The story of Frederick Douglass in Ireland has been well told in recent years, fictionally evoked by Colum McCann’s 2013 novel TransAtlantic, and brought to prominence also by Barack Obama’s 2011 speech on College Green, which focused in no small part on the political alliance between Daniel O’Connell and the great abolitionist.
Ireland had an electric effect on Douglass, moving him to write that “I have spent some of the happiest moments of my life since landing in this country. I seem to have undergone a transformation. I live a new life.”
A less familiar but equally remarkable tale concerns Olaudah Equiano, known in his lifetime as Gustavus Vassa. A former slave and the author of an influential memoir, Equiano visited Dublin and Belfast in the 1790s, mingling among the most progressive voices of the day in Irish society.
Equiano’s youth and background are disputed by historians, though biographer Nini Rodgers contends that he was “born in present-day Nigeria in the 1740s, he had been kidnapped as a boy of ten, sold into slavery and employed as a sailor in Britain and the Caribbean. Horrified at the conditions of blacks in the West Indies, he determined to purchase his freedom and go to England.”
By 1766, Equiano had gained his freedom, and he later penned The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. In Ireland, this memoir had an important political influence, with a Dublin edition published in 1791 and championed by prominent United Irishmen.
Decades before Frederick Douglass set foot in Ireland, Equiano toured the island, finding receptive audiences keen to link their own political aspirations to his. It was a time when Bastille Day commemorations on the streets of Belfast witnessed a banner asking “can the African slave trade though morally wrong be politically right?”
Equiano himself recalled that “in May 1791 I sailed from Liverpool to Dublin where I was very kindly received, and from thence to Cork, and then travelled over many counties in Ireland. I was everywhere exceedingly well treated, by persons of all ranks”.
The Dublin edition of Equiano’s work would sell an impressive 1,900 copies, with subscribers to its publication including James Napper Tandy, a prominent Dublin radical who commanded the respect of the city’s working class and emerged as a leading voice of the United Irishmen, and Oliver Bond, among the most enlightened republicans in the city.
The slave trade was denounced in the contemporary Dublin press. For example, in a radical pamphlet entitled the Civic Eclogue, satirical verses were written from the perspective of a privileged Irishman living in ignorant bliss of the realities of the slave trade: “from sugar I have not refrained, though shunned as if it were blood disdained.”
The grim realities of the slave trade were known in Ireland, and while Dublin and Belfast ports never profited to the same extent as other British cities in the eighteenth century, Daniel O’Connell was incorrect in proclaiming that Ireland “has its glory, that no slave ship was ever launched from any of its numerous ports”.
Bill Rolston notes in his research that “two Dublin-based ships, the Sylva and the Sophia, were recorded slaving in the Gambia in May 1716”. There were others too.
Equiano recorded Belfast as the city where he found the people most hospitable, lodging with Samuel Neilson, a remarkable political propagandist who, in the words of biographer Kenneth L. Dawson, “brought the excitement caused by the French Revolution into Irish focus, putting public dissatisfaction into words and, later, gathering the forces necessary for revolt”.
Neilson’s newspaper, the Northern Star, was fundamentally opposed to slavery wherever it existed. The United Irishmen in Belfast greatly hampered the efforts of local merchants to prosper from the misery of others in distant places, and maintained a progressive internationalism that impressed Equiano and other visitors to the thriving industrial city.
Equiano died in March 1797, while the following year would bring the deaths of several of those who had welcomed him so enthusiastically to Dublin and Belfast, with the violent suppression of the United Irish rebellion.
The legacy of Equiano in Britain takes many forms, with the Equiano Society in London formed to celebrate his work, and plaques placed upon his various residences in that city.
A plaque in St Margaret’s Church, Westminster, commemorates him both as an “author and abolitionist”. While there are several monuments in Ireland recording the visit of Frederick Douglass in 1845, Equiano’s speaking tour here is forgotten by comparison.
Douglass was not the final significant abolitionist to visit Ireland. The self-declared “fugitive Negro” Samuel Ringgold Ward visited Ireland in 1854 and 1855 and was smitten by the “Ermald Isle”, remembering it as “a country so full of interest”, and insisting that “were the Irishman [in America] true to the sentiments I found prevalent in every part of his native country, he would with but little exertion turn the tide of persecution from the Negro”.
It would be a gross over-simplification to insist that Irish radical separatism and the cause of abolitionism have always gone hand in hand; in the 1840s, The Nation newspaper proclaimed that slavery in America was no concern to Irish republicans, as, “we have really so very urgent affairs at home … that all our exertions will be needed in Ireland. Carolina planters never devoured our substance, nor drove away our sheep and oxen for a spoil … Our enemies are nearer home than Carolina.”
Still, the contribution of so many eighteenth-century Irish radicals to the cause of abolition is an inspiring chapter in the story a remarkable generation.