In the spring of 1847, Douglass prepared to leave Britain and between February and April, farewell meetings were held in numerous cities to thank Douglass for campaigning against American slavery. When Douglass eventually boarded the Cunard steamship Cambria in 1847 with a first class ticket, he was refused entry and found that his berth had been given to someone else. Douglass wrote a letter to the press denouncing this racist treatment, and they responded just as Douglass expected they would: with outrage.
A BRITISH BOW TO AN AMERICAN PREJUDICE: Cunard’s line of transatlantic steamers, is, we believe, essentially British…The proprietors, consequently, have no right to outrage the feelings of Englishmen on board their vessels, by the adoption of the vilest of American prejudices – nor if there by the virtue in our country – men for which we give them credit, will they permitted to do so with impunity…we owe it to ourselves, we owe it to our coloured brethren and we owe it to our principles, to brand with reprobation, loud and universal, the stooping of British commerce to such unutterable meanness. Whatever may be tolerated in America, we do hope that the manly feeling of this country will frown down any disposition to introduce prejudice against colour into English company, whether ashore or abroad.
The incident was discussed hundreds of times across the country, even in places where Douglass had never visited. The Cambria incident also inspired poems and songs, which illustrate this theme of British patriotism very well. The Leicestershire Mercury printed a ‘Farewell Song to Frederick Douglass’ by T. Powis Griffiths in July 1847:
Farewell to the land of the free!
Farewell to the land of the brave!
Alas! That my country should be
America, land of the slave!
Am I not wanted where warfare is waging?
Shall I, like a coward, not join in the fight?
Bring from the onslaught when battle is raging,
Scared by the enemy’s tyrannous might?
Throughout the month of April - even stretching to May and June - the papers were filled with the “CASE OF FREDERICK DOUGLASS!” So fierce was the public response that the man who had refused Douglass a ticket wrote a public letter to The Times, justifying his conduct. The situation reached such a height that Samuel Cunard himself, the owner of the shipping line, issued a public apology. This was huge: a businessman, in charge of a transatlantic company, publicly apologizing to an African American and a former slave. Douglass used the incident as propaganda - just like his arrival, Douglass left Britain in a whirl of controversy.
The passenger list for the Cambria in 1847 is online – Frederick Douglass is number 48, and he is listed as a “lecturer” (thanks to Jeff Green for pointing this out to me).