British royal family and slavery

This 27 April 2020 video says about itself:

The Role of the Royal African Company in Slavery

The Royal African Company was started under the guise of the exploration of the African continent in the 16th century. The main purpose of the company was of course the transportation of gold and slaves. The Royal African Company had a monopoly over the transportation of slaves to the Caribbean because of the Navigation Act of 1660. Learn more here.

From daily The Morning Star in Britain:

Probe launched into royal palaces‘ links to slavery

HISTORIAN Lucy Worsley launched an investigation today into the royal palaces’ links to slavery.

The chief curator of Historic Royal Palaces said a probe into the residences’ links to the slave trade was “long overdue.”

She insisted that the charity – which looks after Kensington Palace, the Tower of London and Hampton Court – has a duty to make any historical connections public.

The inquiry comes after the National Trust released a report highlighting links to slavery and colonialism in 93 of the properties it manages.

It detailed how properties, including Winston Churchill’s home Chartwell, were connected to plantation owners, people who gained their wealth from the slave trade and those involved in colonial expansion and administration.

Ms Worsley said she wished that her organisation had acted sooner in commencing its own investigation, adding that the National Trust was “ahead of the game.”

“We’ve been thinking really hard and planning all sorts of changes,” she said.

“The time has come. We’re behind. We haven’t done well enough.”

According to Ms Worsley, all properties used by the Stuart dynasty were “going to have an element of money derived from slavery” within them.

The Stuarts played a key role in the slave trade when King Charles II granted a charter to the Royal African Company, of which his brother King James II was a member.

Ms Worsley said that there was a “challenging” side to British history which the country “is good at sidelining in favour of supporting the tourist industry.”

She added: “It is always great to push people a bit into an uncomfortable and darker direction, because then you can see the historical causes of things like social injustice.”

Torturing slave owner, a ‘hero’ no more

Contractors in Cardiff, Wales encase a statue of slave trader Sir Thomas Picton (left) and (right) a portrait of the slaver

From daily The Morning Star in Britain, 24 July 2020:

Statue of ‘sadistic’ slaver who tortured a 14-year-old girl removed from Cardiff city hall

A CARDIFF statue of a “sadistic” slaver who had a teenage girl tortured was boarded up today following a vote to have it removed from in front of the city hall.

The marble memorial to Sir Thomas Picton has stood there since 1916, when it was unveiled by future prime minister David Lloyd George as part of a series depicting “heroes of Wales.”

Picton was the most senior British officer killed at the Battle of Waterloo but was also known for having used the slave trade to amass a considerable fortune.

He was the colonial governor of Trinidad from 1797 to 1803, during which “highly brutal” time he had a dozen slaves executed, and in 1806, Picton was found guilty of having ordered the torture of a 14-year-old mixed-race girl.

The torture of Louisa Calderon, which involved her being suspended with rope by one arm above a spike in the floor, was an attempt to get her to confess to stealing from a businessman she lived with as his mistress.

Picton was never sentenced and the verdict was overturned following a retrial two years later.

Cardiff’s Lord Mayor Dan De’Ath, the first black person to hold the post, called for the statue of the “sadistic 19th-century slave-owner” to be taken down.

The council voted to remove the statue from the Marble Hall of Heroes on Thursday night with 57 in favour, five against and nine abstentions.

Mr De’Ath said: “I’m delighted. I think the way Cardiff has gone about the whole thing has been the right way. We’ve used democratic means to take it down.

“Most people were incredibly supportive. They recognise the significance of the statue and what an affront it is to black people. Black lives do matter.”

Somali refugee slave in NATO’s Libya interviewed

This 30 September 2019 Deutsche Welle video says about itself:

Human trafficking in Libya | DW Documentary

Survivors call it “Hell on Earth“. In Libya, refugees are locked up in government-run prisons and private torture chambers. Often they are kept under inhuman conditions, tormenting them and even selling them into slavery.

“They treat us like animals”, say the migrants who’ve managed to escape this ‘Hell on Earth’. But what goes on there? How did they escape? And how do they cope afterward? We set out to investigate. We spoke to people still languishing in Libyan jails, as well as with refugees evacuated from Libya and brought to safety in Niger. We also interviewed one man who was fully aware of his part in the suffering: a smuggler who accepts the fact that he sells the migrants on to torturers. A report by Mariel Müller and Abderrahmahne Ammar.

By Ben Cowles:

Monday, March 9, 2020

‘They lock our legs together with a chain’: An interview with a slave

BEN COWLES spoke to a Somalian refugee being held in a bogus ‘refugee camp’ in Libya, caught while trying to reach Europe

I SPOKE with a slave last week. An African man from Somalia trapped in a detention centre in Libya.

He told me his name but I promised not to mention it. He fears the guards will kill him if they know he has spoken out. So let’s call him Hufan.

Several months ago Hufan contacted Alarm Phone, an activist network which supports people crossing the Mediterranean attempting to reach Europe.

A relative of his was on a dinghy stranded in the middle of the sea with several others. He called Alarm Phone asking them to help her.

Since March last year, when the European Union pulled all of its ships from the Libyan search and rescue zone, the only actors carrying out refugee rescues in the area are those operated by charities.

The Libyan Coastguard (LCG) is also operating in the area, though it’s hard to refer to what it does as “rescuing” refugees. It has returned thousands of people to a brutal warzone.

The European Union continues to fund, train and equip the LCG despite its private concerns, revealed by the Morning Star, that the country has “continued to arbitrarily detain migrants” in detention centres which “have links to human trafficking” and where “severe human-rights violations have been widely reported.”

Fortunately, Hufan’s relative made it to Europe. But he is now trapped inside a detention centre. Naming it would put him in danger.

I spoke with Hufan online after an Alarm Phone activist put us in touch. Our conversation, which has been edited for grammatical reasons and to keep his identity safe, is below.

