The capture of the Creole

The story of the slave ship the Creole is not particularly well known, but it is fascinating. It is the account of a daring and ultimately successful bid for freedom in a time when that prize was not easily won. It also offers an interesting glimpse into the politics of abolition during the mid-1800s, and the tensions between the UK and the US on this topic.

One of the ringleaders of this story is a man named Madison Washington. We know little about his beginnings, except that he was an enslaved black man, born in Virginia, and was married to a woman named Susan.

Washington managed to successfully escape slavery and travel to freedom in Canada. This in itself is an incredible feat. Whilst we have no details about his journey (Washington was said to be an incredibly private man who spoke little of either his sufferings or his achievements), a simple glance at the map shows the likely route along the Eastern coast of the United States, travelling northwards approximately 1,000 miles through Maryland, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine. This would be a daunting trip by road – how much more so when undertaken in the late 1830’s – alone, on foot, and in constant peril.

Madison found employment on the farm of one Mr. Dickson and was said to devote himself to the pursuit of literacy, but within six months had grown restless and unhappy. When questioned as to the cause, he shared his intentions to return to Virginia, risking the freedom he had worked so hard to gain. Washington was a married man, and had intended to escape slavery along with his beloved wife Susan, and indeed to lead a small rebellion in which a number of others would have been able to escape along with them.

Their attempts had been foiled, and Washington had been the only one to successfully make it off the property. For a time he hid in the woods and attempted to find an opportunity for Susan to join him, but this proving impossible he resolved to travel to Canada and there work to purchase her freedom.

After six months working in Canada, however, the pain of separation grew too great, as did his fear that Susan could die or be sold on during the five years he estimated it would take him to earn sufficient funds to procure her freedom. Against the advice of Mr Dickson, and armed with an assortment of small files, saws, and other instruments (to attempt escape if recaptured), as well as forged Virginian paperwork claiming that he was a free man, Washington made the arduous journey back to Virginia.

Susan was still working under the same owner, and Washington successfully made contact with her, but in his attempt to access the house and bring her away they were discovered. Washington fought heroically, but was outnumbered, beaten, and taken captive.

In a cruel stroke of punishment, Washington was immediately transported to Richmond and there sold to a slave trader, being added to those destined for the New Orleans slave market. He joined 134 other slaves aboard the ship Creole and in the fall of 1841 the ship set sail.

Many of the details are lost to time, but what we know is that on November 7th, on open seas, a successful revolt was staged. Madison Washington is, by all accounts, credited as one of the ringleaders of the mutiny, gaining access to the deck of the ship after a crew member had lifted the grate to the lower deck where the slaves were held.

A desperate battle ensued, and several of the slaves and crew were wounded. One of the slave traders on board, John R. Hewell, was killed, and the wounded captain and two of his mates fled up into the rigging to escape the fighting. The slaves managed to gain control of the ship, and appointed overseer William Merrit, evidently a man with some knowledge of sailing, to navigate for them.

At first, they insisted on setting course for Liberia, which had been established as a free colony. However, lack of supplies rendered a trip of such length impossible. Another of the ringleaders, a man named Ben Blacksmith, had heard accounts of the slave ship Hermosa. In 1840, the Hermosa, an American vessel, had run aground on one of the Abacos islands in the Bahamas, and British magistrates had gone aboard with armed force and liberated the 38 slaves to the great anger and protest of the Americans.

Blacksmith suggested that the British West Indies should therefore be their destination, in hopes that freedom could be gained by accessing a British province. On November 9th, the Creole reached Nassau. The harbour pilot and his crew (all black Bahamian men) went aboard and confirmed that the slaves would indeed be free men and women upon landing in a British port, and advised that those on the ship come ashore.

Before anyone was able to leave the ship, a quarantine officer came aboard, and finding the captain badly wounded took the first mate to the American consulate in his place, to apprise them of events. The consul requested that the men implicated in Hewell’s death be placed under guard, and 24 black soldiers led by a white officer boarded the Creole.

In a last-minute effort to avoid a financially catastrophic loss of ‘property’, the consul organised a group of American sailors on the island who were willing to board the ship and attempt to navigate it, with all the slaves still on board, out of British jurisdiction, thereby foiling their attempt to gain freedom. Thanks to a local Bahamian who shouted out a warning to the Creole, their plans were exposed and the officer of the guard threatened to open fire on any American sailor attempting to board.

An investigation was held by the local magistrates on November 13th, to determine the fate of those aboard the Creole. After a decision was reached, the Bahamian Attorney-General announced that the nineteen ‘rebels’ who had engineered and carried out the mutiny would be imprisoned and a charge of piracy considered, whilst the rest of the enslaved people on board were declared free men and women, and most were transported to shore by the locals in a flurry of small boats.

Tragically, three women and two children, perhaps fearful of the consequences of going ashore, chose to remain on the Creole. When the ship eventually returned to New Orleans they were sold as slaves and tortured.

Of those who gained freedom, many chose to sail to Jamaica, and were provided free passage aboard a British ship. The British authorities conferred regarding the fate of those held in regards to the mutiny, and determined that no British or maritime law had been broken, stating that as British law did not allow slavery they should be considered as free men who had the legal right to use force to obtain freedom from capture and that they were not guilty of piracy.

This decision was reached on April 16th, 1842. Sadly, two of the imprisoned men had died in the interim, but the remaining 17 were set free. In total, 128 slaves had gained their freedom from the daring revolt carried out mid-voyage. This is widely credited as the most successful slave revolt in US history.

This event, in combination with the earlier case of the Hermosa, as well as two other ships in similar circumstances (the Comet in 1830 and the Encomium in 1833) caused intense anger amongst slave owners and politicians in the US and led to increased strain between the US and Great Britain.

Secretary of State Daniel Webster argued that the escaped slaves were legal property of the US and that they should be returned, but Britain refuted his claim, stating that “It had advised all nations that under its law, ships that went into its colonial ports would forfeit any people who were enslaved on board. It said that Nassau was a British territory where British law must be applied.” (source: Wikipedia)

However, in 1853 a Treaty of Claims was signed between the US and Britain, included in which were claims for loss of property to slave owners regarding slaves freed by the British on multiple occasions, and a payment was made to the US.

Little is recorded of Madison Washington following the capture of the Creole, but he was noted for his compassion and kindness to the whites on board during the mutiny. As soon as the ship was secured, it is said that Washington strictly forbade any more loss of life (only one man, Hewell, had been killed, whilst one slave lost his life also), and that he personally dressed the wounds of white crew members after the battle.

In what seems an almost unbelievable ending, Washington’s greatest wish was granted. The day after the mutiny, the male slaves met with the females, who had been held in a separate part of the ship. Unknown to Washington, his own wife, Susan, had been held on the Creole also. We can only imagine what that reunion was like.

We are left to speculate on Madison and Susan’s life together in the West Indies. His story lives on, a testament to the incredible tenacity, determination, and sheer skill of a man who not only escaped slavery twice (and risked recapture and death to free his wife) but who also spearheaded the successful liberation of 126 others, and the legacy of which set a precedent of British/American relations over slavery that would continue for years to come.

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