Creole Slave Ship Revolt (1841) and the Revolutionary Atlantic

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All we have done, we have done for freedom”: The Creole Slave Ship Revolt (1841) and the Revolutionary Atlantic

Anita Rupprecht

University of Brighton

The revolt aboard the American slaving ship, the Creole (1841), was an unprecedented success. A minority of the 135 captive African Americans aboard seized the vessel as it sailed from Norfolk, Virginia, to the New Orleans slave markets. They forced the crew to sail to the Bahamas where they claimed their freedom. Building on previous studies of the Creole, this article argues that the revolt succeeded due to the circulation of radical struggle. Condensed in collective memory, political solidarity, and active protest and resistance, this circulation breached the boundaries between land and ocean, and gave shape to the Revolutionary Atlantic. These mutineers achieved their ultimate aim of freedom due to their own prior experiences of resistance, their preparedness to risk death in violent insurrection, and because they sailed into a Bahamian context in which Black Atlantic co-operation from below forced the British to serve the letter of their own law.
Anita Rupprecht, School of Humanities, University of Brighton, 10-11 Pavilion Parade, Brighton, East Sussex, BN1 1RA, UK. Email:

When news of the extraordinary success of the slave revolt aboard the Creole broke in 1841, it was hailed as another Amistad. On November 7, the American slaving brig, having left Norfolk, Virginia, sailed into Nassau with one hundred and thirty five self-emancipated African Americans aboard. A minority of the captives had risen, killed a slaving agent, severely wounded the Captain, and forced the crew to sail them into free waters, the British having abolished slavery three years earlier.1 Occurring less than three years after the Amistad rebellion, and two days before those Africans sailed for Sierra Leone, American slaveholders were thrown into a “great fever” at the event.2 Unlike the Amistad rebellion, which had been a strike against Caribbean slavery under Spanish rule, the Creole struck the very heart of American slavery under American rule. More broadly, the mutiny re-affirmed for the plantocracy that the great Atlantic wave of militant black anti-slavery rebellion and resistance shaped by the American, French, and Haitian Revolutions rolled on.

Virginia had already been the site of two highly planned but ultimately unsuccessful slave plots that had deeply threatened to the planter class. Gabriel Prosser’s Richmond plot in 1800 was betrayed before it could be enacted but Nat Turner’s, which erupted in Southampton County in 1831, was the bloodiest of all slave rebellions prior to the Civil War. In 1822, Denmark Vesey, who had laboured in Haiti, plotted to take Charleston, South Carolina on Bastille Day. In 1835, the enslaved rose in Bahia, Brazil. They were wearing images of Dessalines. The huge upsurge of resistance spurred the Atlantic-wide abolitionist movement to radicalize and gather pace. In the Caribbean, the Demerara Rebellion in 1823 rejuvenated the British campaigns. In Jamaica, Sam Sharpe’s “Baptist War” of 1831-32 mobilised tens of thousands of the enslaved, accelerating the British decision to pass their Emancipation Acts in 1833, and in 1838. On the other side of the ocean, David Walker’s incendiary “Appeal … to the Coloured Citizens of the World”, published in 1829, circulated widely. William Lloyd Garrison founded the Liberator two years later.

The Creole looms large within African American history and cultural memory where Madison Washington, leader of the insurrection, has become immortalized as one of the great slave rebel leaders. This paper offers a narrative of the mutiny that reflects on how Washington and his fellow insurgents were able to overthrow shipboard authority when so many maritime slave revolts ended in failure. It argues that the insurrection was an extraordinary achievement but that the context in which it took place - the revolutionary Atlantic – was also pivotal to its ultimate success. The rebels rose as they were sailing along a porous eastern American seaboard, already enmeshed within wider networks of communication and resistance, and thus situated at the very edges of freedom. Stories of courageous slave ship risings were circulating in American harbours when the Creole captives were forcibly embarked. Moreover, many were aware that hundreds of African Americans had claimed their freedom in the Bahamas in a variety of unexpected ways. Once the rebels had taken the ship, their liberation was secured because they sailed into an Atlantic vortex shaped by official British abolitionism from above, and by Black Atlantic solidarity from below.