Ben Cowles: Hi Hufan. This is Ben. I’m a journalist in London. How are you?
Hufan: Hi. Yes. How are you?

BC: I’m good. Are you safe to message me?
H: Now I am in the prison. But I can give you some information.

BC: Where are you from? Can you tell me about yourself?
H: I am from Somalia. I came to Libya to cross to Italy.

BC: Why did you leave Somalia?
H: I had to run away from al-Shabab. Do you know about the Islamic group al-Shabab?

BC: Yes, a little.
H: They forced us to join them. But I ran away from them with my [relative]. And now I am in a very bad situation.

My [relative] escaped the country and she is now in [Europe].

BC: You’re in prison?
H: I’ve been here for eight months now. …

BC: How did you end up in prison?
H: We were in a camp near Al Khums waiting for some people to take us to the sea. And one night the army attacked us and arrested everyone.

BC: Do you know which army? Was it the [rebel] Libyan National Army, the Government of National Accord army or someone else?
H: The people who arrested us are not an official army.

The [UN refugee agency] UNHCR sometimes visits the prison and gives us shampoo and clothes, and registers our names.

Always, they say: ‘We will take you to a safe place’. But I have been here eight months now.

BC: That is a long time. I hope they release you soon. Can you tell me about the conditions inside the prison?
H: My God. If you ever come here one day, you would cry, believe me. In one room we are more than 412. The food is not good.

Many people are sick. Some have TB. They treat us like slaves.

BC: What do you mean; how do they treat you like slaves?
H: Every morning they wake us all. And without food they make us work. After midday they give us a little bit.

If you say to the guards ‘I’m tired’, they will beat you with their machine gun. Everyday people are broken. The guards do whatever they want. They even force young boys to do sex.

I have gone far away from the guards to tell you everything. We are suffering here.

BC: What work do they make you do?
H: Every morning… if a guard has a garden or a farm or some place, he will take five or six of us out and make us work his farm.

They lock our legs together with a chain. After working, they return us to the prison.

After they return us to prison, another man will come. He will say ‘I need five people to work. Come out’. We come outside and he chooses a few of us. ‘You, one, two, three, come with me’.

And then we might have to lift heavy things for him with no payment. They don’t give us food. Maybe one slice of bread.

… Can you talk to the [International Organisation for Migration] IOM?

BC: I don’t know. I will tell your story in the newspaper. I will also speak with the IOM and UNHCR. Have you told them about the abuse?
H: Yes, one day they came and we told them everything secretly. He said we will do an investigation. That is all.

The militiamen, after they get drunk at night time, they come to the prison and they say: ‘We need two young boys.

‘Come clean my house,’ they say. When they return the boys, they are crying. They tell us they forced them to have sex.

BC: That is so terrible. I’m so sorry. Do you believe the IOM will help you?
H: No.

The problem is, the group that runs this prison is getting money and food from the IOM and UNHCR. If they release us or they take us to our countries, they will not get anything.

The militia is saying to the IOM and UNHCR that they have refugees to look after. But if they release us, they won’t get their money. So the militia wants to keep us.

BC: Do the guards know you have a phone?
H: Yes, they know I have a phone.

I translate for them. I know Arabic. I know my language, I know English and French. So they always take me out to speak with those people.

That’s why they gave me the phone also. But it doesn’t have a sim card. I have to use wifi.

These Libyans don’t really care about us. They once broke my hand.

BC: They don’t worry you will call for help?
H: Who can I call for help? They don’t worry about that.

If I tell you the truth why they gave me this phone, you won’t believe it.

They gave me this phone because there are a lot of Nigerians, Cameroonians. They don’t speak Arabic. They speak English and French. So I translate.

The guards tell them: ‘If you want to get out, you have to pay us 4,000 dinar’, which is like $1,000.

They even say that to us Somalis. But we Somalis don’t have this money.

So sometimes I have to give the phone to the Nigerians and they talk with their family. Their family sends some money by car, by taxi and they get out of the prison.

That’s why they gave me this phone. That’s the truth.

BC: How do you know the UN/IOM is giving money to the prison?
H: We are refugees here. So every month they come and they say we’re going to give you food, we’re giving you medicine.

They collect us all and hold a meeting with us outside. And one of them will tell us this with a megaphone. But we don’t see anything.

Please, whatever you print, don’t mention my name. I beg you. They will kill me.

BC: I won’t mention your name, I promise.
H: Yesterday they took more than 25 people to join the war between the Libyans.

I am looking for a moment, a time, to skip. If I get the chance I will run away with this phone.

In response to Hufan’s claims that the IOM was giving money to the prison guards, a spokeswoman told the Star: “We take this claim very seriously as IOM does not provide cash assistance in Libya and does not distribute food to migrants in detention.”

Libyan coastguard fires warning shots at NGO ship during rescue for the second time: here.

Civilian casualties mount as foreign powers continue to fuel Libya’s civil war. By Alberto Escalera, 20 May 2020. Libya’s civil war is fueled by a complex interplay between the competing interests of international energy monopolies and local power struggles to control oil and gas revenues.

Further evidence Libya is unsafe for refugees after 30 killed in unofficial migrant detention centre: here.

Italian taxpayers’ money to Libyan slave trader

This 11 December 2019 video says about itself:

FINALLY! Arrest Warrant For Libyan Human Trafficker who attended Italy Security Meeting! 🤦🏾‍♀️

An arrest warrant has been issued for the Libyan human trafficker who attended the Security Conference in Libya as. a “commander” and received boats, equipment and the legal authority to capture African migrants at sea and do what he wants with them. But the Libyan government

Which Libyan government? Presumably, the Tripoli one, supported by the Italian government and Eni Big Oil corporation. Not their enemy in
the Libyan proxy oil war between the France and Italy: warlord Haftar, supported by French President Macron and Total Big Oil.

should first explain to us why they allowed the man to masquerade as a “Libyan commander” in the first place….

