David F. Dorr was an African-American slave who in the 1850s travelled around Europe and Northern Africa with his master, Cornelius Fellowes. They visited London, Rome, Athens, Constantinople, Cairo, and Jerusalem among other places. While abroad, Dorr experienced extraordinary freedom as a cosmopolitan American traveller. This freedom was taken away from him again when he returned to the United States. Dorr asked Fellowes to make good on promises made abroad to set him free, but the latter refused. Being denied his freedom, Dorr escaped to Ohio, where he self-published his travel account entitled A Colored Man Round the World in 1858.
In the preface to his book, Dorr describes himself as “quadroon”, a “colored man around the world”, forcing a reckoning with the contradictions of being at once a slave in his own country and a traveller of the world. The short paragraph, which includes the only reference to himself as “slave,” reveals the ambivalences of navigating being both a proud “colored man” as well as a proud American. Challenging the denigration he faced as a black man in America, Dorr calls forth an image of African greatness in Egypt, crediting them with unsurpassed learning. But he also expresses equal pride in America’s greatness, particularly in its form of government. Historical references underscore the dramatically different sides to Dorr’s America: on the one hand, there is the “savannah of American Slavery” of which he is a victim, on the other its historic battle successes such as that of “Bunker Hill”, evidence of the cunning, independent America he identifies with. Though his introduction offers a strong position and promises great hope for an African American slave, in parts of the book Dorr seems far more torn between the role of worldly traveler and anti-slavery advocate, often restraining himself from fully engaging in debates on slavery. And despite failing to fulfill his “princely promises”, Dorr refers to Mr. Cornelius Fellowes as a “gentleman” who he is “indebted to.” The book is evidence of a black man torn in his position between feeling pride and being denied his dignity, enslaved to a white man.
Dorr insists that during his trip he was treated “as a son,” and he seems to have enjoyed great freedom of movement, activity, and conversation. The below passage, taken from the German stage of the trip, highlights this freedom: being able to enter a casino by himself, gambling with his own money, taking decisions on where to travel next. Dorr’s account of the visit to the casino also highlights the value he placed on respectability and his sensitivity to how Americans were perceived abroad. He expresses a great dislike for two compatriots who set a bad example through debt and deceit. Dorr remarks simply: “I didn’t pride myself much here on my nationality, lest I would have some unprofitable fame.”
TO MY SLAVE MOTHER.
MOTHER! wherever thou art, whether in Heaven or a lesser world; or whether around the freedom Base of a Bunker Hill, or only at the lowest savannah of American Slavery, thou art the same to me, and I dedicate this token of my knowledge to thee mother, Oh, my own mother!
The Author of this book, though a quadroon, is pleased to announce himself the “Colored man around the world.” Not because he may look at a colored man’s position as an honorable one at this age of the world, he is too smart for that, but because he has the satisfaction of looking with his own eyes and reason at the ruins of the ancestors of which he is the posterity. If the ruins of the Author’s ancestors were not a living language of their scientific majesty, this book could receive no such appellation with pride. Luxor, Carnack, the Menonian and the Pyramids make us exclaim, “What monuments of pride can surpass these? What genius must have reflected on their foundations! What an ambition these people must have given to the rest of the world when found the “glory of the world in their hieroglyphic stronghold of learning,” whose stronghold, to-day, is not to be battered down, because we cannot reach their hidden alphabet. Who is as one, we might suppose, “learned in all the learning of the Egyptians.” Have we as learned a man as Moses, and if yes, who can prove it? How did he come to do what no man can do now? You answer, God aided him; that is not the question” No, all you know about it is he was “learned in all the learning of the Egyptians,” that is the answer; and thereby knew how to facilitate a glorious cause at heart, because had he been less learned, who could conceive how he could have proved to us to be a man full of successful logic. Well, who were the Egyptians? Ask Homer if their lips were not thick, their hair curly, their feet flat and their skin black.
But the Author of this too, though a colored man, hopes to die believing that this federated government is destined to be the boldest fabric ever germinated in the brain of men or the tides of Time. Though a coloured man, he believes that he has the right to say that, in his opinion, the American people are to be the Medes and Persians of the 19th century. He believes, from what he has seen in the four quarters of the globe, that the federal tribunal of this mighty people and territory, are to weigh other nations’ portion of power by its own scale, and equipoise them on its own pivot, “the will of the whole people,” the federal people. And as he believes that the rights of ignorant people, whether white or black, ought to be respected by those who have seen more, he offers this book of travels to that class who craves to know what those know who have respect for them. In offering this book to the public, I will say, by the way, I wrote it under the disadvantage of having access to no library save Walker’s school dictionary. In traveling through Europe, Asia and Africa, I am indebted to Mr. Cornelius Fellowes, of the highly respectable firm of Messrs. Fellowes & Co., 149 Common St., New Orleans, La. This gentleman treated me as his own son, and could look on me as a free a man as walks the earth. But if local law has power over man, instead of man’s effects, I was legally a slave, and would be to-day, like my mother, were I on Louisiana’s soil instead of Ohio’s.
When we returned to America, after a three year’s tour, I called on this original man to consummate a two-fold promise he made me, in different parts of the world, because I wanted to make a connection, that I considered myself more than equaled in dignity and means, but as he refused me on old bachelor principles, I fled from him and his princely promises, westward, where the “star of empire takes its way,” reflecting on the moral liberties of the legal freedom of England, France and our New England States, with the determination to write this book of “overlooked things” in the four quarters of the globe, seen by “a colored man round the world.”
From the chapter: Spicey towns of Germany (49 – 56)
The rain is over, and there is no more attraction in the spicy town of Strasborg, so I am going to Baden Baden, the spiciest gambling place in Europe. In the Park is a great large building in the shape of a country stable, but full of splendor, called a Casino, or conversation room, and this conspicuous appellation is conspicuously written on the front of the building. In this open hall – open to all – is gambling hours between each meal. The great gambling table is in the centre with numerous stools, such as are to be found in Stuarts, or any other fashionable Dry Goods store in America. On the stools are all classes of society that like excitement – dukes, earls, marquises, barons, knights, valets, and even liveried coachmen, betting from 5 francs to 10,000 francs.
I put down a five franc piece, it won; I let the ten stand, it won; I let the twenty stand, it won; I moved it, and it lost, and I quit. He [X] attempted to console me by saying I ought to have let it stand where it was, “what do you be on now sir,” said he; I don’t bet any more said I, I have already lost five francs. He took me to be a green Yankee and said no more to me. Another amusing sight was there; it was two more broken American youths, who said they were waiting for Mr. Peabody to forward them money, and was “sound on the borry.” I didn’t pride myself much here on my nationality, lest I would have some unprofitable fame. One of them owed two weeks’ board in the British Hotel. He was mighty polite when he met me in company, and placed me under the truly painful necessity of being introduced to some person of note whom he had himself been a bore upon. He asked me if I was acquainted with the Grand Duke, at the same time loosing over the heads of the players, as if he would call him if he could only get his eye on him. Then he insisted on my going down to the other Bank, where the chances were better, and where the Grand Duke of Baden would most likely be. I declined all invitations, and got a carriage and went out of town to see the ruins of the Ehrenstein Castle.
Source: David F. Dorr, A Colored Man Around the World (Ohio: Quadroon, 1858).
An enslaved American tours Germany (1850s) by Julia Alcamo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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