Intern: Terry Allen
Between 1800 and 1880 the life of a Black man in Britain, as compared to that of a Black man in the United States during the same time frame, was much different. Evidence that historians use to note the differences between the United States and Britain arises out of the first hand experience of individuals who were Black Americans. These Americans were mainly runaway or former slaves, who went to Britain to avoid capture. Once they arrived in Britain, the former slaves quickly recognized the differences between the two countries. One slave that took note of the differences, and left Britain with a new outlook on life, was Frederick Douglass.
Like many runaway slaves, Douglass visited Britain in the 1840s to escape the slave hunters. While in England his views on what it was to be a Black man in white society changed drastically. There were three main differences between Britain and the United States. First, the number of Blacks in Britain resulted in them being treated much differently than in the United States. Secondly, the type of jobs that free Blacks had available to them helped them gain some respect among the whites. Thirdly, the types of encouragement and opportunities that were available to the Black population differed. Douglass would take what he learned in Britain and use it as a basis for his ideals on the role of a Black man in the United States.
The history of slavery in Britain began in 1662 when the first slaves were brought to Britain. The slave trade would continue in Britain and its colonies for almost another 200 years. The first sign of government abolishing slavery was the end of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade in 1808. Nineteen years later the British government declared slave trading was piracy and that it was punishable by death. This was to cut down on the slave trading in Britain and would be a sign for things to come. Finally in 1833 Parliament took the first steps in abolishing the institution of slavery for good. The British Parliament passed the Emancipation Act that included a five-year apprenticeship system. The apprenticeship system would prepare the former slaves for life on their own. In 1838, slavery was finally abolished in the British Empire.1
The complete abolishing of slavery in 1838 allowed the former slaves to have the opportunity to make their lives better. The common Black man in Britain was no longer hampered by the restrictions that white society placed on their counterparts in the United States. Other countries followed the British lead and abolished slavery in their countries and colonies; such as, Sweden in 1846 and Holland in 1863.
The role of slavery in domestic Britain was nothing like the slavery in the United States. British slavery was not as important to the countries' economy; therefore the economy could survive without the institution of slavery. Britain did not sport immense plantations, that produced cotton or other agricultural products, like the Southern United States did. However, the use of the Blacks was very similar to the industrial North in the United States as they were used as wage labor. Most of the slaves' worked on ships and inside homes and factories. The number of Black men on mainland England was relatively small, compared to that of the United States. In the 18th century the number of blacks in Britain was between 10,000-15,000.2 This meant that Black men and women were not a constant presence in the minds of the English people because most British people did not have contact with them. Many British had very little dealings with the Black population. Most Blacks lived in cities that were major ports, such as London. There were only a half a million people under British rule -- this included all of its colonies -- in the mid nineteenth century. Also most of the people at this time were more concerned about the England and Ireland situation than the slavery question because that situation effected more people.3 Few people actually owned slaves in Britain and the slavery question was not a question that dominated their lives.
The working class supported the abolition of slavery. This seems odd since the working class would compete with the freed slaves for jobs. There are two ways to explain this unexpected support. One was the hatred of the working class for aristocracy and their way of life. Secondly, the labor unions saw this as an opportunity to expand membership. The labor unions felt that with the membership of the freed Blacks they would be able to gather numbers to support their goals of changing the working conditions in the factories. During the mid-19th century, Europe was under going an industrial revolution in which the working and lower classes were looking for opportunities to improve their lives. With the support of the newly freed slaves, the working class and unions looked to better their position in society. This idea would lead to the support for the abolition of slavery in Britain.4
The differences between Britain and the United States also impacted another area of Black society: the restrictions placed on Blacks in daily life. There was segregation but not on the scale that America would see after the Civil War. There were many times when wealthy Black businessmen could walk down the street, and people would not give them a second look. Harriet Jacobs, another runaway slave, and Frederick Douglass noticed the non-prejudice of the whites towards the Blacks. In Harriet Jacobs' autobiography, she takes note of a similar situation in America and in Europe. When Harriet Jacobs worked for Mr. and Mrs. Bruce, she was a nursemaid who cared for the Bruce children. In America, she was not allowed to sit at the table with the other nursemaids and would have to eat her food in her own room away from the whites. In England, she was allowed to join the other nursemaids and felt right at home. She sensed no prejudice against her.5 Frederick Douglass had a similar experience on his journey over to England. On the British boat when it left America, Douglass had been given cramped quarters and was told to stay below deck in the steerage compartment. Once he became within reach of England, Douglass was allowed to go to the deck and enjoy the sights. This change in the captain's stance was due to the pressure of other passengers who wanted to hear Douglass speak. The few Southerners on the boat attempted to block Douglass from speaking but the British captain threatened to tie them up if they tried to stop Douglass from speaking.6 This example showed how different and more accepting of the Blacks the English were compared to the Americans.