Amsterdam streets named after anti-slavery, anti-colonialism fighters

This 1 July 2019 Dutch video is about new street names in Amsterdam, called after opponents of slavery and colonialism.

Translated from in the Netherlands today:

The streets in a new part of the IJburg district in Amsterdam are given the names of 27 people who fought against colonialism and who have drawn attention to the history of slavery. Mayor Femke Halsema said this during the commemoration of the abolition of slavery in Oosterpark.

These are, for example, Maria Ulfah, a feminist and lawyer from Indonesia, the Surinamese activists Otto and Hermina Huiswoud and the Curaçao writer Frank Martinus Arion. These people played a role in the resistance against colonialism or were nationalists, fighters for independence, authors or artists.

The area currently under construction still has temporary – numbered – street names.

The list of street names has been drawn up by the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies and has been submitted for approval to the National Institute of Dutch Slavery Past and Heritage.

As far as I know, the names of the other 24 (or 23, if Otto Huiswoud and Hermina Huiswood each get their individual streets) people have not been published yet.

How radical will the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies dare to be?

Including Hermina and Otto Huiswoud sounds promising. As Otto Huiswood was not only an anti-colonialist leader of the association of Surinamese immigrants in Amsterdam, but also a founder of the Communist Party of the USA. Naming a street after him at a time when Donald Trump and his Secretary of State Pompeo are on a worldwide crusade against everything which looks even vaguely like socialism or communism, from Cuba to Venezuela, from Bernie Sanders in the USA to Jeremy Corbyn in Britain, shows at least some courage.

As far as I am concerned, more fighters from Suriname against slavery and colonialism deserve their own street in Amsterdam.

Like Priary, a seventeenth century native American anti-coloniallist.

Like Anton de Kom, twentieth century Suriname nationalist. (He wrote in communist reviews; what will Trump say?)

And Boni, eighteenth century fighter of the Maroons, African Surinamese people who had escaped from slavery.

And Frans Pavel Vaclav Killinger, who in 1910 attempted an uprising acgainst Dutch colonialism.

And Eddy Bruma, a twentieth century fighter for Surinamese independence.

As for Curaçao: Tula, leader of the 1795 slaves’ uprising.

And Wilson Godett, leader of a 1969 big strike against Shell corporation exploitation and racism.

As for Indonesia, will they dare to name Sukarno, the first president of independent Indonesia? Sukarno did not hate Dutch people or Dutch culture, but he did object strongly to Dutch rule over Indonesia. For decades in the Netherlands, profiteers of colonialism and white supremacists have depicted Sukarno as Satan incarnate. Naming an Amsterdam street after him would show courage.

UPDATE: they did not dare to name Sukarno. See also here.

Dutch 1948 elections, VVD posterThis is a poster for the elections for the Dutch parliament in 1948. Then, a bloody colonial war was raging. Indonesia had declared its independence on 17 August 1945 (now, the Indonesian national holiday). The Dutch government, mostly consisting of the social democratic PvdA party and the Roman Catholic KVP party, did not like to officially recognize that independence because of economic interests of Dutch multinational corporations. They tried to make Indonesia a Dutch colony, the Dutch East Indies, again, with military force.

The pro-capitalist VVD (the biggest party in the present Dutch coalition government) thought the 1948 PvdA-KVP government were not using enough force. Hence, this poster.

It says: “Engineer Sukarno [the first president of Indonesia]. The Republic of Indonesia. Do you have enough of it [in the sense of Are you sick of it] as well? Vote then for party #6 on the ballot paper, VVD, Mr. Oud. Socialism [meaning the PvdA ministers in the government] protects Communism in the Indies. This must change!” In this VVD propaganda, supporting independence for Indonesia supposedly automatically made one a communist. Even if, like President Sukarno, one was not a member of the Indonesian communist party, but of the nationalist PNI party. Or of some other of the many Indonesian parties supporting independence. Or not a member of any party. That is why the VVD depicted Sukarno with a communist hammer and sickle symbol on his hat.

As for other candidates for anti-colonialists from Indonesia: Pattimura, 19th century fighter from Amboina island.

Diponegoro, 19th century fighter from Java island.

And how about D.N. Aidit , or another Indonesian communist? What would Trump say?

Or Haji Mohamad Misbach, who was both an Islamic preacher and a communist? Two reasons for Trump to hate him. He died in a Dutch colonial concentration camp on New Guinea island.

Or Ernest François Eugène Douwes Dekker?

Or Kartini?

Or the author Pramoedya Ananta Toer.

The article continues:

‘Amsterdam must become the city of everyone’

The mayor said that during Keti Koti [commemoration of the abolition of slavery in Suriname], horrors are commemorated, but it is also stories about heroes who led resistance to slavery. In Suriname, on the Caribbean islands and in the Netherlands.

“We want Amsterdam to become everyone’s city”, Halsema said. “In the coming years we want to make a leap forward. The city is growing. And in our growing city, new stories must be able to find their central place. Even if they are painful.”

To get there, according to Halsema, Amsterdam still has a long way to go: “By investigating the significance of slavery in the local economy, by creating a slavery museum in Amsterdam. And by taking responsibility.”

In her speech, Halsema discussed the role of Amsterdam in the history of slavery. “The city where merchants made money from trafficking in people and invested in plantations. The city that co-owned the Suriname Society, the company that controlled the colony until the end of the eighteenth century. Or like a researcher as early as the eighteenth century concluded: in Amsterdam there was no one who did not earn any money from slavery.”

There was an earlier proposal to name the streets after 16th-17th century Dutch admirals (some of whom were involved in the slave trade). This proposal met with much resistance. Also, there are already two neighbourhoods in Amsterdam with streets named after these sailors.

