The Theme Of Slavery In The Book Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass

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“A slave is a person who is the legal property of another and is forced to obey them.”(Lexico Dictionaries 2019). The Transatlantic Slave Trade started in the 17th century with the first black African “negro” slaves reaching Virginia in 1619. Black people were kidnapped from West Africa and forcibly relocated to the Americas. African American slaves worked sunup to sundown with no pay. Slaves were forced to do manual labour farming crops like cotton, rice, indigo and tobacco or working in the homestead of their owners – it was not a pleasant life. Most African slaves tried to escape or pretended not to understand instructions from their owners to get out of their back breaking labour. One fascinating slave who escaped slavery was Frederick Douglass. Frederick Douglass strived for human rights, justice for all, equality and integration. Douglass was a brilliant social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer and a statesman (Walker, T 2019).

The barbaric Transatlantic Slave Trade (three stages of ‘trade’ that formed a triangle) transported millions of unwilling enslaved Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas from the 16th-19th century. This slave trade was a result of a demand for labour to cultivate crops in newly conquered European colonies. The first stage; textiles, slaves and wine were shipped from Europe to Africa. The next stage saw slaves taken from Africa to the Americas, also known as the middle passage where 15% of slaves died (digital history, 2020). The final stage; sugar, rum, cotton and tobacco were shipped on return to Europe. Slaves were dehumanised called ‘cargo’, enduring unimageable brutality, being shaved and branded before up to 400 slaves were squeezed into a single ship. Some ‘cargo’, committed suicide and were thrown overboard if they were ill or disobedient. The African slaves that made it to America were sold (a horrifying ordeal in itself with families torn apart and herded like cattle) and forced to live on plantations. Marriage between slaves was not legal but they still had large families. Slave owners encouraged this to produce more free labour. In 1794 the cotton gin was invented it deseeded cotton 50 times more efficiently ( Editors 2020). As there was a greater supply of cotton, demand also increased which meant slaves had to work harder in the field. If slaves were caught ‘slacking’ or trying to escape, they were whipped in front of the others. In 1808 the American congress outlawed the African slave trade (which brought approximately 600 000 African slaves to America). The enslaved population nearly tripled over the next 50 years reaching four million in 1860 ( Editors 2020).

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Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was an African American slave who was born into slavery in 1818. Douglass lived on plantations with his maternal grandmother – Betty Baily as Frederick had been separated from his mother who died when he was only ten. At the age of 12 he was taught the alphabet by the wife of his slave owner. He continued to learn to read watching white children and passing on his knowledge by teaching other slaves to read. He read books and newspapers which gave him insight into his world and the struggle of slaves. This was the beginning of his view on human rights. When he was only 16 after a brutal beating, he bravely stood up to his master. On September 3rd, 1838 at the age of 20, Frederick escaped slavery with the help of his future wife, a free black woman Anna Murray (NCC staff 2019). Frederick took a train to Pennsylvania where he married Anna, had five children changed his name to Douglass and settled in a free black community. Frederick began to give lectures and write books on how he escaped and what his ideals were. After his biography was published, he fled to Ireland to avoid persecution where his loyal followers purchased his legal freedom and he returned to America in 1847 a freeman where he began publishing his Newspaper The North Star.

Frederick gave his famous “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?” speech at an abolitionist meeting in Massachusetts in 1852. His speech illustrated that Americans had freedom from Britain, but black Americans still were not free. Frederick’s Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass helped many slaves escape. His second autobiography published in 1855, My Bondage and My Freedom taught all Americans how unfair slavery was. His books are now considered classics. Douglass was America’s most well-known black spokesman. Mrs Lincoln, the President’s wife gave Frederick, Lincoln’s walking stick. 1863 saw the passing of the 13th Amendment to the American Constitution declaring freedom from slavery ( Editors 2020). Douglass gave a divisive speech in 1870 upon Robert E. Lee’s (Confederate General’s) death that black Americans had their ‘freedom’, but they still did not have equal rights. Douglass went on to become the Federal Marshal for the District of Columbia, president of the Rutherford Bank, Ambassador to the Dominican Republic, Consul General to Haiti, the first Black American Nominee for Vice president of the United States, a spokesman for woman’s rights and worked with four American Presidents from Lincoln to Hayes. After Anna died, he controversially married Helen Pitts who was a white female abolitionist. Douglass died in 1895. Frederick Douglass is remembered for his passionate work ensuring Americans live up to the ideals, freedom and equality for all people. If Frederick Douglass was not born into slavery he wouldn’t have witnessed its cruelty first hand and would not have become an abolitionist and his life would have been very different.

Slavery bought Frederick’s ancestors through the Transatlantic Slave Trade to the Americas. Frederick Douglass was an African American born into slavery. He became the most famous black man at the time of the Civil War, he was the most photographed black man of his time, he wrote hundreds of columns in newspapers about black integration and justice for all. Most recently he has had a book about him written called the Prophet of Freedom and his statue was erected in 2013 in the National Mall Capitol Visitors centre in Washington DC. Frederick was a slave, he was an abolitionist and he was an inspiration to many. Frederick’s memory still resonates today because of his inspiring passion for equality for all American (architect of the capital 2020)


  1. Editors (2019). Slavery in America. [online] HISTORY. Available at:
  2. Lewis, T. (2018). transatlantic slave trade | History & Facts. In: Encyclopædia Britannica. [online] Available at:
  3. Biography. (2017). Frederick Douglass. [online] Available at:
  4. Mintz, S. (2019). Digital History. [online] Available at:
  5. (2019). Frederick Douglass. [online] Available at:
  6. Walker, T. (2019). Rediscovering Black History. [online] Rediscovering Black History. Available at: [Accessed 7 Jan. 2020].
  7. (n.d.). Digital History. [online] Available at: [Accessed 1 Jun. 2020].
  8. Architect of the Capitol. (n.d.). Frederick Douglass. [online] Available at: [Accessed 1 Jun. 2020].
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