How Can the Digital Humanities Aid Antislavery Research?

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Blog by Dr Hannah-Rose Murray, The Rights Lab, University of Nottingham

American abolitionists made an indelible mark on nineteenth-century transatlantic society: their lectures were held in famous meeting halls, taverns, theatres, churches, and the private parlour rooms of wealthy patrons across the British Isles. In the following blog post, Hannah-Rose Murray will demonstrate how digital mapping techniques reveal not only the extent of how far African Americans travelled, but also how visualizing their tours can lead to new avenues of research.

During a farewell meeting in London in 1847, formerly enslaved African American and transatlantic trailblazer Frederick Douglass reflected on his very successful British sojourn. Travelling extensively across Scotland, Ireland, and England, Douglass declared he had journeyed across Britain “with almost electric speed.”[1] The rapidity of the railway boom was unprecedented and transformed British society, but it also had a tremendous impact on social reform movements. Abolitionists like Douglass exploited growing technology and communication, and used it as a weapon to serve the antislavery cause. As a result, Douglass spoke in numerous locations from large industrial towns to small fishing villages on the coast. He wrote on his return to America that he had spoken to hundreds of thousands of people and “made use of all the various means of conveyance, by land and sea, from town to town, and city to city.”[2]

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Map of the railways in Britain during the 1840s. Black abolitionists like Douglass exploited these connections to travel to as many places as possible to lecture against slavery.

In one of transatlantic abolition’s most extraordinary chapters, scores of black activists like Douglass travelled to Britain and Ireland in the nineteenth century to educate the public on slavery. Many sought temporary reprieve from American soil, others permanent; some raised money for antislavery societies, or to free themselves and enslaved family members; others sought work with varying degrees of success. Black men and women made an indelible mark on society by holding lectures in famous meeting halls, taverns, theatres, churches, and the private parlour rooms of wealthy patrons across the country. They wrote and published narratives, stayed with influential reformers and ensured millions of words were written about them in the newspapers.[3]

By visualizing black activist movements in the British Isles through the digital humanities, we gain a greater knowledge of the extent of their travels, who they stayed with, their methods of transportation, and, overall, their radical interventions into the transatlantic landscape. Mapping their lectures also provides us with a visual measure of their impact: whether the venue was a small church in a regional hamlet or a city hall, formerly enslaved African American activists made an extraordinary impression on the British and Irish public. Speaking to millions of people, the maps indicate that no location was too small to visit to educate the local population about slavery.

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Illustrated London News, 1851. Image of Ellen Craft (who escaped slavery dressed as a white slaveowner) on the right hand side. Ellen and her husband William escaped and travelled to Britain, remaining here for nearly two decades.

However, studies of the black digital humanities have raised numerous questions: how have the politics of whiteness influenced the creation of these sources, as well as the digital humanities itself? Kim Gallon points to how the black digital humanities “forces us to move backward before moving forward in thinking about tools, to first consider how the very foundation of the humanities are racialized through the privileging of Western cultural traditions.” By critiquing the online platforms in which we work, we have to consider how the very creation of the sources we use as well as the platform itself have been shaped and “developed out of systems of power.”[4]

As much as possible, these speaking locations have been sourced from letters and slave narratives, written by activists themselves. However, hundreds of locations on the mapping project derive from adverts in the Victorian press, or from meeting reports written by white newspaper correspondents. Such biases must be highlighted and weaved into such discussions, not only because correspondents relied on racial stereotypes to refer to and write about activists, but also because their coverage of a particular lecture is thus edited and framed through a white supremacist lens.

Case Study: Frederick Douglass

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Frederick Douglass, c.1855.

Frederick Douglass provides a perfect case study to explore how the digital humanities can change our perceptions of antislavery research. I have mapped roughly 220 lectures for Douglass’s two British lecturing tours – nowhere near the final tally, as at the end of his first trip to Britain in the spring of 1847, he records how he gave roughly 300 lectures. Quite simply, I wanted to understand how he was able to organise so many talks in a short space of time. How did he travel from one place to another? How did he lecture in one town in the morning and another in the evening? Why was he visiting a certain location? Why would he go to a tiny fishing village that most people have never heard of? Were there any places he did not visit, and was it possibly to work out why? I believed the best way to answer some of these questions was to turn to the digital humanities, and map Douglass’ locations one by one.Douglass was a sensation in the British Isles. In one of his early meetings in Dublin in September 1845, a local correspondent described how he was “the great attraction of the evening” and the lecture room was so crowded that “many persons must have gone away for want of accommodation.”[5] During another lecture in Leicester in March 1847, the correspondent wrote that the lecturing hall “was filled literally to overflowing (for hundreds after strenuously endeavouring to find an entrance into the spacious room, were obliged to give up the attempt as hopeless).”[6]

Mapping Douglass’ route chronologically reveals an illogical and exhausting lecturing schedule, with him zigzagging across the country as his fame increased. Thus, his tour was often governed by necessity (the popularity of the antislavery cause in one place or another); recommendations (from abolitionists or people Douglass was introduced to); the dates of important meetings (he attended antislavery, suffrage, and temperance meetings across the country) or from endorsements in the press. Douglass garnered much support from Victorian newspapers and from prominent individuals, who in turn, had friends and connections with metropolitan and provincial publications.