Slavery, more important in Dutch history than thought

Slave trade in the Dutch colony Suriname in 1839, public auction of a slave woman and her two children

This picture is about slave trade in the Dutch colony Suriname in 1839, public auction of a slave woman and her two children.

Translated from Dutch daily De Volkskrant, 25 June 2019, by Geertje Dekkers:

Economic weight of slavery much larger than imagined; “Earnings in 1770 roughly comparable to the port of Rotterdam now”

Slavery yielded the province of Holland

the economically most important part of the pre-1795 Dutch republic

at its pinnacle about 10 percent of GDP, and the whole of the Netherlands 5 percent, historians have calculated. From shipbuilders to notaries and coffee sellers: they all benefited from the trade in people and their work on plantations.

In 1770, Holland people earned more than 10 percent of their gross national product from the slave trade and slave labor. Tobacco traders, sugar refineries, shipbuilders, money lenders and others got that income from the transport of enslaved people from Africa to America [not even taking into account Dutch slavery in South Africa and Asia], and from the work they did there on plantations. In the Republic of the Netherlands as a whole, the financial interest was half that that year: just over 5 percent. Economic historians Pepijn Brandon and Ulbe Bosma of the International Institute of Social History calculated this for an article in the journal TSEG to be published on Wednesday.

The article should help solve a tough question: to what extent was Dutch wealth based on exploitation? Earlier generations of historians pointed out in their answers that the slave trade itself was not very lucrative: it represented about half a percent of all national income. But slaves yielded more than just their selling price. In the surveyed year 1770 they worked together 120 thousand man-years on the land for the Dutch market. Eg, they produced coffee, tobacco and sugar, which was mainly processed in the Holland region: in late 18th-century Amsterdam people found ‛in streets and even in alleys, even more so in cellars, sugar refineries”, says contemporary Jan Hendrik Reisig. In the whole of Holland there were around 150 in 1770. …

Shipbuilders and merchants

And then there were the notaries who laid down agreements, the money lenders and shipbuilders who made the trade possible, the merchants who resold goods, and so on. Together they earned the aforementioned 10 percent of Dutch GDP based on slavery, the article said.

But was that percentage, and the 5 percent in the rest of the Netherlands, big or small? A comparison with now sheds some light on the matter. The Dutch 10 percent was comparable to the share of health care in today’s national GDP. And the 5 per cent of the entire Republic the authors themselves compare with the port of Rotterdam, and all related services and logistics. They make up 6.2 percent of the current Dutch economy. A percentage point more than slavery in 1770.

According to the authors, the percentages mean that the economic weight of slavery was much greater than previously thought, and of vital importance to the Netherlands: “Slavery kept the economy going in one of the most developed commercial societies,” they state in a text for the press.

A quarter of the economy of Vlissingen city in Dutch Zeeland province was slave trade.

Dutch Mauritshuis museum and its slave-trading founder

This 2015 video from the Netherlands says about itself:

The Mauritshuis museum in The Hague houses a world-famous collection from the Dutch Golden Age. At the unique 17th-century palace you can make the acquaintance of “The Girl with a Pearl Earring” by Vermeer, “The Goldfinch” by Fabritius and “The Anatomy Lesson” by Rembrandt. The Mauritshuis is a unique opportunity to see world-famous paintings by the Dutch Masters at one of Holland’s most beautiful locations.

This 2 April 2019 Dutch The Hague regional TV video says about itself (translated):

Mauritshuis organizes exhibition about the image of [Count, later: Prince] John Maurice

Is John Maurice good or not? That is the question that inadvertently arose when the bust of the founder of the Mauritshuis was removed from the museum in The Hague last year. The new exhibition Shifting Image (In search of John Maurice) will kick off on Thursday morning an extensive historical investigation into the past of the Field Marshal.

Translated from Dutch NOS TV today (quoting the same people as in the regional TV video):

In the history books, Maurice, who lived from 1604 to 1679, is usually presented as a hero. Yet he is not undisputed. This is mainly due to his past as a governor in Brazil.

Slave trade

The Mauritshuis itself writes on its site: “In terms of art history, the museum has always emphasised his importance to art, architecture and science. But Johan Maurits’s life story is also part of Dutch colonial history, particularly its role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. …

This raises the question as to the extent we do justice to Johan Maurits’s Brazilian story if it we overemphasise the art-historical perspective. After all, he was the governor who in 1637 sent a fleet of warships to West Africa’s Gold Coast, present-day Ghana. The capture of the Portuguese-built Elmina Castle boosted the Dutch West India Company’s trading position in that area. Some years later, the island of São Tomé and part of the Angolan coast were also captured from the Portuguese – likewise on Johan Maurits’s orders – in order to increase Dutch trade in enslaved Africans. Thousands of men, women and children were shipped to Brazil. Johan Maurits personally owned dozens of enslaved people who lived and worked at his Brazilian court.”

This blog wrote earlier on this:

The new Dutch [slave] owners [in Brazil] found out that in order to maximize sugar profits, they had to import extra slaves from Africa.

To make that possible, they conquered the important Portuguese slave export port Luanda in Angola.

That made the Dutch major players in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, which they had not been until then.

In this way, war begot slavery, and slavery begot war.

The NOS article continues:

According to historian Erik Odegard, who is leading the research, the focus will be on: “It is now clear that he personally played a role in the slave trade. Only we do not yet know exactly how large his share was or how many people it was. How much money did he make with it?”

John Maurice of Nassau-Siegen was born in Germany in 1604. He was a ruler in Nassau, Germany, field marshal in Dutch service and governor-general of Dutch Brazil.

That colony consisted of an area on the coast. There was a profitable sugar industry that depended on the labour of enslaved Africans. It was the first large plantation colony of the Dutch Republic.