* * *

The Americans outlawed their transatlantic slave trade in 1808. While an illegal trade continued, as the slave markets of the southern states boomed in the face of increasing demand for labour, a rapidly commercializing and legal, domestic slave trade quickly developed. By 1841, hundreds of slaving ships had voyaged down the southeastern coast of North America, and along the Gulf Coast to New Orleans. There was nothing unusual about the route or the routine of the Creole.3

The brig departed Richmond, Virginia, at midnight on Monday October 25 1841, under the command of Captain Robert Ensor. By the time she reached open water a week later, the vessel had accumulated a ‘cargo’ of 135 human beings, and several hogsheads of processed tobacco. She was bound for New Orleans. The majority of the enslaved belonged to the owners of the brig, Johnson & Eperson. Twenty-six were the property of Thomas McCargo, a well-known Virginian slave trader who was also aboard. The first mate was Zephaniah Gifford, an experienced mariner. His second mate was Lucius Stevens. In addition, there were ten crew aboard, eight black servants, and four passengers. Three of the passengers were responsible for overseeing the captives. John Hewell had particular charge of the slaves of McCargo. Jacob Leitner, a Prussian, assisted the Steward as mate. William Merritt had general charge and superintendence of all the slaves aboard ship. Even though this was a slaving voyage, it was also something of a family affair. Ensor’s wife, baby daughter, and his fifteen-year old niece were travelling with him. McCargo’s young nephew, Theophilus, was also aboard to be tutored in the business of human trafficking. The presence of the children suggests that the traders were not contemplating, or did not allow them selves to contemplate, the risk of resistance. Perhaps their nerves were smoothed by the fact that five insurance policies had been put in place to cover any unlikely losses but only three of these included any mention of slave revolt.

As was usual on these domestic voyages, the enslaved were able to occupy the deck during the day. At night, however, the women and men were confined below, separated by stacks of boxed tobacco as a way of preventing intimacies that might compromise their value. These conditions meant that four men, Madison Washington, Elijah Morris, Doc Ruffin and Ben Blacksmith, were able to consolidate their bonds of “fictive kinship”, and collectively to map, with at least fifteen others, the spaces of the vessel, and to watch and wait as shipboard routines settled down into a daily rhythm.4 Washington, as “head cook of the slaves” was in a unique position to assess the possibilities for mutiny. Serving meals to the captives twice a day provided a regular opportunity to identify potential allies, locate possible weapons, and watch the crew’s movements.

No record exists of the process whereby the four captives planned their course of action. Nevertheless, Solomon Northup, kidnapped and transported from Richmond for sale in New Orleans only a few months before the Creole departed, described his part in plotting a shipboard revolt in his autobiography. As for the rebels aboard the Creole, Northup and his fellow conspirators were faced with the problems of knowing whom of their compatriots they could trust, and how to trigger the surprise and exact the violence necessary for a successful mutiny. They knew the uprising should begin at night, and therefore needed to find a way to avoid being locked in the hold. Northup describes how they debated these problems, and how he trial ran a potential plan by secreting himself under an upturned ship’s boat at nightfall. The success of the trial determined that Northup and his fellow rebel, Arthur, would hide themselves until they were able to emerge and attack and kill the captain and mate as they slept in their bunks.5 Although the plot was not carried through, Northup’s description offers an important counter to assumptions that maritime slave revolts were always spontaneous and undirected outbursts doomed by lack of leadership and planning. It is clear that rebel leaders aboard the Creole had also choreographed significant aspects of their attack carefully, including enlisting the support of at least some of the captive women to help trigger the assault, and identifying in advance a set of weapons.

