Sarah Remond sailed for England in late 1858. William Lloyd Garrison kept a steady editorial light focused on her in his own paper, The Liberator, and in letters to fellow editors. He wrote optimistically of her departure. “Miss Remond goes forth on her own responsibility, not representing any society, but identified by complexion and destiny, by sisterly sympathy and generous philanthropy with the millions in this country who are punished worse than white criminals for the color of their skin.”
He indulged in lyrical speculation on her reception abroad. “I can easily imagine,” he wrote in a letter to the editor of the Anti–Slavery Standard, “how unutterable must be her feelings on finding herself, for the first time in her life, in a land where this dreadful spirit of caste is quite unknown; where she can travel on terms of equality with others, with no liability to insult or ostracism; where she will be estimated according to her moral worth and intellectual force. It will be to her almost like a resurrection from the dead.”
Garrison foresaw a favorable response to her taking to the lecture platform at a time when it was not an everyday event in Britain for a woman, let alone a black American woman, to speak before a mixed male and female audience. “Her appeals are to the conscience and the heart, and always made with dignity and earnest conviction.” Her gentility, he was certain would overcome any hint of impropriety, “She is capable of gracing any circle, and will be her own best recommendation wherever she travels.”
To a certain extent he was correct, although he glossed over Britain’s sorry history of slave-holding brutality in the Caribbean. As America was soon to discover, the end of slavery in no sense signaled the end of entrenched anti-black prejudice. Nonetheless, between 1859 and 1861 Remond delivered forty-five lectures in 17 cities and towns in England, three in Scotland, and four in Ireland, all to considerable acclaim and extensive press coverage on both sides of the Atlantic.
The major newspapers in New York City, Chicago and San Francisco, along with scores of small town papers sprinkled across the country such as the Davenport, [Iowa] Daily Gazette, the Waterloo [Iowa] Daily Courier, the Lowell [Massachusetts] Weekly Sun, or the Galveston [Texas] Daily News followed her appearances. In a news item on the debate at a Dublin conference for and against supporting the Confederacy in the early days of the Civil War the Davenport paper reported that “The impact of the loss of cotton supplied to the British by the southern states” was further discussed, on that occasion when “Miss Sarah Remond read a paper on American Slavery and its influence on Great Britain.”
After that encouraging if somewhat naïve sendoff, however, Garrison found himself printing accounts of both her triumphs and contentious situations she also encountered. Some of the latter rose from racist British attitudes, others from the long shadow of American politics abroad. They ranged from the bizarre – – a speech in which Remond assured her audience that “words were inadequate to express the depth of the infamy into which [slave women] were plunged by the cruelty and licentiousness of their brutal masters,” given in response to an attack by the infamous whip-cracking, cigar smoking Irish-born “Spanish dancer” Lola Montez, mistress to both Ludwig I of Bavaria and Franz Liszt, and later a dance hall sensation in New York and California – – to the politically volatile. On 24 January 1860 The New York Times published a blistering exchange of letters as a news story unto itself without reportorial or editorial comment beyond the headline:
Disabilities of American Persons of Color.
Case of Miss Sarah P. Remond.
The first salvo was from one of Remond’s British champions in the legal profession who set the stage for the tussle,
To the Editor of the London Daily News:
SIR: I beg to forward to you a correspondence which has recently taken place between Miss S. P. REMOND, a free born American lady of color, with whom I have the honor to be acquainted, and Mr. DALLAS, the American Minister in this country. I add a copy of her passport.
You will observe that a visa to Miss REMOND’S passport Is refused by the American Minister, on the sole ground that she is a person of color. . .
Remond described the response she received upon applying for a visa at the American Embassy in London and issued a “respectful demand”:
SIR: I beg to inform you that a short time since I went to the office of the American Embassy to have my passport visaed for France. I should remark that my passport is an American one, granted to me in the United States, and signed by the Minister in due form. It states what is the fact, that I am a citizen of the United States. I was born in Massachusetts. Upon my asking to have my passport visaed at the American Embassy, the person in the office refused to affix the visa, on the ground that I am a person of color.
Being a citizen of the United States, I respectfully demand as my right that my passport be visaed by the Minister of my country.As I am desirous of starting for the Continent, I must request an answer at your earliest convenience.
I remain, Sir, your obedient servant.
SARAH P. REMOND.
The spokesman for the United States Government replied with snide distain:
LEGATION OF THE UNITED STATES, LONDON, DEC. 14 ’59.
Miss SARAH P. REMOND. – I am directed by the minister to acknowledge the receipt of your note of the 12th instant, and to say in reply, he must, of course, be sorry if any of his countrywomen, irrespective of color or extraction, should think him frivolously disposed to withhold from them facilities in his power to grant for traveling on the Continent of Europe, but when the indispensable qualification for an American passport, that of “United States Citizenship,” does not exist; when indeed it is manifestly an impossibility by law that it should exist, a just sense of his legal obligations under instructions received from is government as long ago as the 8th July, 1856, and since then strictly conformed to, constrains him to say that the demand of Miss SARAH P. REMOND cannot be complied with.
Respectfully your obedient servant,
Assistant Secretary of Legation
Remond reminded him who paid his salary as an embassy bureaucrat:
SIR: I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of yesterday’s date. The purport of your communication is most extraordinary. You now lay down the rule that persons free-born in the United States, and who have been subjected all their lives to the taxation and others burdens imposed upon American citizens, are to be deprived of their rights as such merely because their complexions happed to be dark, and that they are to be refused the aid of the Ministers of their country, whose salaries they contribute to pay.
I remain, Sir, your obedient servant,
SARAH P. REMOND.
The great ship of the State Department reversed its course. A visa for travel to the Continent was attached to Remond’s 1858 passport (image of the handwritten original is above; text is below.)
PASSPORT. – – I, the undersigned Secretary of State of the United States of America, hereby request all whom it may concern to permit safely and freely to pass Sarah P. Remond, a citizen of the United States, and in case of need to give her all lawful aid and protection.
Given under my hand and the impression of my seal of The Department of State of the City of Washington, the 10th day Of December, A. D., 1858, in the 83rd year of the Independence of These United States.
DEPARTMENT OF STATE.
Remond’s case caught the attention of Queen Victoria herself. On February 25, 1860, Moran confided to his diary with bemused annoyance that “On this subject of darkies, I am reminded that the queen looked at me very oddly on Thursday, & I now suspect the Remond affair was dancing about in her mind, and that she wished to know what kind of person (if she thought of the matter all) the Secretary was that refused that lady of color a visa.” M.R.