After his return from Brazil, he moved into the Mauritshuis – then known as the Sugar Palace – in The Hague. He had already commissioned the construction in 1633. He housed his natural history and ethnological collection there.

46 experts made written contributions to the exhibition. From their own perspectives, they write how they view the past and the legacy of Maurice.

For example, Ashaki Leito (champion for the position of black women) is very happy with the portrait Two African men by Rembrandt van Rijn: “If you look at the other paintings, blacks are depicted as servants or slaves. But these are just two black men who have the right to be there.”

Rembrandt, Two African men

Criminal, murderer, villain

But Leito’s verdict on Maurice is anything but mild. She says to Omroep West regional broadcasting organisation: “Everyone can decide for themselves what they think of him. But I think he’s a criminal, a murderer, a villain. Someone we shouldn’t worship, but tell the right story about.”

Although slavery is therefore inextricably linked to Dutch Brazil, this is hardly reflected in the perception of John Maurice, writes the Mauritshuis.

“The governor of the colony has traditionally been commemorated for his love of art, architecture and science – and for his governance, which allowed a remarkable degree of religious freedom.”

Most slave owners in Dutch Brazil were Roman Catholic Portuguese. Making Roman Catholics second class inhabitants like then in the Dutch republic would endanger losing north-east Brazil to the Portuguese again.

US anti-slavery fighter Frederick Douglass, 1818-1895

Frederick Douglass by George Kendall Warren (c.1879)

By Fred Mazelis in the USA:

The bicentenary of Frederick Douglass

A leading figure of the anti-slavery struggle

20 December 2018

This year marked the bicentenary of Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), one of the greatest figures of 19th century America, whose oratory, writings and agitation helped mightily to inspire the abolition of slavery in the Civil War, the Second American Revolution.

Born into slavery on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, the mixed-race Frederick Bailey barely knew his mother, and was separated from his grandmother at the age of six. He never knew the identity of his father, but later wrote that it was “whispered [that it was] my master.”

Showing both intellectual curiosity and determination at an early age, the young man began learning the alphabet from the wife of his master’s brother, with whom he was then living in Baltimore. Life in a major city gave him certain opportunities for self-education, extremely limited though they were. Frederick was able to play in the streets with other boys. When the head of the household cracked down on the teaching, he studied surreptitiously, especially about the meaning of slavery. Within a few decades, the young slave became one of the greatest autodidacts in American history.

Frederick fought back successfully at the age of 16 against a brutal overseer. After several failed attempts, he escaped to freedom in 1838 at the age of 20, later changing his name to Frederick Douglass (the surname suggested by a friend who took it from a character in Sir Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake). He was soon joined by Anna Murray, who had helped him prepare his journey north. They married in New York City and settled in New Bedford, moving later to Lynn, Massachusetts.

As early as 1839 Douglass was speaking at church meetings, relating the story of his escape from slavery and speaking on the struggle for abolition. It was a major address at a meeting of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society on August 16, 1841, when he was only 23 years old, that brought him to the attention of leading abolitionists in the audience, including William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips. Garrison, some 13 years Douglass’s senior, had launched The Liberator in 1831, and was the acknowledged leader of the anti-slavery struggle. Douglass soon devoted himself full-time to the effort, as a lecturer and activist.

This work took him away from home for long periods of time, even as he and his wife became the parents of five children. Rosetta, Lewis, Charles and Frederick Jr. survived to adulthood. A second daughter, Annie, died at the age of 10. Anna Douglass died in 1882, after 44 years of marriage.

Anna Murray-Douglass, Douglass's wife for 44 years, c.1860

The first of three autobiographies, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, was published in 1845, and quickly reached tens of thousands of readers. Douglass went on to write two other autobiographies, including My Bondage and My Freedom, in 1855, and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, in 1881, which he revised and updated in 1892. For most of his life Douglass was also the publisher of newspapers espousing his views. Douglass’s biographers include William McFeely, in 1991, and David Blight, whose impressive and exhaustive account has appeared in this bicentenary year.

Title page of the 1845 edition of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave

Writing and speaking long before the advent of modern communications technology, Douglass nevertheless became known to millions through the enormous power of his oratory and his message of intransigent and revolutionary opposition to slavery. The strength of the speeches was wedded to their content, to the passionate struggle for freedom against slavery and racial oppression.

In the course of his long life, Douglass knew or collaborated with all of the major anti-slavery and other radical figures of the period, including, in addition to Garrison and Phillips, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells, women’s suffrage leaders Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, and many others, including Mark Twain. Douglass met eight US presidents, serving in the administrations of several of them in his later years. His relationship with the first of these, Abraham Lincoln, whom he met with twice in the course of the Civil War, was by far the most significant.

A lengthy trip to Ireland and England between 1845 and 1847 played a key role in Douglass’s growth as an Abolitionist leader. He spent part of the time with Garrison in London. Douglass, developing a broader international outlook, identified with the Irish struggle for independence and marveled, in a letter home, at the difference with which he was treated: “No insults to encounter—no prejudice to encounter, but all is smooth—I am treated as a man and equal brother.” It was also during this trip that British sympathizers joined to buy the escaped slave’s freedom from his Maryland master, so that Douglass need not fear capture when he returned to the struggle in America.
Frederick Douglass, c.1840s, in his 20s
Back in the US, Douglass settled in Rochester, New York, where he would live for the next 25 years. He soon launched his North Star, the first of the newspapers that he led, which was known for its uncompromising opposition to schemes for colonization in Africa as a means of ending slavery.

In the wake of the Mexican War—which Douglass had bitterly opposed, correctly characterizing it as a means of extending the slave system—the storm clouds that were to erupt in civil war continued to accumulate. This was a period in which Douglass more than once faced physical peril from pro-slavery elements in the North.

