Honouring the Black Abolitionists who lectured in Limerick City in the mid-nineteenth century
The transatlantic alliance of dedicated anti-slavery activists who sought to abolish racial slavery in the United States culminated at a local level in Limerick with the visit of a series of leading Black abolitionists to the Independent Chapel on Bedford Row. This basic overview of their appearances in Limerick City accompanies my crowdfunded commemorative plaque to raise awareness of this history which resonates with a lesson of solidarity into the present day. Indeed it should give us pause that if each of these individuals and their families had sought refuge in the Ireland of today they would all be consigned to Direct Provision for an indeterminate period and not permitted to live freely in the community.
Moses Roper, Charles Lenox Remond, Frederick Douglass and Rev. Samuel Ringgold Ward were famous and influential African American abolitionists who unrelentingly railed against racial slavery and anti-black racism in the United States during the mid-19th century. They were especially renowned for their powerful political oratory which they brought to the international anglophone stage in an attempt to apply pressure on the institution from various points of influence at home and abroad. They lived up to their reputations in Limerick by delivering a series of detailed anti-slavery lectures exposing and educating its citizens, many of whom of course were potential immigrants, about the reality and “living death” of racial slavery in the U.S.
The Independent Chapel at 6 Bedford Row, which is sadly no longer extant, was the common location of these meetings, its Congregationalist ministers being ardent anti-slavery advocates who opened their doors to all. Contemporary newspaper reports suggest that large crowds of overwhelmingly supportive Limerick people of all classes and denominations were in attendance at these series of lectures.
Moses Roper (1838)
Moses Roper was born into slavery in North Carolina in circa 1815 and fled to New York and then to England in 1835 whereafter he dedicated his life to abolitionism and spreading awareness about American slavery. He published his slave narrative in London in the 1830s and toured Britain and Ireland extensively, delivering anti-slavery lectures to larges crowds. Currently acknowledged as being the first fugitive slave lecturer in Ireland, he visited Limerick in 1838, speaking at the Independent Chapel, Bedford Row on the 19 November. His lecture made an impression upon “the numerous and respectable meeting” and his “appeal…on behalf of his suffering brethren, elicited the warmest sympathy and commiseration.” A journalist present also noted that “many of the Society of Friends were in attendance” highlighting their leading role in the anti-slavery movement in Limerick.
During his stay in the Treaty City, Moses Roper also published a letter in the Limerick Chronicle newspaper (17 Nov), which according to recent research by Brian Baker and Fionnghuala Sweeney, is the earliest known example of a published voice of a fugitive slave in the Irish press. In this letter he stated that,
“Slaveholders in America consider and treat their Slaves as though they were not human beings, but mere animals…” and that he was desirous of doing all he could “to aid the cause of Negro emancipation, by diffusing information on the subject with which I have been so painfully acquainted.”
He wished to make U.S. slaveholders aware that “Christians on this side of the Atlantic entertain a different view on the subject [of racial slavery]” and to this end he included an anti-racist and anti-slavery poem he had received from an Irish poet, one Mary Tuckey of Co. Cork.
Who is my brother? Ask the waves that come
From Africa’’s shores to greet our island home.
Who is my brother? Ask the winds that stray
From Indian realms, to chase our clouds away.
Who is my brother? Ask the suns that shine
On southern seas, then turn to smile on thine.
Who is my brother? Ask the stars that roll
Their nightly journey round from pole to pole.
These with one voice shall answer that they find
But one vast family in all mankind;
Nor colour, clime, nor caste can e’er efface
The kindred likeness of the wide-spread race,
Or break the chain that at the first began
To bind in one the family of man.
Charles Lenox Remond (1841)
Charles Lenox Remond (1810–1873) of Salem, Massachusetts was an activist, orator and the first black anti-slavery lecturer with the American Anti-Slavery Society which he represented at the inaugural World Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840. He followed this with an exhaustive eighteen-month speaking tour of Britain and Ireland, making his way to Limerick by August 1841, where he was hosted by the Limerick Anti-Slavery Society, an auxiliary of the Hibernian Anti-Slavery Society. This local anti-slavery society was headed by Limerick Quakers, especially the Fisher family of Lifford House, Ballinacurra (namely Benjamin, Susanna, Rebecca and Charlotte), while Samuel Evans of Corbally Cottage was its secretary.
Remond spoke in Limerick City on four occasions, the first was at the Quaker’s Meeting House on Cecil Street and the next three at the Independent Chapel on Bedford Row. Large crowds attended, a contemporary recorded that: “the house was thronged in every part, even the stairs leading to the galleries […] crowded with anxious groups, impatient to hear the gifted tongue of this interesting person”.
His final lecture on 7 September 1841 was hailed by the Limerick Reporter newspaper as “one of the most powerful, eloquent, and effective [lectures] delivered in this city.” One of their journalists present described how Remond exposed the “incongruities and inconsistencies of the Americans in such a point of view as to disabuse the most skeptical and disarm the most prejudiced in their favour” with slavery being “the ugliest blot on the history of nations”. The anti-racist effect of Remond’s performance was alluded to by the Limerick Reporter who suggested that “the ‘popular error’ of linking skin colour with intelligence was‚ entirely demolished by the undoubted talent and acute and tutored judgment of Mr. Remond”.
