Virginia The Land of Rebellion : During the fall of 1841, Madison Washington, a self-emancipated former slave from Virginia, knocked on the door of Robert Purvis in Philadelphia as he was on his way back south to assist his wife’s escape from bondage. Washington had certainly come to the right place. Purvis had been active for several years in the Vigilance Committee and the Underground Railroad. He remembered, years later, “I was at that time in charge of the work of assisting fugitive slaves to escape.” Purvis already knew Washington because he had helped him gain his freedom by getting to Canada two years earlier. Washington had since “opened correspondence with a young white man in the South,” who had promised to ferry his wife away from her plantation and to bring her to an appointed place so that the two of them could then escape northward. Purvis did not like the plan. He had witnessed others undertake such dangerous labors of love and fail. He was sure that his visitor would be captured and reenslaved. Washington, however, was determined to carry on.
By coincidence Washington arrived at the abolitionist’s home on the very same day a painting was delivered: Nathaniel Jocelyn’s portrait, “Sinque, the Hero of the Amistad,” as Purvis called it. It so happened that Cinque and twenty-one other Amistad Africans had also been in Purvis’s large, majestic home on the northwest corner of Sixteenth and Mount Vernon streets, when they visited Philadelphia on their fund-raising tour of May 1841. (Cinque later sent a message, “Tell Mr. Purvis to send me my hat.”) Purvis had long been inspired by the Amistad struggle and in late 184o–early 1841, as the Supreme Court prepared to rule on the case, he commissioned Jocelyn to paint the portrait.
Washington took a keen interest in the painting and the story behind it. When Purvis told him about Cinque and his comrades, Washington “drank in every word and greatly admired the hero’s courage and intelligence.” Washington soon departed, headed south-ward in search of his wife, but he never returned, as he had hoped to do in retracing his steps toward Canada. Someone betrayed him, as Purvis had predicted (and only learned some years later). Washington was “captured while escaping with his wife.” He was clapped into chains again and placed on board a domestic slave ship called the Creole, bound from Virginia to New Orleans in November 1841.
As the Creole set sail, Washington remembered Cinque’s story—the courage and the intelligence, the plan and the victory. Working as a cook aboard the vessel, which allowed him easy communication with his shipmates, Washington began to organize. With eighteen others he rose up, killed a slave-trading agent, wounded the captain severely, seized control of the ship, and liberated a hundred and thirty fellow Africans and African Americans. Wary of trickery, Washington forced the mate to navigate the vessel to Nassau in the Bahama Islands, where the British had abolished slavery three years earlier. In Nassau harbor they met black boatmen and soldiers, who sympathized with the emancipation from below and took charge of the Creole, supporting the rebels and insuring their victory.
Representatives of the federal government literally screamed bloody murder, just as those of Spain had done two years earlier, following the rebellion aboard the Amistad. They demanded the return of the slaves, who must, they insisted, be tried in the United States for rising up to kill their oppressors. U.S. officials self-righteously defended the institution of slavery and called for all property to be restored to its rightful owners. The British government, however, refused to comply with the order. Madison Washington and many of his comrades gained their freedom, boarded vessels bound hither and yon around the Atlantic, and left no further traces in the historical records.
The reverberations of the Amistad rebellion were beginning to be felt in the wider world of Atlantic slavery, as predicted by abolitionist Henry C. Wright, an associate of William Lloyd Garrison. He foresaw that Purvis’s painting, properly displayed, would confront slaveholders and their apologists with a powerful message about successful rebellion against bondage. To have it in a gallery would lead to discussions about slavery and the “inalienable” rights of man, and convert every set of visitors into an antislavery meeting.
Wright did not imagine a meeting of only two people, one of them a rebellious fugitive, nor could he have known that the painting would inspire radical action on another slave ship, which would result in both a collective self-emancipation and an international diplomatic row between the United States and Great Britain. The combination of the Amistad and Creole rebellions had a major impact on the antislavery struggle, pushing activists toward more militant rhetoric and practices. As Purvis concluded many years later, “And all this grew out of the inspiration caused by Madison Washington’s sight of this little picture.”
Richmond Times Dispatch Big Creole Slaves
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 market
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 9coolness 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
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