Historical Bits & Pieces by Chuck Pishko

Frederick Douglass, left, on his way to Santo Domingo.


Frederick Douglass’s Caribbean Experiences

Frederick Douglass was no stranger in the Caribbean. By the 1870s Douglass had gained national prominence as a champion of black people. Born into slavery, a Mrs. Thomas Auld had taught him to read and write.

This was at the time when slaves were forbidden to read and write and were punished by being “sold down the river” where slaves were very harshly treated. He also studied and mastered the art of elocution and became a spell-binding speaker. He eloquently spoke out against slavery.

Douglass published an anti-slavery journal called The North Star and later Frederick Douglass’s Paper at Rochester, New York. He advocated the use of black federal troops during the Civil War and two of his sons served in the Union army. He went to Great Britain and mustered the support of the people for the abolitionist movement in America.

During the Civil War the United States realized that in order to meet their expansionist goals they needed naval bases in the Caribbean to fuel and rest their ships and to protect new United States business investments and the commerce developed from them.

In July of 1868, William L. Cazeau and Joseph Warren Faben, leaders of a group of unscrupulous speculators interested in the U.S. annexing Caribbean islands were engaged to make a geological survey and mineralogical exploration of the Dominican Republic. For their efforts they would be compensated by receiving one-fifth of all public lands surveyed which would amount to 20 percent of all the land in the country.

In 1869 President Ulysses S. Grant sent General Babcock to Santo Domingo to negotiate for the annexation of the Dominican Republic. Babcock got the approval of the Dominican government and returned to Washington where President Grant began to seek treaty approval from the U.S. Senate.

The head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Charles Sumner, an avid supporter of the black movement, opposed the treaty based on big business involvement and the adverse effects it would have on emerging nations in the Caribbean. In face of this opposition, Grant sent a commission to investigate conditions in Santo Domingo including political and commercial conditions, the policies of granting land to American businessmen, and the desires of the Dominican people.

President Grant appointed  Douglass to serve as assistant secretary of the Santo Domingo Commission. This was a milestone both for Douglass in receiving this important public post and for blacks generally in that they were beginning to  participate in government through voting and appointive offices.  

“My selection to visit Santo Domingo with the commission sent thither, was another point indicating the difference between the old time and the new,” Douglass wrote at that time. “It placed me on the deck of an American man-of-war, manned by 100 marines and 500 men-of-wars-men, under the national flag, which I could now call mine, in common with other American citizens, and gave me a place not in the fore-castle among the hands, nor in the caboose with the cooks, but in the captain’s saloon and in the society of gentlemen, scientists, and statesmen.”

He was amazed at the conditions he found in Santo Domingo. He witnessed the “marvelous fertility” of the island juxtaposed with the extreme poverty of the vast majority of the people. He concluded that the miserable conditions of the people were caused by slavery, absentee landlords, civil wars, and a bad economy.

Douglass became fully convinced that annexation to the U.S. was the answer. Douglass was later appointed as the American Minister Resident and Counsel-General to the Republic of Haiti (1889-1891) where he continued to sincerely believe that liberty and equality were the law of the land under Republican administration and to sincerely advocate extending American dominion abroad.

Douglass saw the American dream being extended to all peoples of the world. He thought it would be better if Americans could teach nations how to establish equitable and democratic governments with free elections of competent leaders. He fostered a nation’s right to self-determination while supporting America’s expansionist foreign policy. These diametrically-opposed objectives could not be achieved simultaneously.