In 1845 Frederick Douglass arrived in Ireland and began a speaking tour that would take him across Scotland and England.
Douglass had illegally learned to read and write as a slave in the American South. At the age of 20 he escaped and met up with Northern abolitionists including William Lloyd Garrison, the editor of the Liberator. Douglass became known for his writing and speaking against slavery.
Richard Bradbury’s new novel Riversmeet combines a narrative of Douglass’s tour with the story of fictional Irish radical Eamonn MacDonagh.
“Douglass is one of the towering figures of the 19th century,” Richard told Socialist Worker. “His move from slave to politician, editor and writer is extraordinary. What makes it even more impressive is that he never forgot the importance of struggle.
“He was one of the finest writers and orators of his time and yet he is still scandalously neglected in comparison to much less important figures. I think that’s connected to his race and to his insistence on struggle as the motor of change.”
Throughout the novel Douglass interacts with a range of historical figures including Garrison, who suggested the trip, and the Chartist leaders William Cuffay and Feargus O’Connor.
“While there are a lot of real incidents in the book, there’s also no evidence that Douglass and Cuffay ever met,” says Richard.
“But I wanted to think about what these two great figures, coming from very different directions and traditions but sharing black skin, would have discussed. So I invented a series of meetings.”
Douglass’s story is told through letters he sends to the US.
At first things seem straightforward and he sends letters to his wife which can be passed on to other supporters. He reveals his joy at speaking to large rallies and at the lack of colour prejudice in Dublin.
As he becomes more aware of local political conditions he asks that letters expressing doubts about some collaborators are not forwarded to Garrison, who might publish them.
The letters here are all fictional. This enables Richard to dramatise Douglass’s uncertainty over keeping secret a trip to meet Fenians in Belfast, and his emotional response to the poverty in the London factories of the liberal industrialists who back his cause.
While Douglass’s journey continues, MacDonagh experiences the horror of famine – his village starves and people are evicted from their farms for being unable to pay their rent. In an ironic but poignant move he goes on hunger strike during the famine.
MacDonagh meets Douglass early in the novel and again towards the end, by which time the Irishman’s early idealism has shifted in another direction.
Richard says, “It seemed to me very striking that Douglass arrived at a point where both the Chartists were reviving and also the famine was hitting Ireland.
“There seemed to be some parallels to the present day – famine, terrorism, single issue campaigns, class struggle, economic migration, arguments about the tactics and strategy for change – that I wanted to talk about while writing his story.”
Douglass remained a radical through his life, Richard notes. “In one of his speeches he said, ‘If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favour freedom, and deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without ploughing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning.’
“Douglass also connected the struggles together – he was the only black man to sign the Seneca Falls declaration, the 1848 statement of women’s rights, and he died of a heart attack after speaking at a women’s suffrage rally in 1895.”
The beautifully written novel moves to a climax in the West Country as the different struggles butt up against each other at a great Chartist rally. There is a real sense of history, place and continuing struggle throughout the book.
Riversmeet by Richard Bradbury is published by Muswell Press (£10) and is available from Bookmarks, phone 020 7637 1848. » www.bookmarks.uk.com