The mutiny occurred a week into the voyage, and about 130 miles northeast of the Hole in the Wall. The Captain, believing that he was closer to Abaco than he thought, ordered the brig to hove to for the night. All was calm, quiet and dark, the rest of the crew and passengers were asleep. Gifford and three other mariners were on first watch. Washington had positioned himself in the women’s hold where he should not have been. The women were silent. At about nine o’clock, Morris approached the mate and acted so as to seem to betray his co-conspirator. He reported that “one of the men had gone aft among the women”. Gifford went back to wake the overseer, Merritt. The two of them returned, Merritt bringing a match and a lamp. Gifford stopped at the hatchway while Merritt descended into the darkness of the hold, and struck his match to light the lamp. When lit, it revealed Washington who was standing behind him. Startled, Merritt said, “You are the last man on the brig I expected to find here”. Washington replied, “Yes sir, it is me”. He immediately leapt towards the ladder saying, “I’m going up, I cannot stay here.”

Washington overpowered both men but Gifford stumbled to the deck as Washington emerged from the hold. Morris, who was still standing nearby, drew a pistol. He fired at Gifford, the ball grazing the back of his head. Washington ran towards the men’s quarters in the forward part of the hold shouting directions, in order to signal that the uprising had begun. “We have begun, and must go through; rush boys aft, and we have them.” It was vital that he stirred the slaves above and below into action either by fear or fury, and he yelled into the hold, “Come up, every damned one of you; if you don’t and lend a hand, I will kill you and throw you overboard.”6

A group of waiting rebels came at Merritt with handspikes as he clambered up to the deck after Washington. He dodged a blow so that the weapon hit another rebel instead, allowing Merritt to break free and run down the ship towards the cabin. The rebels pursued both he and Gifford along the deck, and down the ladder into the corridor, Gifford shouting the alarm, “There’s been a mutiny on deck, I’ve been shot.” Other rebels quickly surrounded the entrance and the skylights on the quarterdeck above. As the rebels crowded down into the corridor, Hewell, one of the other passengers, grabbed a musket, and came out to confront the slaves. Faced with the firearm, the rebels retreated. Hewell followed them back up the ladder, and tried to defend the cabin. He fired the gun but it contained no shot. One of the rebels pulled it from him, so he grabbed a handspike, brandishing it in the dark. Not being able to see clearly, the rebels retreated further, momentarily thinking it to be another musket.7

During the moments that Hewell held the rebels, Ensor, armed with a bowie knife, rushed out through the forecastle to further rouse the crewmembers. A vicious fight began between the rebels and sailors, both armed with clubs, knives and sticks. Ensor was felled in the starboard scuppers where the rebels repeatedly clubbed and stabbed him, yelling, “Kill the son-of-a-bitch, kill him.”8 Ben Blacksmith grabbed Ensor’s bowie knife lying on the deck, and went for Hewell who, despite multiple wounds, was still fighting. Blacksmith stabbed him in the chest. Mortally wounded, Hewell got himself back down the ladder, and into Theophilus McCargo’s berth, where he bled to death. His mutilated body was later thrown overboard on the orders of Washington, Blacksmith and Morris. Severely wounded, Ensor crawled away from the mêlée, and with nowhere else to hide, struggled up the main shroud, and secreted himself in the maintop.

With vicious fighting going on above, and all exits guarded, Merritt realized that he was trapped below decks. He tried to hide under the bedclothes while two of the women cabin servants sat on him but, terrified, they soon moved away. Two of the rebels burst into the room, one shouting, “Kill the son-of-a-bitch, don’t spare him; and kill every white person on board, don’t spare one.”9 Merritt had no idea who was dead by this time, and who was alive. Neither could the rebels be sure. Thinking quickly, with a knife to his neck, he told the insurgents that he had once been a ship’s mate, and could navigate.10

