms of oppression and slavery. Slavery was not what took away any one right or property in man: it took man himself, and made him the property of his fellow. It was what unmans man, takes him from himself, dooms him as a degraded thing, ranks him with the bridled horse and muzzled ox, makes him a chattel personal, a marketable commodity, to be swayed by the caprice and sold at the will of his master.
  14. God had given the slave a conscience, and freedom of will, but the slaveholder took that from him, and said he should not be governed by conscience and his religious aspirations—he should not be able to say what he should eat, when he should eat, or how he should eat—when he should work, what he should work at, or how he should work—when he should speak, what he should speak, or how he should speak. All his rights were conveyed over to his master. The slave might not decide on anything pertaining to his own actions. It was his master who decided for him when he should marry, how long the marriage tie should continue, and what cause might occasion its dissolution. The slaveholder might, at any time, when influenced by the accursed thirst for gain, tear asunder the tender ties which bound the husband to the wife, and the children to the parent. (Hear, hear, hear.) These were the inseparable concomitants of slavery, and not the accidental circumstances sometimes accompanying it. The slave might not go to God openly, and pray for deliverance. He might not aspire to such a boon, and say, “Grant me freedom ere I die,” without incurring the penalty of being hung up at the first lamppost. (Hear, hear, hear.) Had they anything like this in Ireland? Ah, no! and he thanked God for being permitted to stand upon their soil. Well might John Philpot Curran exclaim—”I speak in the spirit of British law, which makes liberty commensurate with, and inseparable from, British soil; which proclaims, even to the stranger and sojourner, the moment he sets his foot on British earth, that the ground on which he stands is holy, and consecrated by the genius of Universal Emancipation. No matter in what language his doom may have been pronounced—no matter what complexion, incompatible with freedom, an Indian or an African sun may have burned upon him—no matter in what disastrous battle his liberty may have been cloven down—no matter with what solemnities he may have been devoted upon the altar of slavery—the first moment he touches the sacred soil of Britain, the altar and the god sink together in the dust; his soul walks abroad in her own majesty; his body swells above the measure of his chains that burst from around him; and he stands redeemed, regenerated, and disenthralled, by the irresistible genius of Universal Emancipation.” (Loud cries of “Hear, hear,” and long-continued applause.)
  15. To know the happiness which he felt in having this privilege, they must have been in the same condition as himself—they must have felt the ignominious lash, and worn the irons of the slave—fully to appreciate his feelings. Freed from the degrading paraphernalia of slavery, he stood there, at least for a time, an acknowledged man, possessed of human rights. (Applause.)
  16. The system of slavery which he had depicted could be sustained only by brute force. He knew that there were men in this country, and in Scotland, who contended that slavery might exist apart from cruelty. They urged, “We don’t beat horses and cattle: it is unnatural to do this; and why should the slave be beaten?” But they should go a step further, and say that it was unnatural to keep him in bondage. God had given us dominion over the inferior animals—the horse and ass were in their place when labouring for man—”The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib;”5 but, whenever they put man in a like condition—herding him with the beasts of the field—they would have trouble in keeping him there. It then became necessary to make him as like a beast as possible, in other respects—to darken his intellect—to put out the eyes of his mind—for it was impossible to keep any large number of human beings in slavery, while their moral and religious vision remained open to the influences of the truth. All these crimes were concomitants of slavery as it existed in America; and he would repeat without physical force it could not continue. (Applause.) Guns, whips and thumb-screws—the branding-iron and the bloody scourge—all these were its necessary accompaniments, without which its existence was impossible. (Cheers.)
  17. His object in appearing among them was to get an expression of their detestation of slavery. He knew that they were in heart opposed to it, but he wished their opposition to be manifested. Their Wilberforces and Clarksons, and Sturges had done much by their declarations against the system of slavery, and O’Connell’s sturdy and wholesale denunciations of it had been followed by the best effects. (Cheers.) He did not pretend to speak of O’Connell in connexion with any other subject than that of the one before him, but he had heard his name denounced by the tyrants of America, and his efforts spoken of in such a manner as made the slave’s heart leap for joy. (Cheers.)
  18. The influence of public opinion would do much for the slave; and though the Americans were in the habit of speaking contemptuously of Britain and her institutions, they were indebted to that country for their religious and judicial knowledge. English literature guided, to a great extent, the literature of America. They had much to do, therefore, in forming the social institutions of the United States; they could operate upon public opinion there; and as public opinion was an aggregate of private opinions, they might see how the opinion of a country could be changed. Let the Americans, when they come here, feel that they are not looked upon as Christians, while they continued to trade so largely in the bodies of their fellow-men. He wanted the people here and everywhere to rise up, in indignant remonstrance, to tell the Americans to tear down their star-spangled banner, and, with its folds, bind up the bleeding wounds of the lacerated slaves. (Great cheering.) He might be told that they had already spoken—that the different religious bodies of this town had already recorded their opinions on slavery. He was there to thank them for doing so; but, if they had whispered merely, let them whisper no more, but speak “as the tempest does—sterner and stronger”—let them speak loud until every slave-holder heard their rebukes, and resolved to do justice to the down-trodden slave. (Great applause.) Mr. Douglass concluded his eloquent address by giving an interesting statement of the difficulties he encountered in learning to read and write, and then stated that he intended to deliver a series of lectures, on the subject of slavery, during his stay in Belfast.