Depiction of Madison Washington, as visualized by the River Road African American Museum’s YouTube page.
Although there are several tales of slaves revolting against their masters in the annals of history, the overthrow of The Creole by captives heading from Virginia to Louisiana is one of the more riveting accounts. The rebellion ultimately gained 128 slaves freedom after taking control of the slave trading ship and sailing to the Bahamas, sparking tensions between the British and American forces.
The Creole was sailing from Hampton, Va,. as part of the domestic slave trade coastal route after the United States banned international slave trade. A total of 135 slaves were aboard the ship as it made its way to New Orleans as part of a sale. 160 people in total were on the brig, including the captain’s family, a handful of slave traders and a crew of 10.
Madison Washington, a cook who was enslaved in Virginia after attempting to rescue his wife after he escaped to Canada, was the first to spark the overthrow. The slaves were kept in a forward hold and when a grate was lifted, Washington overtook the deck. Washington and 17 other men sparked the clash by taking on the captain’s crew and killed a trader with a knife. The captain was wounded, but escaped with his life as he hid inside the ship’s rigging.
The slaves demanded the ship be sailed towards Liberia, as it was the only country they knew former slaves could go for freedom. However, another slave mentioned they should sail to the British West Indies because slaves were freed there a year prior. Upon arriving at Nassau, Bahamas on November 9, the ship was boarded by Black Bahamians who declared the group free under British colonial law.
Because of the death of the slave trader, the governor of the Bahamas could not let the men go free. Washington and his compatriots in the revolt were detained while the rest were allowed to live as free people. Amazingly, three women, a girl and a boy elected to stay aboard the Creole and return to slavery. Upon the Creole’s arrival in New Orleans in December, White slave owners were angered at the loss of workers they considered nothing more than property.
Since there were no extradition treaties between the British and America, charges to return the slaves were dropped and many of the newly freed traveled on British ships to Jamaica while some remained behind. Among abolitionists and even the British, who outlawed slavery in 1834, Washington was considered a hero. It was also reported that Washington didn’t allow his fellow men to kill their captors and even helped treat the wounded.
Although it was not specifically named as a reason, the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842 was enacted that banned the trading of slaves using waterways.
Madison Washington’s revolt on the Creole is largely seen as one of the most successful slave revolts in history.