Two Centuries of Frederick Douglass

It’s the 200th anniversary of Frederick Douglass’s birth. As Scotland rightly comes to grips with its part in this terrible chapter of humanity’s collective history, it is important to remember that even in a time where slavery was legal and state-supported, there was defiance against inequity and compassion for our fellow humans.

It is only fitting that Scotland, whose commercial capitals, elite, and real estate so greatly benefited from the toil of the unwilling, was also a bastion of revolt against it:

Scotland is a blaze of anti-slavery agitation – the Free Church and Slavery are the all-engrossing topics…The Free Church is in a terrible stew. Its leaders thought to get the slaveholders’ money and bring it home, and escape censure. They had no idea that they would be followed and exposed. Its members are leaving it, like rats escaping from a sinking ship. There is a strong determination to have the slave money sent back, and the Union broken up. In this feeling all religious denominations participate. Let slavery be hemmed in on every side by the moral and religious sentiments of mankind, and its death is certain.
– Frederick Douglass, letter to William Lloyd Garrison, April 16 1846

It is not self-aggrandising to say that Scotland – a nation with portraits, monuments, and statues to slave owners, some of its very streets named for plantations, and which gave us one of the most notorious anti-abolitionists of them all, who did everything in his power to postpone slavery’s twilight – was also one of the strongholds for reform. The Caledonian Antiszyzygy seems to permeate throughout Scottish life and legacy.

The dichotomy is hard to shake. As part of the UK, Scotland is in one of the most unequal states in the world, yet Scotland itself is also a forerunner in equalities; Scotland boasts an embarrassment of billionaires and absentee landlords, yet features some of the boldest land reform proposals in its history; we’re a people who are no strangers to discrimination on various grounds, but are just as quick to the call of justice. It isn’t about saying Scotland was immune, or somehow free from such societal ills – it’s that Scots were just as vulnerable to iniquity, injustice, and discrimination as any other country, but collectively decided to do something about it.

Frederick Douglass is rightly being commemorated in Edinburgh, which is also home to a statue of Abraham Lincoln. He’s the sort of man who deserves a commemoration everywhere he’s visited – such as the West Blackhall Street Chapel, now H.G. Pyper’s furniture store, in Greenock. It’s fitting that both my MP and MSP’s parliamentary offices can see the building where one of the great advocates of universal emancipation – which of course led to universal suffrage, and votes for all – spoke to an audience willing to listen and spread the word.

SEND BACK THE MONEY

SEND back the Money! send it back!
‘Tis dark polluted gold;
‘Twas wrung from human flesh and bones,
By agonies untold:
There’s not a mite in all the sum
But what is stained with blood;
There’s not a mite in all the sum
But what is cursed of God.

Send back the Money! send it back!
Partake not in their sin
Who buy and sell, and trade in Men,
Accursed gains to win:
There’s not a mite in all the sum
An honest man may claim;
There’s not a mite but what can tell
Of fraud, deceit, and shame.

Send back the money! send it back!
‘Twill strike the fatal blow,
That soon or late must yet be struck
Unto the Negro’s wo:
There’s not a mite in all the sum
But what will prove to be
As iron in the soul of him
Who has enslaved the free.

Send back the money! send it back!
Tempt not the Negro’s God
To blast and wither Scotland’s Church
With his avenging rod:
There’s not a mite in all the sum
But cries to Heav’n aloud
For wrath on all who shield the men
That trade in Negro’s blood.

Then send the money back again!
And send without delay;
It may not, must not, cannot bear
The light of British day.
Edinburgh Antislavery pamphlet, 1846.

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