Text of the Limerick Anti-Slavery Society resolution proposed by Benjamin C. Fisher at Remond’s final lecture:
Resolved — That it is the opinion of this meeting, from the facts laid before it by Mr. Remond, in his various lectures, that but little general information exists amongst the people of this country in reference to the workings of the horrible and inhuman system of Slavery; and that best thanks be given to the Limerick Anti-Slavery Society for having brought Mr. Remond to this city to expose the iniquity of a system disgraceful to a generation confessed enlightened, and that we pledge ourselves to aid in forwarding the extinction of this degrading and unchristian system by every legitimate means in our power.
The Irish Address
Hundreds of people from Limerick who attended these lectures would have added their signatures to the famous anti-slavery ‘Irish Address’ which Remond hand-delivered to Boston after his Irish sojourn. By then, it had amassed some 60,000 signatures including that of leading Irish abolitionists such as Daniel O’Connell and R.R. Madden. It called on Irish people in America to “hate slavery” and implored them to “treat the colored people as your equals, as brethren.”
Remond presented the Address and its roll of signatures before a crowd of approximately 4,000 at the great anti-slavery meeting in Faneuil Hall, Boston on 28 January 1842. When it was unrolled, it stretched spectacularly from the speaker’s platform to the entrance door of the hall. It was received “by the large assemblage with cheers and loud acclamations of applause.”
Frederick Douglass (1845)
When Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) visited Limerick in 1845 he was like his predecessor Remond hosted by the abolitionist Fisher family of Lifford House. By then, Douglass was a renowned activist, orator and published author. He delivered two lectures at the Independent Chapel on Bedford Row on 10 and 12 November 1845 at which “all classes and parties” were represented in the crowd. The core of his speeches in Limerick, through quoting slave laws and brandishing the chains and implements used to torture the enslaved, attacked the hypocrisy of the U.S. to vaunt noble ideas such as liberty or freedom while a “bastard republicanism enslaved one-sixth of the population.”
“He wanted them to know, and if there was a reporter present they would know that a slave had stood up in Limerick and ridiculed [American] democracy and liberty.”
He markedly denounced the appearance of a blackface performer in the city at the same time as his visit and explained to the audience the difference between slavery in the U.S. and poverty and oppression in Ireland.
“If slavery existed in Ireland, it ought to put down, and the generous in the land ought to rise and scatter its fragments to the winds. But there was nothing like American slavery on the soil on which I now stand. Negro slavery consisted not in taking away a man’s property, but in making property of him.”
Near the end of this he quoted from memory the “genius of universal emancipation” speech by John Philpott Curran in defence of a United Irishman. A supporter of Irish independence for most of his life, Douglass later wrote to Garrison from Belfast about the incredible poverty he witnessed in Ireland and how it reminded him of the degradation of enslavement.
Here you have an Irish hut or cabin, such as millions of the people of Ireland live in. And some live in worse than these. Men and women, married and single, old and young, lie down together, in much the same degradation as the American slaves. I see much here to remind me of my former condition, and I confess I should be ashamed to lift up my voice against American slavery, but that I know the cause of humanity is one the world over. He who really and truly feels for the American slave, cannot steel his heart to the woes of others; and he who thinks himself an abolitionist, yet cannot enter into the wrongs of others, has yet to find a true foundation for his anti-slavery faith.
On 21 November, he was feted by the Mayor of Limerick and clergy from all denominations at an Anti-Slavery Soirée at the Philosophical Rooms (no longer extant) on Glentworth Street. Near the end of that night, he expressed his appreciation to the people of Limerick for their hospitality:
“I found freedom and a welcome to speak against slavery in Dublin, Wexford, Waterford, and Cork, and though last, not least, in Limerick. Whether at home or abroad, I will never forget the very kind manner I was received in Limerick.”
Rev. Samuel Ringgold Ward (1855)
Samuel Ringgold Ward (1817–1866) was by far the most enigmatic of the visiting quartet. Like Douglass he born into slavery in Maryland. His parents fled their bondage when he was child and Ward was brought up in New Jersey and then New York and not informed of his family history of exile until much later in life. He grew up in poverty in New York City, was educated by what he described as “kind” Quakers, while also working to help his family make ends meet. Ward writes of being scarred by the prevalence of “ever-crushing Negro-hate” which threatened to embitter his spirit. Working as a servant, he was denied a seat at the table with white servants, and throughout his childhood and adolescence he was made to feel like he was inferior because of the colour of his skin.
“[I was] ever disparagingly reminded of my colour and origin; along the streets it ever pursued, ever ridiculed, ever abused me. If I sought redress, the very complexion I wore was pointed out as the best reason for my seeking it in vain..[..]..if I sought a trade, white apprentices would leave if I were admitted”.
He became a Congregational minister, abolitionist and formidable orator. And so it was, on a Wednesday evening 6 June 1855 during his visit to Ireland, that this “clergyman of colour” delivered a lecture titled “American Slavery” to a large crowd in the Independent Chapel on Bedford Row. The Limerick Chronicle newspaper described how Ward began the meeting with a prayer and then lectured for over ninety minutes with “impassioned rhetoric and logical acumen’’ that he interspersed with “bursts of humour” and “touching pathos.” The reporter present was impressed by how Ward effortlessly “instructed and charmed the large assembly.” After the lecture, a large collection was made “to enable the Lecturer to promote the temporal and spiritual welfare of our coloured brethern — the fugitive slaves in Canada — to whose interests he had been solicited to devote his future life.”
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