Sea History 097 - Summer 2001

Page 19

How did that awareness and that sense of a wider communi ty wanted to speak not only about the horror of slavery but abou t the of concern in the seafaring wo rld come into being?T he story of the great needs of the African-American communi ty and the chalgreat African-American leader and former slave Frederick Doug- lenge of freedom once secured . lass sheds light on that scene. He had learned how to make his way and acc umulate savings Born in 1817 as FrederickAugustus Washfrom his $1.00 daily wage on the waterfrontington Bailey, Douglass had the so ul of a poet. that was a vital element in the way he had won freedom. It was vital to his gaining a sense of He found a metaphor of escape from the clutch of slavery in the Chesapeake world in independence and with it a strong sense of responsibility and self worth. In the first verwhich he lived, watching the ships that sailed up and down the bay, many of them bound for sion of his autobiography published in 1845, far corners of the ocean. On the Fells Point he had left out the telling details of his escapewaterfront in Baltimore, where h e worked as a how, for instance, during his break for freedom caulker, the word from fellow blacks was that people who knew him as a slave did not recognize him in the seaman 's clothing. across the ocean there was a city whe re slavery did not exist. T hat city was the English capital, But in that first tract he cold how the slave breaker he had once been sent to had nearly London. "More blacks from distant regions congresucceeded in reducing him to the status of a gated in London than anywhere else," says brute- with little memo ry of the past, uncarJeffrey Bolster in Black j acks, his studied acing about what happen ed from day to day, count of African-American seafaring under Warren Marr, II, civil rights leader and with no hope for the future. H e had found sail, "making it the hub of the black Atlantic." NMHS Overseer who took up the himself, in his words, "broken in body, soul Bolster notes: "London's black society helped Amistad cause to build a ship of.freedom. and spirit. " His escape had been a road back lucky West Indian seamen learn the ropes of from a living death. And in his Narrative ofthe sys tems far more complicated than full-rigged ships, giving them Life ofFrederick Douglass he dwelt on the need for Americans of the confidence to negotiate for freedom"-confidence, and the color to learn achievement, to strike out into the mainstream of friends, connections and support systems to make freedom real. society as he had done, regardless of all odds. Garrison, who Douglass did not attempt to ship out immediately, as he might supported Douglass financially and wrote a preface to his book, have, to go to London. H e was American. But he was resolved to tended to co-opt his message for his own, which trended toward be free. He borrowed the certificate of a free black sailor-of whom defiance of all government. Garrison 's use of Douglass seems clear there were many in the multifaceted seaport wo rld- donned in his preface to D ouglass's book- that book in which the free seaman's clothes, and simply walked off the job at the shipyard. black man's determination to write the plot of his own life, not just The description in the certificate bore little resemblance to the tall, in words, but in deeds, comes through with ringing clarity. powerful yo ung man people called Fred, but, in his sailor's togs and A more threatening problem facing the popular young speaker walking with the free and easy stride of a free man, he found he was that as he became known, he became vulnerable to being retaken as a slave-even in the "free" states of America, like New didn't need the certificate. No one ever asked him for it. H e stayed in New York long enough to get married to his York and Massachusetts. T he doctrine was simple: A slave is fiancee, Anne Murray, a free black woman who had followed him property. Where slavery was legal, the slave was owned by his north. Then, in fear of recapture in New York where he lived with master in the same way a horse is owned. This was to be spelled out friends working for the abolition of slavery in the US, he and his in the Dred Scott decision of 1857, in which by a 7-2 vo te the US new wife headed east for New Bedford, where he co uld vanish into Supreme Court denied the suit of the slave Scott to be free, even in the waterfront scene more readily than in New York. He took up states where slavery was illegal. ChiefJustice Roger B. Taney said speaking and writing about his experiences as a slave, under the slaves had "no rights which any white man was bound to respect. " The solution to this was obvious: take ship for England! adopted name of Frederick Douglass. Even as he achieved growing recognition as Frederick Doug- Douglass had known si nce his time in slavery that there was lass, he found obstacles to his achieving his full potential as a free freedom across the ocean, in the country that gives its name to the man . One was unwittingly erected by white activists working for language he spoke. T he rest ofDouglass's story is one of steady, albeit som etimes the abolition of slavery. In the 183 0s the United States existed in the painful state later to be described by Abraham Lincoln as "h alf painful progress . In England he said: "I live a new life," and "I gaze slave, half free. " T hese activists, led by W illiam Lloyd Garrison, arou nd in vai n fo r one who wo uld question my humani ty." New got to know Douglass when he sallied forth from New Bedford to friends raised the $700 he needed to buy his freedom. Returning attend anti-slavery rallies on the island of Nantucket. Nantucket to the US in 1847, he went back to Baltimore to pay the money had never permitted slavery on its sh ores. T he trouble was that into his master's hands. The elderly Hugh Auld received him Garrison wanted Douglass to testify as a slave. He and his fellow graciously and coolly accepted the blood payment. Douglass was reformers wanted to have people learn the full horror of servitude cool about that too-as a free person paying the fee demanded by an illegitimate system. as Douglass had experienced it. For Douglass, this was not enough . He had become a thinker, Douglass went on to move out of Garrison's orbit, settling in indeed a philosopher, on the conditions oflife and labor, and he Rochester, New York, to p ublish his own newspaper. H e cold his SEA HISTORY 97, SUMMER 2001