American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

DOUGLASS, FREDERICK (1818-1895). Abolitionist, orator, social reformer, editor, author, and consul general to Haiti, Frederick Douglass was born into slavery as Frederick Augustus Bailey. He spent the early years of his childhood in Talbot County, Maryland, on the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay. Separated in infancy from his black slave mother, Harriet Bailey, Douglass was raised by his grandmother, Betsy Bailey. The identity of his white father remains unknown. His first master, Aaron Anthony, was manager for the Lloyd Plantation, a large concern employing hundreds of slaves to grow tobacco, corn, and wheat. Douglass’ early memories of the sea included fishing in the Chesapeake estuaries, watching sailing vessels plying the bay, and listening to stories about Annapolis and Baltimore told by the privileged slaves who worked on board the plantation’s sloop, Sally Lloyd.

When Frederick was between seven and eight years old, he was sent to Baltimore to serve as a house boy. He later regarded this escape from the enforced ignorance and harshness of plantation labor for the enlarged horizons and opportunities of a bustling port city to be the most fortunate occurrence of his life. On the docks he encountered worldly black sailors, both slave and free, the black intellectuals of their day, able to tell him about the abolitionist movement in the North, Britain’s pursuit of slave ships on the high seas, shipboard slave revolts, black insurrections in Jamaica, and the revolutionary black nation of Haiti.

Despite opposition, Douglass taught himself to read by auditing the lessons of white children and borrowing their primers. At age twelve, he purchased with hoarded pennies Caleb Bingham’s The Columbian Orator (1802), a collection of historic speeches on behalf of liberty, which he read repeatedly and practiced delivering. At the black Dallas Street Methodist Church, he attended Sunday school, read the Bible, heard stirring sermons, and met role models such as Dr. Lewis G. Wells, black physician and lecturer. At fourteen, Douglass began teaching in the Sunday school.

In 1832 he was forced to return to the plantation for work as a field hand. Insubordinate, articulate, and physically powerful, the teenaged Douglass was sent to a slave-breaker by his intimidated owner. Yet Douglass remained defiant: striking the slave-breaker, organizing an underground Sunday school for slaves, teaching them to read, and plotting with friends to run away. Douglass had noted the direction taken by steamboats going to Philadelphia, and the men planned to follow the shoreline north to freedom. In 1836, on the verge of escape, Douglass and his comrades were betrayed and imprisoned. To protect Douglass, the recognized ringleader, from angry slaveholders, his master returned him to Baltimore.

Hired out as a caulker, Douglass was reimmersed in the subversive black subculture of Baltimore’s shipyards. By 1838 he was ready to escape from slavery. Dressed in sailor’s clothing, well versed in nautical jargon, and carrying the customary Seaman’s Protection Certificate (proof of citizenship for all sailors and one that essentially protected free black sailors from enslavement in southern ports), he took the train north to freedom, exchanging the name Bailey for Douglass to disguise his fugitive status. Anna Murray, his free black fiancee, followed. In the whaling port of New Bedford, the newlyweds found a thriving free black community involved in the maritime trades. Organized white labor prevented Douglass from working as a caulker, but he found employment as a stevedore. A mainstay of New Bedford’s African Methodist Episcopal Zion chapel, Douglass began preaching and became involved with the abolitionist movement.

In 1841 Douglass addressed an antislavery convention on Nantucket.* His educated demeanor, practiced oratory, compelling voice, and poignant testimony riveted the white audience, and the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society hired him as a lecturer. His reputation as an orator grew, and in 1845 he published his now classic Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, recounting the physical and emotional trials of his bondage and escape. Widely read in its own time, the narrative is rich with maritime metaphor, including one of its virtuoso passages, his apostrophe to the Chesapeake’s ships, calling them “freedom’s swift-winged angels.”

Between 1845 and 1847 Douglass made a speaking tour of Great Britain, becoming internationally famous. British friends purchased his freedom, and Douglass returned to the United States to begin his own abolitionist weekly, The North Star. There he published his novella, The Heroic Slave (1853), a fictionalized account of a historic slave ship revolt. In 1841, 134 slaves led by Madison Washington mutinied* and took command of the vessel Creole, carrying them from Virginia for sale in the New Orleans market. The slaves sailed Creole to Jamaica and received asylum from the British government. In Douglass’ novella, Washington is a high-minded statesman-hero, to be honored with Thomas Jefferson for upholding the principles of 1776. The sea offers opportunities for freedom that encirclement on land does not: “You cannot write the bloody laws of slavery on those restless billows.”

Douglass continued his life story in two more autobiographies, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881, rev. 1892). He participated in the first woman’s rights convention, harbored John Brown while he planned the Harpers Ferry raid, and recruited black troops for the Union army. After the Civil War, he fought for black suffrage and civil rights. In 1883, after his first wife’s death, he married white suffragist Helen Pitts. Douglass held several presidential appointments and in 1891 was made consul general to Haiti, this hemisphere’s only independent black nation. Active to the last, he died of a heart attack after speaking at a woman’s rights meeting.

Although much of his life was spent far from the sea, Douglass’ education by the black cultures of maritime Baltimore and New Bedford empowered him to become one of America’s most influential black political leaders. A made-for-television biography, Frederick Douglass: When the Lion Wrote History, was released in 1994. Douglass appears as a very minor character in Sena Jeter Naslund’s Ahab’s Wife, Or the Star-Gazer (1999). [See also AFRICAN AMERICAN LITERATURE; SLAVE NARRATIVES]

FURTHER READING: Bolster, W. Jeffrey. Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1997; Malloy, Mary. African Americans in the Maritime Trades: A Guide to Resources in New England. Sharon, MA: Kendall Whaling Museum, 1990; McFeely, William S. Frederick Douglass. New York: Norton, 1991.

Susan F. Beegel