As he came into his own as a leading abolitionist, and moreover the most famous black abolitionist, Douglass was increasingly willing to do battle with old allies on issues of strategy and tactics. This led to a sharp and lengthy dispute with his mentor and teacher William Lloyd Garrison.

A major point of dispute between Garrison and Douglass was the attitude to be taken toward the US Constitution. Garrison regarded it as a purely pro-slavery document, while Douglass came to recognize its connection to the revolutionary ideals of the Enlightenment, and the necessity for anti-slavery advocates to make use of the Constitution and argue for the extension of its promises and guarantees to Americans of African ancestry.

… A stirring example of Douglass’s outlook can be found in his famous speech given to the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society on the day after Independence Day in 1852. “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” came to be known as The Fifth of July Speech. It is both an indictment of slavery and the compromise with it in the Constitution, and at the same time a ringing defense of that Constitution and of the revolutionary struggle that gave rise to it and that inspired innumerable struggles against absolutism and despotism around the world.

Douglass’s tribute to the American Founding Fathers in this speech is a particularly eloquent passage and at the same time a devastating indictment of the political spokesmen of American capitalism today. “They were peace men; but they preferred revolution to peaceful submission to bondage. They were quiet men; but they did not shrink from agitating against oppression. They showed forbearance; but that they knew its limits. They believed in order; but not in the order of tyranny. With them, nothing was ‘settled’ that was not right. With them, justice, liberty and humanity were ‘final’; not slavery and oppression. You may well cherish the memory of such men. They were great in their day and generation. Their solid manhood stands out the more as we contrast it with these degenerate times.”

The breach between Garrison and Douglass was not fully healed until 1873. When the older man died in 1879, Douglass eulogized him as follows at a memorial service in Washington DC: “It was the glory of this man that he could stand alone with the truth, and calmly await the result.”

William Lloyd Garrison, c.1870

Douglass was among the few abolitionists who gave his full support to the struggle for women’s rights. He attended the Seneca Falls, New York women’s rights convention in 1848, but 21 years later, in the wake of the Civil War, Douglass and Susan B. Anthony parted ways when she refused to support the 15th Amendment, enacted on Feb. 3, 1870.

Susan B. Anthony, c.1855

She opposed extending the right to vote to the former slaves as long as women were still denied access to the ballot. As William McFeely points out, Anthony, “who had been steadfast in her opposition to slavery, crossed the line into racism when she said that women were more intelligent than the black men who, she now saw, were competing with her and her fellow women for the vote.”

The question of whether the United States would continue as half-slave and half-free was posed with growing urgency in the 1850s. This decade saw some major political gains for the advocates of slavery, beginning with the Fugitive Slave Act, part of the Compromise of 1850, which obliged the Federal government to actively assist in the return of runaway slaves to their masters. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 laid the groundwork for the extension of slavery to US territories by stipulating that settlers, and not the federal authorities, would make the decision on the question. And finally, in 1857, the US Supreme Court issued its infamous Dred Scott decision, denying citizenship to all slaves or ex-slaves, and decreeing that Congress could not prohibit the extension of slavery in the territories.

Those who sought to solve the slavery question through gradual abolition or some other compromise looked on these developments with dread and pessimism. However, Douglass was not fundamentally discouraged. More intransigent than ever, he sensed that the actions of the pro-slavery forces reflected weakness, not strength. He recognized the necessity for a national political solution. While he did not welcome violence, neither did he rule it out.

This decade saw the peak of Douglass’s eloquence as a public speaker. Two dates stand out in particular—the above-cited Fifth of July Speech, and the “West India Emancipation” speech, delivered on August 3, 1857, to mark the twenty-third anniversary of the abolition of slavery in those British territories. This address, delivered only months after the Dred Scott decision, is if anything even more famous than the earlier one. Douglass’s words resonate as powerfully today as it did in the 19th century:

“If there is no struggle there is no progress,” he said. “Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.

“This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both.”

John Brown, 1856

It was in this revolutionary frame of mind that Douglass met with John Brown, the fiery abolitionist who went on to lead the failed raid on the US arsenal in Harpers Ferry in October 1859. Douglass was drawn to the mesmerizing figure of Brown, but when told the details of the planned raid, he refused to participate, warning Brown that it was foolhardy and suicidal. He had met with Brown, however, and had also helped to raise funds for his activities. Facing the danger of arrest and prosecution, Douglass left for Canada days after the Harpers Ferry raid, narrowly escaping apprehension by US marshals.

He soon went on to England, on a trip that had been previously planned. By this time, through the combination of his writings and speeches as well as his trips to Europe, Douglass had already become the most prominent black man in America. He stayed in England for about four months, returning after the tragic death of his young daughter Annie, even though he still faced some risk because of his association with John Brown. While he lay low for several weeks, by August of 1860, in the words of biographer McFeely, “he discovered that for the first time in his life, he was in the political mainstream.”

Abraham Lincoln, 1861

The Republican Party, formed only a few years earlier, now moved in Douglass’s direction, adopting a platform that more militantly opposed the extension of slavery. The black abolitionist disagreed with those who considered Abraham Lincoln too moderate in his views to merit critical support in the presidential election of 1860. He made the following assessment: “While I see…that the Republican party is far from an abolition party, I cannot fail to see also that [it] carries with it the antislavery sentiment of the North, and that a victory gained by it in the present canvass will be a victory gained…over the wickedly aggressive pro-slavery sentiment of the country.”

Douglass’s political appraisal was borne out in a somewhat circuitous way after Lincoln won in November. The victory that Douglass hoped for was followed not by a retreat by the pro-slavery forces, but by the formation of the Confederacy. It was this in turn that made the Civil War inevitable, and eventually the abolition of slavery. The image of John Brown became that of an abolitionist prophet, not a lunatic, as previously depicted. As quoted by David Blight from a speech early in the Civil War, Douglass declared, “Good old John Brown was a mad man at Harpers Ferry. Two years pass away, and the nation is as mad as he is.”

