The most successful slave revolt in U.S. history took place aboard a ship that sailed from Virginia.
The brig Creole left Richmond around Oct. 25, 1841, carrying 103 slaves. Two days later, it picked up 32 additional slaves from Hampton Roads. The ship's destination was New Orleans and its slave markets.
But, at some point, at least 19 of the ship's black "cargo," including a slave with the commanding name of Madison Washington, decided to seize the opportunity for freedom.
On the night of Nov. 7, 1841, as the Creole approached the Bahamas, the slaves attacked the crew, killing one man and wounding the captain. They seized all arms on board and "with great coolness and presence of mind" took possession of all documents related to their subjugation. They threatened to throw the officers and crew overboard if they were not taken to an English colony in the area.
In a celebrated mutiny two years earlier, 37 Spanish-owned slaves had taken control of the schooner Amistad, sailing from Cuba. They ended up in America and eventually were declared free by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Creole's 135 slaves were from America and had been held legally as slaves under laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia and the United States. And, unlike the slaves on the Amistad, the Creole slaves apparently knew something of navigation, geography and slavery laws.
On Nov. 9, the Creole arrived in New Providence, Nassau, in the Bahamas, where its mutineers were surrounded and assisted by fellow blacks in small boats.
At the request of the American consul, the governor of the island ordered a guard on board to prevent the escape of the mutineers. After an investigation, 19 of the slaves were imprisoned. The remainder were declared free by the British government.
Two of the slaves died during their few days in captivity. The remaining 17 were freed on Nov. 16, 1841. The Creole sailed on to New Orleans, arriving on Dec. 2, 1841, with only five slaves still aboard, amid U.S. outrage against Britain.
Secretary of State Daniel Webster demanded the insurrectionists' return for "mutiny and murder." Abolitionist Charles Sumner argued that "they became free men when taken, by the voluntary action of their owners, beyond the jurisdiction of the slave states."
The incident caused strain between the United States and Britain. After 15 years of negotiation and arbitration, the British government agreed to pay $110,000 to the owners of the ship's "cargo."
Meanwhile, the United States passed the Negro Seaman Act of 1842 as part of a general repression of black seamen.
But if the government was seeking to rein in the slaves' desire for freedom, the ship, metaphorically, had already left the harbor.
As an 1850 account of the insurrection said: "The exploit of the slaves under the intrepid Madison Washington is a guarantee of what can be done by colored Americans in a just cause, and foreshadows that a brighter day for slaves is at hand."
SOURCES: There is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America by Vincent Harding; Slavery and Abolition by Albert Bushnell Hart; The American Slave Brig Creole - The Creole Research Center www.kirklands.org/Creole1.htm