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2. The Troublous Ocean of Transatlantic Abolitionism, 1833–1840
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45 2 the troublous ocean of transatlantic abolitionism, 1833–1840 G arrison’s first time crossing the Atlantic Ocean shared one thing with all his future crossings: sea-sickness. On May 1, 1833, his New York–to– Liverpool packet ship had not even cleared the bay before Garrison’s stomach was “vanquished” by “a petty tumult among the waves!” Thirteen years later, after five more crossings of “the restless deep,” Garrison confessed that “I shall never get reconciled to the ocean. Though I am fond of agitation, it does not run in that line.”1 Garrison nevertheless saw his first Atlantic crossing as “providential,” nausea aside. He spent several mornings discussing Parliament’s West Indian emancipation bill at the Guildhall Coffee House in London. He “procur[ed] a large collection of anti-slavery documents, tracts, pamphlets and volumes” to use as “ammunition” at home. He helped combat a representative of the American Colonization Society who was in England raising funds. He met leading British abolitionists like Cropper, O’Connell, and William Wilberforce, all of whom signed statements against colonizationism. And most importantly of all, he met abolitionist lecturer George Thompson, who became a lifelong friend and a lynchpin in future transatlantic networks.2 Yet for Garrison, the significance of his first Atlantic crossing went beyond these achievements. For a young man who swooned to Romantic poems about heroism and revolution, crossing the ocean was also a journey of imagination and self-fashioning. Though he traveled to England instead of to Greece, Garrison was finally fulfilling his own Byronic dreams. Before setting sail, the young editor wrote several letters modeled on typical Romantic poems about seafaring and the ocean. In one, he imagined himself standing on a high mountaintop and surveying the world below. He could see “the flames of a thousand burning [Af- 46 Part I: Origins rican] villages fearfully reddening the wide heavens.” As he turned to gaze on the Atlantic expanse he would soon cross, “the troublous ocean throws aside its blue curtain, and reveals to my vision an African golgotha,—the bodies of the dead, men, women, and babes, tracking the paths of the slave ships, and numerous as the waves that chant their requiem.”3 Such lines were the latest examples of Garrison’s tendency to read himself into Romantic poems, whose narrators often found themselves alone on mountains , reflecting with anguish on the evils of the human world below. Images of the “troublous ocean”—shipwrecks, suffering travelers, and storms—were also common motifs in this poetry, and Garrison’s vision of the Atlantic as an African “golgotha” echoed earlier antislavery poets and their grisly evocations of the slave trade. Now, by repeating those images, Garrison cast himself as a heroic traveler willing to brave both the physical dangers and moral terrors of an everrestless ocean. “Unto the winds and waves I now commit / My body,” Garrison wrote in a shipboard sonnet, bidding adieu to “my much beloved yet guilty country .” He knew his “resting place may be the watery pit,” but his “deathless soul” would confront the peril undaunted.4 These were not the words of a man who believed that going to England was only about fundraising or gathering tracts; they were the words of a man who imagined himself as the liberty-loving patriot in “The Exile’s Departure,” or like Lafayette, the Hero of Two Continents who also crossed an ocean on a mission for freedom. But those exalted visions inevitably led Garrison to exaggerate the newness of his trip. He was far from the first abolitionist to see the value of obtaining British support, and although his Thoughts on African Colonization had earned Garrison a transatlantic reputation, by the time he arrived the black New Yorker Nathaniel Paul and the English abolitionist Charles Stuart were already working to undermine the Colonization Society. Although Garrison’s trip created new transatlantic abolitionist networks, in the beginning he followed in the wake of others.5 Garrison could take credit for one innovation, however: before leaving England , he persuaded George Thompson to lecture on abolition in the United States. Other abolitionists were not all convinced of its wisdom, yet this new tactic flowed from Garrison’s earlier beliefs about the United States and his experiences attempting to mobilize patriotic shame. He was confident a visit from Thompson would succeed because he continued to believe that Americans would respond to appeals to “public opinion,” especially from foreigners. In the years to come, that belief was sorely...



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Subject Headings

  • Antislavery movements -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Slavery -- Political aspects -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Democracy -- Philosophy
  • Garrison, William Lloyd, 1805-1879.
  • Phillips, Wendell, 1811-1884.
  • American Anti-Slavery Society.
  • Abolitionists -- United States -- Biography
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