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26 June 2014

Anti-Slavery News: Frederick Douglass’s The North Star

Austin Steward

Above: portrait of Austin Steward from, Twenty Two Years a Slave and Forty Years a Freeman (BL shelfmark: 10880.bb.15)

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[Ellie Bird, one of Team Americas' CDA PhD students, is off to Nova Scotia this week, to continue her research on the published history of slavery in Canada. Here's an update on her research at the British Library so far]

I am a second year PhD student based at the University of Sheffield doing a collaborative doctoral award with the British Library. This means I get three supervisors—including Phil Hatfield in the Americas and Australasia Studies Team at the BL.

Recently I’ve been looking at issues of Frederick Douglass’s anti-slavery newspaper, which between 1847-1851 was entitled The North Star, in the search for advertisements for two book length slave narratives I’m currently researching for my work on Canadian slave narratives; Benjamin Drew’s A North-Side View of Slavery (1856) (BL shelfmark: 8156.c33) and the second edition of Austin Steward’s Twenty Two Years a Slave and Forty Years a Freeman (1859) (BL shelfmark: 10880.bb.15). I want to know how they were advertised, how much they cost and what I can gage about potential readers. There are gaps in the available holdings which mean I am unable to find what I am looking for; one of the joys of research is that as you work, you meet dead ends and need to look somewhere else. However, as so often happens when I start delving into old newspapers, there are many new and intriguing things that catch my eye.

Benjamin Drew

Above: title page of Benjamin Drew’s, A North-Side View of Slavery (BL shelfmark: 8156.c33)

Published once a week in Rochester, New York, evidence from The North Star indicates it was circulated by agents in the American States, as well as in farther flung places including Toronto, and England. Looking through the Library's holdings for 1851 there are many reprinted articles from Canadian newspapers, items about British abolitionist George Thompson and Douglass himself speaking to the Canadian people urging them towards anti-slavery sensibilities. An account of an anti-slavery speech given in Toronto describes slavery in America as a disease threatening to spread throughout Canada if not resisted (The North Star, 17 April pp2- 3).

Canadian women are urged to take action and write letters to their US counterparts spreading anti-slavery arguments (3). The speech urges its Canadian listeners through the use of pro-British sentiment to choose to actively defend freedom and halt the spread of slavery. Here, printed in an American abolitionist paper, it is not simply patting British backs but making a call for American abolitionists to galvanise. It also reflects that Canadian locations such as Toronto mattered in the American anti-slavery movement.

I could look at newspapers like this all day. As well as being, in my eyes, an underexplored but crucial space in which to learn about writing on slavery and slave narratives, it also immerses you within a rich culture where advertisements for horse ointment and ledger books sit alongside anti-slavery poetry, reports of anti-slavery gatherings in Toronto and a small article celebrating a black inventor’s creation of an aid for the fire department in Philadelphia (NS, 5 Oct 1855, p3). In short, slave narratives were not circulated in a cultural vacuum and newspapers reflect this perfectly.

Registered British Library readers can currently access Douglass’s newspaper remotely via remote e-resources; Readex: Early American Newspapers, series 1.

[EB]

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