Did you know that there was an International Peace Conference in Paris on 1849? Or, for that matter, that there had been one in London in 1843, and another in Brussels in 1848? The first ‘International Congress of the Friends of Peace’ was organised by the British Quaker abolitionist Joseph Sturge (whose impressions of slavery in the United States we have reissued), and the second by the American Elihu Burritt, the ‘Learned Blacksmith’ who was U.S. Consul in Birmingham for several years.
The Paris conference of 1849 was chaired by Victor Hugo, and attended by Richard Cobden, Asa Mahan (the first President of Oberlin College, Ohio, founded 1833, which admitted black students from 1835 and women from 1837), and many others of the reforming great and good from both sides of the Atlantic. It was at this gathering that Victor Hugo spoke of ‘a supreme, sovereign senate, which will be to Europe what parliament is to England’ governing a ‘United States of Europe’. But the reason I’ve been reading about it was that one of the American delegates was a black slave, William Wells Brown.
I use the phrase ‘slave’ deliberately: his freedom was finally purchased by British friends in 1854, before which time he was subject to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which applied even in the ‘free’ states of the U.S.A. In 1847, Brown published (through the Anti-Slavery Office in Boston) Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave. Written by Himself (which we would love to reissue if we could find a copy in robust enough condition to scan!). It was then was published in Britain by Charles Gilpin, the Quaker publisher, politician and abolitionist who was Joseph Sturge’s nephew.
Brown’s route to the conference is outlined in the introduction to Three Years in Europe, Or, Places I Have Seen and People I Have Met, published by Gilpin in 1852. This thirty-page memoir, by the British abolitionist William Farmer, describes Brown’s youth, separation from his family, escape to the north, assistance to dozens of other fugitive slaves, and eventual role as a lecturer on abolition. His move to Europe was prompted not only by the threat of the Fugitive Slave Act, but by the desire of the American Peace Committee to have a black representative among its delegates in Paris, and also to travel in England, ‘to be a living lie to the doctrine of the inferiority of the African race’.
His book (in the form of letters) is an interesting and very readable account of his experiences in Dublin, Paris and Britain, culminating in the subsequent International Peace Conference, which was timed to coincide with the Great Exhibition of 1851. It combines conventional sight-seeing with sharp social commentary. At the conference in Paris, he is approached by an American who was on the boat over, and evinced disgust at a black man being treated like the other passengers, ‘ who would not have shaken hands with me with a pair of tongs’ during the voyage, but who now wants ‘Mr Brown’ to introduce him to Hugo and Cobden.
In Liverpool, and then in London, he is struck by the fact that although he is looked at curiously in the street, nobody insults him, demands to know what he is doing, or attempts to arrest him: ’I can stand here and look the tyrant [his former master] in the face, and tell him that I am his equal! England is, indeed, the “land of the free, and the home of the brave”.’
On the other hand, he is not blind to social injustice: in Dublin (where he saw Queen Victoria’s royal visit), he contrasts the magnificent buildings of the city centre with the slums where (at the height of the potato famine), ‘Sickly and emaciated-looking creatures were at our heels at every turn, begging for pence to buy bread’.
At the Peace Conference in Paris, he is fully aware of the irony of the context. ‘In one sense the meeting was a glorious one – in another, it was mere child’s play; for the Congress had been restricted to the discussion of certain topics. They were permitted to dwell on the blessings of peace, but were not allowed to say anything about the very subjects above all others that should have been brought before the Congress’ – not least that a French army had just invaded Rome and ‘putdown the friends of political and religious freedom’.
Returning to London after the conference, and having experienced the sights of Paris, Brown began to tour England and Scotland on speaking engagements (during which he met up with William and Ellen Craft). His lectures were very successful – one of his ‘props’ was an iron collar that had been worn by a female slave: it caused consternation in various custom-halls and was clearly a very effective ‘show and tell’.
His hosts in the different towns and cities he visited made sure he was the local sights, and it is noticeable that he appears to have been most interested in places with literary associations: Tom Moore’s house in Dublin, for example, Byron’s Newstead Abbey, the Scott Monument and Abbotsford, and Wordsworth’s grave at Grasmere. Interesting for an American visitor, and even more so for one who, in his preface, apologises in advance for any errors in his book, since ‘the author was a slave … until he had attained the age of twenty years; and … the education he has acquired, was by his own exertions, he never having has a day’s schooling in his life’.
He and the Crafts spent a few in the Lake District with Harriet Martineau, whose Society in America and Retrospect of Western Travel had attempted to explain America to Britain, and who was a devoted abolitionist, ‘who had written so much in behalf of the oppressed of our land’. Wandering around Loughrigg Fell, Brown was offered the use of a peasant’s donkey on which to ascend, but it nearly lost its footing on a vertiginous ledge: ‘as soon as my feet had once more gained terra firma, I resolved that I would never again yield my own judgment to that of anyone, not even to a donkey’.
One letter concentrates on the Great Exhibition, but, curiously it omits the ‘protest art’ role played by Brown himself in the matter of ‘The Greek Slave’, a sculpture by the American artist Hiram Powers, which was on display. A letter transcribed here seems to indicate that Brown and his party had with them a copy (in some form) of Tenniel’s famous ‘Virginian Slave’, published in Punch, and held it up to public view next to Powers’ statue. All that Brown says is: ‘The “Greek Slave” is the only production of art which the United States has sent. And it would have been more to their credit had they kept that at home.’
Brown returned to the Unites States in 1854, and continued to lecture and write. His novel, Clotel (an imagined life of a daughter of Thomas Jefferson by one of his slaves), published in London in 1853 can claim to be the first published work of African American fiction. He also wrote several books on black history and culture, and became a proponent of black emigration to the then independent republic of Haiti as a way of reducing racial tension in the United States. He died in 1884. Something that is mentioned briefly in Farmer’s memoir but does not come out in Brown’s own account is that he had married a free black woman in 1834, and had four daughters (two of whom died as infants).
Brown separated from his wife Elizabeth in 1847, retaining custody of Clarissa and Josephine, who were sent to a boarding school, but they joined him in Europe in 1851–2, and went to schools in France and London. In 1853, Josephine qualified as a teacher, and accepted a post in East Plumstead School, Woolwich; when Brown returned to the United States, both girls remained in England, though Josephine joined him in 1855–6. Concerned that his Narrative had gone out of print, she published Biography of an American Bondman, reworking the Narrative with additional material. She is believed then to have returned to England to teach, though in 1874 she died of tuberculosis and was buried in Cambridge Massachusetts. I wonder if the successor schools in Plumstead are aware of this interesting footnote in the history of abolition?