African American Activists in Scotland William Wells Brown (1814-1884)

‘I met a large number of the students on their way to the college, and here again were seen coloured men arm in arm with whites’
William Wells Brown

William Wells Brown (1814-1884) was a formerly enslaved man turned dramatist, novelist, autobiographer, historian, activist, orator and antislavery radical. Born in Kentucky, he travelled extensively in Europe, including his repeated antislavery lecturing and social justice campaigns in Scotland. Visiting Edinburgh, Brown reported

‘I met a large number of the students on their way to the college, and here again were seen coloured men arm in arm with whites. The proud American who finds himself in the splendid streets of Edinburgh, and witnesses such scenes as these, can but behold in them the degradation of his own country, whose laws would make slaves of these same young men.’

In Edinburgh and London in 1852, William Wells Brown published his seminal work, ‘Three Years In Europe: or, Places I Have Seen and People I Have Met’, an extract is included below.

Extract: William Wells Brown, ‘Three Years In Europe: or, Places I Have Seen and People I Have Met,’ 1852

‘The general appearance of Edinburgh prepossess one in its favour. The town being built upon the brows of a large terrace, presents the most wonderful perspective. Its first appearance to a stranger, and the first impression, can scarcely be but favourable. In my first walk through the town, I was struck with the difference in the appearance of the people from the English. But the difference between the Scotch and the Americans, is very great. The cheerfulness depicted in the countenances of the people here, and their free and easy appearance, is very striking to a stranger. He who taught the sun to shine, the flowers to bloom, the birds to sing, and blesses us with rain, never intended that his creatures should look sad. There is a wide difference between the Americans and any other people which I have seen. The Scotch are healthy and robust, unlike the long-faced, sickly-looking Americans.


I breakfasted this morning in a room in which the Poet Burns, as I was informed, had often sat. The conversation here turned upon Burns. The lady of the house pointed to a scrap of poetry which was in a frame hanging on the wall, written, as she said, by the Poet, on hearing the people rejoicing in a church over the intelligence of a victory. I copied it and will give it to you:--

"Ye hypocrites! are these your pranks,
To murder men and give God thanks?

For shame! give o'er, proceed no further,
God won't accept your thanks for murder."

The fact that I was in the room where Scotland's great national poet had been a visitor, caused me to feel that I was on classic, if not hallowed ground. On returning from our morning visit, we met a gentleman with a coloured lady on each arm. Craft remarked in a very dry manner, "If they were in Georgia, the slaveholders would make them walk in a more hurried gait than they do." I said to my friend, that if he meant the pro-slavery prejudice would not suffer them to walk peaceably through the streets, they need go no further than the pro-slavery cities of New York and Philadelphia. When walking through the streets, I amused myself, by watching Craft's countenance; and in doing so, imagined I saw the changes experienced by every fugitive slave in his first months residence in this country. A sixteen months' residence has not yet familiarized me with the change.

In this publication William Wells Brown also includes a letter he writes to Frederick Douglass.

LAUREL BANK, Jan. 18, 1851.
DEAR DOUGLASS,--I remained in Edinburgh a day or two after the date of my last letter, which gave me an opportunity of seeing some of the lions in the way of public buildings, &c., in company with our friend Wm. Craft. I paid a visit to the Royal Institute, and inspected the very fine collection of paintings, statues, and other productions of art. The collection in the Institute is not to be compared to the British Museum at London, or the Louvre at Paris, but is probably the best in Scotland. Paintings from the hands of many of the masters, such as Sir A. Vandyke, Tiziano, Vercellio and Van Dellen, were hanging on the wall, and even the names of Reubens, and Titian, were attached to some of the finer specimens. Many of these represent some of the nobles, and distinguished families of Rome, Athens, Greece, &c. A beautiful one representing a group of the Lomellini family of Genoa, seemed to attract the attention of most of the visitors.

In visiting this place, we passed close by the monument of Sir Walter Scott. This is the most exquisite thing of the kind that I have seen since coming to this country. It is said to be the finest monument in Europe. There sits the author of "Waverley," with a book and pencil in hand, taking notes. A beautiful dog is seated by his side. Whether this is meant to represent his favourite dog, Camp, at whose death the Poet shed so many tears, we were not informed; but I was of opinion that it might be the faithful Percy, whose monument stands in the grounds at Abbotsford. Scott was an admirer of the canine tribe. One may form a good idea of the appearance of this distinguished writer, when living, by viewing this remarkable statue. The statue is very beautiful, but not equal to the one of Lord Byron, which was executed to be placed by the side of Johnson, Milton, and Addison, in Poets' Corner, Westminster Abbey; but the Parliament not allowing it a place there, it now stands in one of the Colleges at Cambridge. While viewing the statue of Byron, I thought he, too, should have been represented with a dog by his side, for he, like Scott, was remarkably fond of dogs, so much so that he intended to have his favourite, Boatswain, interred by his side.