The opportunities available to the American Black and the British Black as slaves were much different. The British allowed, and even encouraged, their slaves to read and write. The opportunities to get an education had been abundant in Britain because most owners wished their slaves to be educated people. A reason for this could be the occupation that Black men held. Blacks mainly held jobs on ships, since this was a main contributor to the British economy. They had to be knowledgeable in the sciences and mathematics in order to run a ship effectively. If they were able to run a ship effectively they would be able to make more money for their owners, so it became profitable for Blacks to be educated. Olaudah Equiano was this type of slave. He lived during the 18th century and sailed with his masters to and from Africa. He quickly learned the art of sailing and began to hire himself out. He hired himself out to various people, such as Dr. Charles Irving. He used his knowledge of the sea and sailing as way to attract business. Dr. Charles Irving was finding was to make seawater fresh. He hired Equiano to help him.7Equiano was just one example of a slave using his knowledge of the sea and education to make money. Frederick Douglass took notice of the importance the British placed on education. Douglass mentioned in his autobiography that meeting educated people was one of the highlights of the trip. The importance of educating Blacks in Britain was an important aspect that Douglass and other runaway slaves noticed in their visits.
In the United States, runaways and other free Blacks did not enjoy the opportunities British Blacks enjoyed. In 1850, the United States Congress had passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which allowed runaway slaves in the North to be returned to their former owners in the South. It obliged the federal government to enforce and support slavery in the South. This act also created a fear in the free Black community in the North because they became suspicious of everyone as a potential slave catcher. Also, this limited the number of chances the runaway slaves would take in order to improve themselves because of their fear and suspicions of other people. The Fugitive Slave Act gave job security to whites in the North because if a Black man challenged them then the white worker could eliminate him as threat by sending him back to the South. In After the English Parliament completely abolished slavery in England in 1838, blacks led relatively secure lives in England. Slaves believed this as well in 1772 with the ruling of the Somerset case.8 The court stated "that a master could not by force compel a slave to go out of England."9 Blacks felt relatively secure that they would not be taken away from England and sold. As stated earlier, wealthy black men could walk around in broad daylight without the threat of being captured and returned to their former owners. This was a major difference between Britain and the United States for the Blacks.
Most Blacks in Britain, even though, they had the opportunity to succeed by getting an education and given the chance to work most of them barely made enough money to survive. Very few of them were wealthy enough to be on equal footing with the whites. Many Blacks struggled to get jobs and when people like, Douglass, saw Black people on the side of the street begging for money it came as a real shock to them. The majority of Blacks in Britain were poor. Unlike Douglass, most of them had never experienced the horrors of plantation slavery or had the opportunity to meet up with people who could help them make a living. They were already freed and had no story to tell. They had to resort to other ways to make a living. For many of the Blacks in England they resorted to performing on the streets. Some of these performers became famous. One such Black who made a successful living by performing on the streets was Billy Waters or better known as the "King of Beggars."10 Billy Waters was a one legged violinist who performed on the streets of London. Black beggars were no different from than White beggars. The people looked down on them not because of their skin color but their social standing. On the opposite end of the social spectrum were the well-to-do Blacks. They were more accepted in White society than any other blacks. Their acceptance into White society was based on the amount of wealth they had. However, there was some racism in the upper echelons of society. They did not mind Blacks with money as long as they knew where their place was in society. The difference here between Britain and the United States was the acceptance of the Black in society. The American public did not accept Blacks in society. If a Black man had accumulated wealth, the White society would find ways to keep subservient to them.
The Abolition movement in Britain showed how much support the Blacks received from the white population. It began in the 18th century with people like Equiano. They goal was to free all British slaves but once that was accomplished British abolitionist turned to helping the American abolitionists by raising money. American and English abolitionist used the Blacks to gather support for the abolition of slavery in America. Thousands of people would turn out to hear speakers on the slavery issue in America. The British abolitionist would bring somewhat educated former slaves from the United States to speak at gatherings. These British abolitionists would raise enough money to buy the freedom of many slaves in the United States, people like Frederick Douglass. The overwhelming support of the British in the campaign showed how much the cause of freeing the slaves meant to them.
The experiences of Frederick Douglass provide a fine case study of the differences between Britain and the U.S. treatment of blacks. When Frederick Douglass went to England for the first time, he held certain assumptions on the role of the Black man in society. Visiting England opened up his eyes to the possibilities of the Black man in a white man's world. Douglass learned Black men could be as well educated as a White man and have the same opportunities to succeed in life.
