From Ireland to Haiti, Frederick Douglass preached freedom

Frederick Douglass statue

A nine-foot-tall statue of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, the first such tribute to Douglass in Europe, was on exhibit in Boston last week and on display at the Museum of African American History on Beacon Hill at an event aimed at building awareness for the monument and its ties to Boston, Ireland and Haiti.

The sculpture, created by renowned Anglo-Irish sculptor Andrew Edward, is impressive in its majestic size and its features—dominated by the passionate and resolute facial expression of a then 27-year-old Douglass depicted in the art. Author and activist Dan Mullan, who is currently touring the US to promote both the statue and the connection between Douglass and one of the most revered Irish statesman and abolitionist, Daniel O’Connell ( 1775-1847), was on hand at the June 13 event.

Douglass is permanently linked to both Ireland and Haiti, although his visits to these former European colonies took place decades apart. In 1845-1846, Douglass— then just 27 years-old— visited Ireland for a speaking tour against slavery. He was a visitor to Haiti from 1889 to 1891, beginning at the age of 71 for what can be labeled as both a prestigious function but controversial mission: As an ambassador to facilitate the sale of a portion of the world’s first black republic.

Currently residing in Paris, Mullan is the author of the 1997 book “Eyewitness Bloody Sunday” later adapted into a movie, depicting the fatal confrontation of which he was an involved witness at 15. The confrontation between British paratroopers and Irish demonstrators in Northern Ireland in April 1972 resulted in 13 fatalities. The massacre of civilians sparked an expansive investigation that led to the Tony Blair’s government to finally acknowledge responsibility for the atrocity.

Over the years, Mullan has built an interest in advocating for civil right causes in various countries in Africa, Europe and Haiti. He is the co-founder of the Frederick Douglass Ireland Project and a member of the French-Haitian Reparations Initiative. A guest of the Museum of African American History and the National Center for Race Amity, Mullan’s lecture “Douglass and O’Connell: Two Men Yearn for Freedom,” was preceded by a segment of the public television documentary “An American Story: Race Amity and the Other Tradition” featuring Douglass’s first trip to Ireland where he met O’Connell and was triumphantly received by abolitionists in Dublin, Belfast and Cork. The documentary is scheduled to be released in 2016.

Mullan’s presentation included a moving and powerful segment on Haiti. His traditional view of Haiti, through the lenses of poverty, disaster and political instability was shattered after reading Frederick Douglass’s eloquent speech on Haiti at the Chicago Fair of 1893 in which he discussed the first black republic in the world —and the second republic in the Western Hemisphere after the US. Mullan became intrigued about Haitian hero and leader Toussaint Louverture following a quote by Douglas:

“His high character, his valor, his wisdom, and his unflinching fidelity to the cause of liberty are an inheritance of which his people should be proud,” Douglass said. “His lot, however, is not singular. Men are often loved least by those they have served best.”

Mullan, now a member of the French Reparation Initiatives, is on a mission not only to promote the concept of reparations, which according to his thinking should involve not only France, but also other nations which collaborated to impose a blockage on Haiti to prevent the spread of black rebellion in the US and Europe. This collaboration locked Haiti’s economy out of the international trade and forced its government to agree to the payment of 150,000,000 francs over 122 years (1825-1947), estimated to about 21 billion dollars in today’s currency as payment to French settlers victims of Haiti’s independence wars. While it appears to be a long shot by many there have been recent precedents with countries such as Italy paying some 5 billion to Libya for it 21 years of occupation.

Douglass’s contributions to abolition took an international turn with his appointment later as the first black US minister and consul general to Haiti. This episode of his historical journey offers further evidence of the complex choices he had to make in his life: to criticize or to defend Abraham Lincoln? To reclaim part of Haiti as a colony for emancipated American citizens or to help protect the sovereignty of the first black republic against imperialist tendencies?

In his autobiography first published in 1845 and updated in his later days in 1892 (Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: From Slave to Diplomat) he devotes a good chunk of the last chapter to explaining his mission in Haiti and fending off attacks from the New York white media accusing him of being “soft on the black republic” and failing to force the Haitian government of Florvil Hyppolite to sell the Mole St Nicolas as a naval base. The critiques came even as Douglass had the presence Rear Admiral Gherardi’s American flagship in the bay of Port-au-Prince to help assert his request.

Many scholars and historians (See: Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban Rhodes Island College, Philip & Eric Foner) have concluded that Douglass’s fateful encounter with Haiti’s most prominent intellectual, anthropologist and minister of Foreign Affairs Anténor Firmin (The Equality of the Human Race, University of Illinois Press) was instrumental in preventing the conclusion of the “sale,” which would have made Haiti’s Mole Saint Nicolas what is today known as the Guantanamo Bay base in Cuba.

The idea of reparations entertained by Mullan is certainly one for a larger debate. More locally, the historical connections between Massachusetts and Haiti are another area of interest. Both Boston and Haiti can claim and reclaim powerful such ties through their most revered citizens such as John Brown, Charles Summer, Martin Luther King (all with streets named after them in Haiti). For more on the statue, visit Center for Race Amity, Wheelock College at douglassocnnellmemorial.org.

Charlot Lucien is a contributing editor to the Boston Haitian Reporter.