Figure 3-Frederick Douglass’ Speaking Locations in the British Isles (author’s website- www.frederickdouglassinbritain.com)
Map of Frederick Douglass’ Speaking Locations in the British Isles 1845-1860.

Douglass travelled to Britain at a time of great industrial change and thus he was able to tap into new transport links slowly emerging in Britain. For example, anticipation for Douglass’ speech in Newcastle was so high that a special train was scheduled to leave at quarter past ten to allow people from Sunderland and Shields to attend the lecture.[7] His connections to the stalwart abolitionist Richardson family in Newcastle indicate why he spoke there several times, and perhaps explain this railway connection, as it is very likely they had some influence in arranging the extra train. Douglass himself referred to the importance of the railway network as a whole for his lecturing tour, and in a meeting in Carlisle in August 1846 stated Britons could exploit new technologies to influence “public opinion, [which was] rapidly conveyed through the medium of steam and the press, to alarm the consciences of the slaveholders.”[8]

Organizing a lecturing tour was an impressive enterprise that had to be carefully planned. Abolitionists would often arrange to meet Douglass at a train station or hotel, and he was introduced to local activists or friends of the movement. They would orientate him around a city and sometimes lead or chair antislavery meetings.[9] Before his arrival in Liverpool for example, Richard D. Webb recommended Douglass stay at Browns Hotel in the city’s heart, and mention Webb’s name (presumably to guarantee his respectability). After meeting with a Webb family member in the city, Douglass should proceed to catch the steamship to Dublin from the docks, at whichever fare was cheapest.[10]

In Wexford, Webb organized for Douglass to stay with his cousin’s family and coordinated two lectures in a local venue for him in early October. Webb then arranged for him to stay with the Jennings family in Cork who advertised Douglass’ lectures and invited influential people to attend.[11] The Jennings had connections to the Richardson family in Newcastle, who in turn had relations in Edinburgh (the Wigham family) and Glasgow (the Smeal family). When Douglass met Ellen Richardson in August 1846, she introduced him to her cousins Eliza Nicholson and Jane Carr, and Anna, her sister-in-law; as kinfolk and as Quakers, the Richardsons had extensive relations across the country.[12] We can see such friendships reflected in Douglass’ speaking locations.

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Plaque to Frederick Douglass in London, 10 minutes walk from South Kensington Station.

Thus, the digital humanities can reinvigorate transatlantic abolitionist research and reveal that Britons walk past sites with a rich history of black activism on a daily basis. Mapping African American tours reveal why abolitionists spoke in certain locations and how they travelled from place to place, providing us with a new lens through which to understand their radical interventions into a transatlantic and white supremacist landscape. To combat a fractured archive and in lieu of heritage plaques and statues, the maps are visual monuments to historical survivors of slavery. They also serve as essential reminders that African American activists achieved extraordinary impact on the British and Irish public, from tiny villages to capital cities. Regardless of the networks they were able to create or those that were bestowed upon them, they travelled widely, reaching nearly every corner of the British Isles.

References

[1] Frederick Douglass, Speech in London 30 March 1847, in John Blassingame, Frederick Douglass Papers: Series One, Speeches, Debates and Interviews, Vol.2 1847-54 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982), 19-52.

[2] Frederick Douglass to William Lloyd Garrison, 21 April 1847, in The Frederick Douglass Papers: Series Three, Correspondence Vol.1 1842-1852, ed. John R. McKivigan (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 202-203.

[3] Audrey Fisch, American Slaves in Victorian England: Abolitionist Politics in Popular Literature and Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University of Press, 2000); R.J.M Blackett, Building an Antislavery Wall (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983); Manisha Sinha, The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016).

[4] Kim Gallon, ‘Making a Case for the Black Digital Humanities,’ in Debates in the Digital Humanities, ed. Matthew K. Gold and Lauren F. Klein (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016). Online version, accessed 5 March 2018 [http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/55].

[5] The Freeman’s Journal. 8 September 1845, 3.

[6] Leicestershire Mercury. 6 March 1847, 2.

[7] Newcastle Guardian. 12 December 1846, 4.

[8] Carlisle Journal. 22 August 1846, 4.

[9] The Freeman’s Journal. 13 September 1845, 4.

[10] Richard D. Webb to Maria W. Chapman, 1845. Boston Public Library Antislavery Collection, accessed 18 May 2015,  http://archive.org/details/incompleteletter00webb3

[11] Tom Chaffin, Giant’s Causeway: Frederick Douglass’s Irish Odyssey and the Making of an American Visionary (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014), 71-72.

[12] Leigh Fought, Women in the World of Frederick Douglass (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 84-90

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