Gifford did not stay to fight long. The rebels attacked him with clubs and sticks, and one slashed through his clothes at his breast, with what he later identified as a large meat knife taken from the galley.11 Battered and terrified, he climbed the rigging into the darkness of the maintop. Once there, he found the severely wounded Captain virtually unconscious, and, as the ship was pitching about violently, he tied the Captain so that he would not fall, and then lay there listening as the rebels shouted to each other in the dark as they searched about for the ship’s Captain and mate. The success of the revolt had depended on unleashing the full fury of the insurgents but Gifford heard shouted orders revealing efforts to direct and limit the violence. While Merritt was hiding under his bed sheets, he heard shouts amid the chaos of, “Don’t hurt the steward, don’t hurt Jacob, or Mrs. Ensor.”12 Jacob Leitner hid in his berth until he could not bear it any longer, and came up on deck to meet what he thought was his certain death. Morris, fully committed to maintaining the momentum of the revolt, ran out of the cabin at him shouting, “Kill every God damn white person on board the vessel, and if none else will, I will!” Leitner brought him up short by confronting him, ‘Will you kill me Morris?’ Morris stopped in his tracks, and assured him that he would not but demanded that he go down into the after hatch out of harm’s way.13 The incident signals the ways in which the necessity of exacting the violence necessary to take the ship might easily have tipped into an indiscriminate and revengeful blood lust with potentially catastrophic consequences. Morris’s sparing of Leitner also demonstrates that events were shaped by complicated relations between black and white, crew and enslaved. When rebels set to kill Jacques Lacombe, Washington warned them off, shouting that he was French, and could not speak English. This might not have been the only reason. Lacombe had remained steadfastly at the wheel throughout the battle. He may have done so through fear, or because he was unwilling to take sides.

Searching for ship’s officers, the rebels entered the staterooms, and found the Captain’s wife, the children, and the steward, all of whom they secured in the hold. They discovered Stevens, the second mate, hiding in his cabin. The rebels burst in on him, one firing a musket. They chased him up onto the deck and attacked him with a piece of flagstaff, and knives. Wounded, Stevens scrambled up the fore shrouds onto the fore-royal yard, and stayed there. The three senior ship’s officers were now aloft, and out of sight.

By about one in the morning, the rebels felt confident enough to acknowledge that the ship was theirs. In a symbolic celebratory performance of upturned hierarchies, they called Leitner, the Steward’s mate, to the cabin where he served them apples and bread and the officers’ brandy. Leitner was clearly not regarded as an enemy. When one of the rebels took his watch, it was returned when it was realized that it did not belong to the Captain. The rebels rifled the personal trunks, donned new clothes, and pulled the officers’ stockings over their own. The search was not one of merely joyous subversion, however. They were also looking for further weapons to secure their position. Apart from the officers who were aloft, and of whom they were still unaware, the upper deck was, for that moment, theirs. Determined to occupy previously forbidden space, as many who could fit slept in the cabin.14

The discovery of the ship’s officers in the rigging at dawn revealed that tensions remained high, and the chain of command not entirely settled. The rebels were not in agreement about whether the officers should be killed. Amongst the crew, there was confusion about whose orders had precedence. Gifford, once returned to the deck, complained, “Some say make sail, and others say not, who shall I obey?” Stevens descended reluctantly, which infuriated some rebels who threatened to pitch him overboard. Gifford told them that Ensor was aloft and seriously wounded.

At this point, Washington asserted his leadership, making it clear that he did not want any more killing. He ordered that Ensor be lowered to the deck, and then secured in the hold with his family after his wounds had been dressed. Nevertheless, Morris and Blacksmith kept threatening Stevens the next day, and that evening someone took a potshot at him as he walked along the quarter-deck in the dark, the bullet whistling past his head.15 It was the last shot of the mutiny.

The Creole rebels achieved their extraordinary success because, as Eugene Genovese noted with more general reference to shipboard revolts, “the appearance of favorable conditions and a genuine chance of success could trigger bold action.”16 The rising was possible, in part, because of the lax conditions aboard the Creole. As Marcus Rediker has argued, transatlantic slave ships were vicious machines dedicated to the violent production of slaves, ruthlessly recalibrating African lives and bodies into human commodities as they plied the Middle Passage.17 The coastwise slaving vessels were not engaged in the production of slaves so much as transporting human beings understood by American traffickers to be already ‘made’ into slaves. It seems clear that slavers had grown complacent about the possible resistance of their human cargoes. They mixed them with other sundry merchandize from bricks to tobacco, and from millstones to seeds. Why else did the Creole carry a slave trader’s young family members? Why else was there only one musket between them all? Why else were all 135 African Americans neither chained nor restrained?