As Douglass became the most eloquent champion of unconditional victory over the slavocracy, Blight compares him to Walt Whitman, “but with blunter edges.” “The cry is now for war, vigorous war, war to the bitter end, and war till the traitors are effectually and permanently put down,” wrote Douglass. In words that foreshadowed the campaigns of Union military leaders Sherman and Sheridan, Douglass thundered, “Let the ports of the South be blockaded, let business there be arrested; let provisions, arms and ammunition be no longer sent there, let the grim visage of a Northern army confront them from one direction, a furious slave insurrection meet them at another, and starvation threaten them from still another.”

Civil War (1863) broadside listing Frederick Douglass as a speaker calling -men of color- to arms

But Douglass also thundered against Lincoln, who for definite political reasons insisted at this stage that the war was to preserve the Union, and not to end slavery.

The president, Douglass said, “is tall and strong but he is not done growing.” He demanded an immediate change in war aims. He denounced the administration’s return of runaway slaves, and Lincoln’s rescinding of General John C. Fremont’s emancipation of slaves in the border state of Missouri.

As the conflict deepened, however, the war to preserve the Union became a war to end slavery. Lincoln began to listen to the demands of Douglass and others. The Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, followed by the effort to recruit free blacks and slaves to the Union army, was a key turning point. Douglass eagerly threw himself into the drive for recruitment of black soldiers, who played a key role in the defeat of the Confederacy. Two of his sons joined the famous 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, which drew African Americans from across the North.

54th Massachusetts Regiment charging toward Fort Wagner, South Carolina, 1863

Douglass met with Lincoln twice. The first occasion was in August 1863. “I went directly to the White House [and] saw for the first time the President of the United States,” he wrote. “Was received cordially and saw at glance the justice of the popular estimate of his qualities expressed in the prefix Honest to the name Abraham Lincoln.”

Douglass thanked Lincoln for the recent order answering the Confederacy’s threat to treat all captured black Union soldiers as insurrectionary slaves with the decree that “for every soldier of the United States killed in violation of the laws of war a rebel soldier shall be executed.”

First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation of President Lincoln, by Francis Bicknell Carpenter

Lincoln “went on to deny that he was guilty of ‘vacillation’ and implied that what Douglass was seeing was steady, if perhaps slow, progress, rather than any indecision on his part,” explains McFeely. “Douglass came away convinced that once Lincoln had taken a position favorable to the black cause, he could be counted on to hold to it.”

This was a relationship, and a role for each of these figures, that could hardly have been imagined 25 years earlier, when Douglass had just escaped to freedom and Lincoln was a young lawyer and a member of the Illinois General Assembly.

The Civil War ended but the struggle for full racial equality continued. The 13th Amendment to the Constitution, abolishing slavery, was ratified and enacted in 1865. Douglass devoted his energies to the struggle that would lead to the enactment of the 14th and the 15th Amendments, guaranteeing, respectively, equal protection under the law and extending the right to vote to African Americans. In a speech given in Baltimore on September 29, 1865 he gave voice to his great hopes in the aftermath of the victory against slavery and the “rebirth of freedom.” Addressing his audience, as McFeely explains, “with an image Langston Hughes would use in perhaps the greatest of his poems” [“The Negro Speaks of Rivers”], Douglass said that “the loftiest and best eloquence which the country has produced, whether of Anglo-Saxon or of African descent, shall flow as a river, enriching, ennobling, strengthening and purifying all who lave in its waters.”

With the assassination of Lincoln, however, Andrew Johnson, the Tennessee Democrat who had been elected as Lincoln’s Vice-Presidential running mate only months earlier, had entered the White House. Douglass was part of a black delegation that met with Johnson in 1866, a meeting that only underscored Johnson’s hostility to defending the rights of the freed slaves in the South.

President Ulysses S. Grant, by Matthew Brady, c.1870

Douglass endorsed Republican candidate and Civil War hero Ulysses S. Grant in 1868. Grant, who went on to serve two terms, defended the rights of the freed slaves as the Reconstruction period continued. By the early- to mid-1870s, however, the rising bourgeoisie in the North was clearly losing interest in pursuing the goal of racial equality that had featured so prominently with the Emancipation Proclamation and in the early years of Reconstruction. The shift was reflected in the inaction of the federal authorities.

Douglass increasingly accommodated himself to this retreat, working to win votes for Republican candidates by “waving the bloody shirt”—appealing to patriotism and the immense suffering of the Civil War. The man who had helped to inspire a revolution to end slavery now became the occupant of several minor federal positions and a campaigner for every Republican presidential candidate, long after this party of Lincoln had become an increasingly corrupt instrument of big business. Douglass went so far as to defend the Compromise of 1877, the sordid unwritten deal by which Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes entered the White House after a disputed election, with the federal government in return withdrawing its last troops from the states of the former Confederacy.

This set the stage for the era of Jim Crow that was to last for generations. When some desperate ex-slaves in the South, called “Exodusters,” attempted to leave for Kansas and the West, Douglass opposed them, claiming as late as 1879 that “the conditions…in the Southern States are steadily improving.” “For the first time in his life, he found himself hissed and shouted down by black audiences,” McFeely recounts.

The shift in Douglass’s outlook can be seen in a comparison of his stands from before the Civil War and afterwards. In My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass wrote: “The slaveholders, with a craftiness peculiar to themselves, by encouraging the enmity of the poor, laboring white man against the blacks, succeeds in making the said white man almost as much a slave as the black slave himself. The difference between the white slave, and the black slave, is this: the latter belongs to one slaveholder, and the former belongs to all the slaveholders, collectively.” (emphasis in original).

