This 1841 Rebellion at Sea Freed More Than 100 Enslaved People

tags: slavery, Caribbean history, slave rebellion

Clifton E. Sorrell is a doctoral student in History at the University of Texas at Austin, specializing in slavery in the Atlantic world.

Daina Ramey Berry is the Radkey Regents Professor and Chair of History Department at the University of Texas at Austin.

Throughout the annals of American slavery, enslaved people resisted captivity and strived to liberate themselves from bondage, usually against steep odds. The Creole rebellion of 1841 represented one of the most successful uprisings in U.S. history, where more than 100 captives gained their freedom.

Like the famed Amistad rebellion two years earlier, which had culminated in a dramatic Supreme Court case allowing the enslaved people to return to Africa, the Creole revolt was also a mutiny aboard a slaving brig. But whereas the Amistad had carried its 53 captives illegally across the Middle Passage, in violation of America’s 1808 transatlantic slave trade ban, the Creole was transporting human “cargo” from Virginia to the slave markets of New Orleans, as part of the still-thriving U.S domestic trade in enslaved people. Most of the Creole’s 134 captives were property of the ship’s owners; others belonged to a Virginia trader who was aboard the brig with his 15-year-old nephew, schooling him in the business of human trafficking.

The rebellion, which occurred November 7, 1841, in waters 130 miles northeast of the coast of Abacos, Bahamas, succeeded because its organizers knew they had a chance at freedom if they could seize and reroute the ship into British territory, where the British Slave Abolition Act of 1833 had deemed human bondage illegal. Indeed, once the brig reached Nassau, local Bahamian officials, operating under British law—and pressured by its own population of formerly enslaved people—informed the Creole’s captives that they were free to go.

But that didn’t end it. The Creole incident highlighted the growing international disparity over how countries viewed the practice of human bondage. Specifically, it renewed debate over whether the British, using their own anti-slavery laws, had the right to seize American property. (In the years before the Creole revolt, British officials had freed the enslaved captives of four other American slaving brigs that had been shipwrecked in their territory.) And it aggravated ongoing tensions between Britain and the United States over jurisdiction disputes and how international law defined the boundaries of legalized slavery.

It’s unlikely the Creole revolt was spontaneous. Instead, it appears to have been coordinated by a handful of enslaved men led by Madison Washington, who had already fled to freedom once. Born into slavery in Virginia, Washington had escaped to Canada two years earlier and was recaptured after coming south to liberate his wife. As Washington traveled the Underground Railroad and mingled with abolitionists, he likely learned—if he didn’t already know—of the British slavery ban, the fate of the earlier ships and of the Amistad mutiny. Abolitionist Robert Purvis, who had hosted Washington when he traveled through Philadelphia, later wrote about his guest’s deep fascination with the story behind a painted portrait Purvis owned. It depicted Cinque, the African rice farmer who became the hero of the Amistad uprising.

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