Frederick Douglass was accustomed to White prejudice against Black people. Prejudice dominated his life in America, so when he arrived in England, it became a real shock to see no outward prejudice. When he was refused cabin passage on the boat the Cambria, it did not come as a shock, but was expected by Douglass. Douglass responded to the prejudice by saying, "The insult was keenly felt by my white friends, but to me such insults were so frequent and expected that it was of no great consequence whether I went in the cabin or in the steerage."11 Prejudice was something he had grown accustomed to before his trip to England. The way the English treated him with kindness and respect was never truly matched in America. There was no prejudice shown toward him and the enthusiasm that the people showed toward his life story was unheard of in America. Thousands of English commoners would pack the halls just to listen to his story and his views on slavery. There was no fear about being lynched or attacked while he gave his lectures. Douglass had never seen such overwhelming support for the anti-slavery cause in the United States. In the United States, Douglass would usually speak in front of a few hundred people with the fear of being killed always present. Douglass situation was much different than the common Black man because of celebrity status. He met very few Blacks so he could never get a clear since on what a common Black man went through. He was showed no prejudice because of his status.
The major difference between the United States and England was the way Frederick Douglass was treated by the British people. As mentioned before there was less prejudice shown toward the Black people in England than in America. Frederick Douglass spoke out against the United States in a letter to William Garrison:
As Douglass continued the letter he mentions the difference between the two places:
The very fact that Black men and White men could possibly live together equally was an eye opening experience for Douglass. England showed him that all people should be treated equally and could be treated equally. He echoed these thoughts in a letter to Amy Post, a close friend, when he said:
Many of the opportunities that Douglass experienced in England he could have never have experienced in the United States, such as, going to the theater or a religious function. In his autobiography Life and Times of Frederick Douglass he mentioned many times that he was denied admittance due to the color of his skin in the United States, but in England that was not the case. In a letter to Amy Post he expressed his fears:
Douglass was fearful that England would corrupt him and make him weak when he returned to the United States. He was afraid that if he became used to the English way, it would soften him when he needed to be strong and attempted to bring the same equality to his brethren in the United States.
Not only was Frederick Douglass surprised by the differences in how Blacks were treated in England, but he was also surprised by the opportunities public speaking afforded him. He soon realized the importance of public speaking in delivering a message. Douglass was in awe of people like Richard Cobden and John Bright. Richard Cobden and John Bright were famous lectures who argued for the repeal of the Corn Laws and the repeal of the union of England and Ireland.16 Their lectures and lectures by others on the Corn Laws were able to turn the tide on that issue and convince the Prime Minster of England, Robert Peel, to change his stance on the issue in support of it. The people he met in England also instilled in him the importance of education and how knowledge could benefit the cause for which one was fighting. The knowledge he gained from the people he traveled with increased his ability to spread his message throughout the United States. As a result, he became one of the most famous Black abolitionists in the United States.
Frederick Douglass returned to the United States with a new vision of the role the Black man could take in society. He did not listen to his fears and become weak, but he used his new knowledge to spread and add fuel to the message that he wished to send to his brethren in the United States. His goal was to create an equal society among Black and Whites and to give Blacks an opportunity to succeed in life. Unfortunately, this did not happen until the twentieth century long after his death.
The United States fought a Civil War to abolish slavery, but the prejudices that existed before the war were still present in everyday life. The segregation that was found in the North before the war was still there and spread throughout the country. The South created the Jim Crow laws that would make the Black people slaves to the White society. This segregation affected even Douglass in 1868 when he attempted to board a sleeping car in Cleveland. He was refused admittance because he was a Black man. After a heated exchange with the conductor and the help of people who recognized Douglass he was allowed on the sleeping car. Instances like Douglass' encounter crept up throughout the United States. Unfortunately for many, they were unable to gain passage into their rail cars.17 These and many other instances were the reason Douglass continued to spread his message until his death. The Untied States government refused to take the lead of the British and give all Black men equal rights until during and after the Civil War. The United States government passed the 14th and 15th Amendments that gave basic freedoms to Black Americans. However, many of the states found loopholes in these Amendments, such as, the Jim Crow laws. Douglass had tried his best to change the world for his fellow Black men, but, in a sense, he was not successful. The United States continued to refuse the Black an opportunity to gain respect.
The United States refusal to take the example of Britain and abolish slavery in 1838 and in giving the blacks an opportunity to live side by side with the white population continued after the Civil War and into the 20th century. The differences between the two countries inspired many former slaves who visited England to return to America and make a difference. Frederick Douglass was an example of a Black man profoundly effected by his time in England. England opened his eyes to a whole New World in which Black men could live. Douglass took what he learned in England and used it as his basis for his argument in hope of changing America.