In England in the 1840s, as McFeely reports, Douglass and Garrison met with some of the Chartist leaders who would later collaborate with Marx and Engels. The biographer writes: “In London, Douglas and Garrison made a start at forming the link that Karl Marx always thought was a natural one—between the working classes in Europe, Britain and the American North, on the one hand, and laborers in the American South on the other. It is one of the great missed opportunities of Douglass’s life and of the history of black Americans that this promising effort at cooperation did not bring about a true international working-class movement.”

While Douglass came close to seeing the potential of the working class as a young man, he later left this behind him, especially in the atmosphere of the US Gilded Age. By 1880 he was campaigning for Republican nominee James A. Garfield as “a proud party man,” reports Blight. This was in the immediate aftermath of the bitter strike wave of 1877, but Douglass “had no problem with Republican anti-labor positions…Given the bold-faced white supremacy of the Democrats, Douglass still saw the Republicans as his only political home.”

In his final years, Douglass lived the life of a black elder statesman in the Anacostia section of Washington DC. He remarried after the death of Anna Murray Douglass, to Helen Pitts, a white woman some twenty years his junior, from a prominent abolitionist family, whom he had met when she worked as a secretary in his office as Recorder of Deeds. The marriage met with some opposition both from Douglass’s children and from his new wife’s family as well. Douglass had already endured years of whispered gossip over his close emotional and intellectual relationships with two other women—the British social reformer Julia Griffiths, who spent the first half of the 1850s working closely with Douglass in Rochester; and the German-Jewish journalist Ottilie Assing, who spent more than 20 years in the US, including months at a time in or near the Douglass household. According to Blight, they were probably lovers.

The last decade of Douglass’s life saw him take up the cudgels against rampaging white supremacy. In the early 1890s, inspired in part by the young activist Ida B. Wells, the old man, now well into his 70s, denounced the horrors of lynching.

Douglass died suddenly on February 20, 1895, shortly after returning home from a women’s rights meeting. His funeral service in the capital was attended by dignitaries who included Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan. The casket was taken to Rochester, where Douglass was buried in Mount Hope Cemetery. On the way, he lay in state for two hours at New York’s City Hall.

Gravestone of Frederick Douglass in Mount Hope Cemetery, Rochester, New York

Many eulogies followed. One of the more noteworthy was from W.E.B. Du Bois, then a 27-year-old college professor in Ohio. As recounted by David Blight, “Du Bois urged students and faculty not to cry out in ‘half triumphant sadness’ at the death of their leader, but to engage in ‘careful conscientious emulation.’ Du Bois remembered Douglass’s leadership in abolitionism, in the recruiting of black soldiers in the war, in the achievement of black male suffrage, and in civil rights. As a leader Douglass had reached for goals considered ‘dangerous’ and all but ‘impossible.’ He was not afraid of the American ‘experiment in citizenship.’ Douglass had proven himself a ‘builder of the state’ largely from outside traditional power. ‘Our Douglass,’ asserted the young intellectual, was the man of the race, but he had also ‘stood outside mere race lines. . . upon the broad basis of humanity.’”

In standing “upon the broad basis of humanity,” Douglass, a lifelong opponent of colonization and separatism, based himself on the democratic ideals embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address. He reached a point, however, where his goal of racial equality ran up against the reality of American capitalism and the growing conflict between the rising bourgeoisie and the working class it was itself creating. The movement of the American working class was itself still embryonic. As the gains of the Civil War were eroded by the growth of Jim Crow segregation and white supremacy, Douglass faced a political dead end. His ideals, as we have seen, had become part of the “mainstream” during the Civil War, but the mainstream of the 1890s was very different from that of the 1860s.

Chattel slavery had been abolished but was replaced by the growth of industry and the big cities, and the overwhelming predominance of wage slavery. The defense of racial equality would only be possible by uniting the working class in a common struggle against capitalism. Douglass could not grasp or base himself on the social forces required to deepen the fight for equality. They would emerge more powerfully in the next century, with the struggles of the American and international working class, and above all with the Russian Revolution and its world-historical significance.

Seventy years elapsed between the death of Frederick Douglass and victory against Jim Crow. This was not for lack of opposition to racism, but because segregation could only be overcome through the struggles of the working class, which stretched over decades and were marked by enormous contradictions and difficulties. The mass civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s stood on the shoulders of the struggles and the gains of the labor movement in the 1930s and 40s.

The efforts in the South were in part inspired by the experiences of millions of workers, both white and black, who had forged bonds in the organizing of the industrial unions, and who had passed through the experience of the Second World War. African-American participants in the Great Migration from the South to the industrial North transmitted a new confidence and militancy back to the movement in the South, which initially took the form of the church-based mass struggles led by Martin Luther King, Jr.

American capitalism has long since repudiated its revolutionary heritage. Two hundred years after Douglass’s birth and more than a century after his death, the cause of social progress is more than ever inseparably bound up with the unity of the working class in the struggle against capitalism, the system of wage slavery. Attempts to stoke racism today can only be defeated as part of this battle. Douglass’s revolutionary legacy has much to teach in this regard, and future generations will remember his enormous contributions.

Suriname slavery history, new book

New book on slavery in Suriname

Translated from Leiden University in the Netherlands, 25 September 2018:

Eigendomsstrijd [Ownership struggle]. The history of slavery and emancipation in Suriname

Eigendomsstrijd by the historian Karwan Fatah-Black is a clear and accessible book that offers new insights into the debate about Dutch slavery. It describes the history of slavery and emancipation in Suriname.

In the streets, houses and backyards of Paramaribo the control by the slave owners was difficult to sustain. There a free group began to lay the foundations of a community of their own. While the slave owners were fighting for control over their property, the slaves searched their roads towards freedom in the city and on the waterfront.

On the basis of the lives of these founders, Karwan Fatah-Black describes the period that preceded the definitive abolition of slavery in 1863. The result is a beautiful book that throws new light on Dutch slavery and its legacy.