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When Enslaved People Commandeered a Ship and Hightailed it to Freedom in the Bahamas

It’s been called the most successful slave rebellion in U.S. history

Ships involved in the American slave trade before the Civil War. (Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

On this day in 1841, a shipboard rebellion led to 128 enslaved people gaining their freedom in the Bahamas.

The Creole case made headlines in its own time, but despite being the most successful revolt of enslaved people in U.S. history, it’s less well known today. 

The Creole was transporting 135 enslaved people from Richmond, Virginia to the slave markets in New Orleans. On November 7, 1841, 18 of the slaves attacked the crew, killing one of the slave traders aboard and wounding the ship’s captain, Robert Ensor. "With great coolness and presence of mind" they gathered up all the ship's weapons and the documents related to their enslavement, writes Michael Paul Williams for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. After some debate about where they should now go on the ship, writes BlackPast.org, they settled on the British colony of the Bahamas, forcing one of the crew members to navigate for them.

After landing in the Bahamas, because slavery was illegal in the British colonies, the Bahamians considered the majority of the enslaved people on the ship free.  However, the remaining people who had been involved in overtaking the ship were held and charged with mutiny–at the request of the American consulate.   

Among those people was Madison Washington, an enslaved cook who had previously escaped to Canada, writes BlackPast.org. He “was later captured and sold when he returned to Virginia in search of his wife Susan.” The website writes:

The British took Washington and eighteen conspirators into custody under charges of mutiny, while the rest of the enslaved were allowed to live as free people. Five people, which included three women, a girl, and a boy, decided to stay aboard the Creole and sailed with the ship to New Orleans, returning to slavery. On April 16, 1842, the Admiralty Court in Nassau ordered the surviving seventeen mutineers to be released and free including Washington.

Then-Secretary of State Daniel Webster was furious, writes Williams: he "demanded the insurrectionists' return for 'mutiny and murder.'" But there wasn't much he could do. Britain had outlawed slavery in its colonies in 1833, writes scholar Walter Johnson, and the U.S. and Britain didn't have a treaty explaning if or how they would respect each other's laws. So the people went free.

"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," one 1850 account said, according to Williams, "and foreshadows that a brighter day for slaves is at hand."

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