Allowing the captives a certain amount of mobility aboard may have been designed to prevent the build up of tension but the policy thereby enabled the captives to learn the layout of the ship, identify and collect together weapons – the meat knife from the galley, handspikes, “left forward by the windlass, where they could be picked up by anybody” - whisper, plan and organize themselves.18 It does not appear that the hatches were secure by nine o’clock on the night of the rising. Washington had managed to leave one hold and enter the other without drawing any attention to himself, while no issue was made about Morris, and several other slaves remaining on deck in the dark. As the captives been not even been searched when they were boarded, they may also have smuggled weapons on board.19

This last fact is significant for it highlights the fact that the idea of mutiny preceded embarkation. While practical details might have been worked out covertly during the first week at sea, a core commitment had already been formed on shore with the goal of taking the ship. The leaders of the rising, Washington, Ruffin, Morris, and Blacksmith, had been sold into the slave trade from different parts of the North, and would not have known each other until they met in the stinking slave pens. Washington is the only one of the Creole mutineers about whom there exists biographical detail, although it is probable that the other three men had prior contact with, or knowledge of, runaways and abolitionists. It would have been while awaiting their transportation that the Creole rebels first formed their alliances, told their stories, shared information, and forged a bond of trust that they then carried onto the slaver.

Washington’s fragmented story not only confirms an intense desire for freedom but also that, as a fugitive slave, he had moved covertly through radical abolitionist networks of communication and asylum prior to his re-capture. Here, he had listened to the arguments for violent resistance, and even more specifically, he had been presented with an heroic figure and a model for successful action. Washington was born a slave in Virginia. In late 1839 he had fled to Canada using the Underground Railroad. In early 1841, against the advice of well-known abolitionist activists, Hiram Wilson, Henry Garnet and Robert Purvis, he travelled back down the railroad to Virginia in search of his wife. He returned via Philadelphia where he stayed with Purvis who had previously helped him reach Canada. Fifty years later Purvis recalled Washington’s surprising visit. He had arrived on the same day that Purvis took possession of a striking portrait entitled, “Sinque, the Hero of the Amistad”, painted by the abolitionist artist, Nathaniel Joceylyn. Washington was “intensely interested” in the picture and in the story of the famous rebellion. Purvis recalled that “[h]e drank in every word, and greatly admired the hero’s courage and intelligence”.20 Washington was re-captured in Virginia in early 1841, and sold to Thomas McCargo. Burning with rage, and holed up in the Norfolk slave pen, the recent memory of the Cinqué’s portrait must have galvanized Washington, while relaying the story of the Amistad to his fellow captives surely provided inspiration and vital co-ordinates for calculating the possibility of another shipboard rebellion.

Slave pens existed all around the harbours of the Eastern seaboard for holding captives while traders acquired enough human property to fill a hold. Captives were also transshipped between vessels while they were at anchor. This enabled conspiracies to travel from shore to ship, and from ship to ship. At least fifteen other captives took part in the Creole revolt. It is not clear whether the four met with these others on shore, or recruited them to the cause once aboard. Nevertheless, what is clear is that planned mutiny had already dramatically breached the division between shipboard and the Norfolk shore-side on previous occasions. If stories of the Amistad rebellion were circulating in 1841, they would have mixed with those of earlier slave ship revolts inspired by the revolution in, and proximity of, St. Domingue.

In 1826, rebels took the slave ship, Decatur, after it had departed from Baltimore and ordered that it be sailed to St. Domingue. The mutiny was quelled before they reached the island.21 Perhaps inspired by the attempt, another revolt occurred on the Lafayette which departed Norfolk harbour in 1829. As with the Creole, reports suggest the complacency of the Captain and crew in the face of the potential for an uprising. The large slaver also carried extra cargo, and other white passengers. The 197 male and female slaves had been separated by using a ship’s boat stowed bottom up and athwart the ship as a bulkhead. It could, as Solomon Northup later affirmed, be used to spark an insurrection. The ship’s crew managed to overpower the rebels during a vicious fight. Later, under interrogation, twenty-five men, deemed to be the leaders of the affray, revealed the magnitude of the plot.

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