Throughout the annals of American slavery, enslaved people resisted captivity and strived to liberate themselves from bondage, usually against steep odds. The Creole rebellion of 1841 represented one of the most successful uprisings in U.S. history, where more than 100 captives gained their freedom.

Like the famed Amistad rebellion two years earlier, which had culminated in a dramatic Supreme Court case allowing the enslaved people to return to Africa, the Creole revolt was also a mutiny aboard a slaving brig. But whereas the Amistad had carried its 53 captives illegally across the Middle Passage, in violation of America’s 1808 transatlantic slave trade ban, the Creole was transporting human “cargo” from Virginia to the markets of New Orleans, as part of the still-thriving U.S domestic trade in enslaved people. Most of the Creole’s 134 captives were property of the ship’s owners; others belonged to a Virginia trader who was aboard the brig with his 15-year-old nephew, schooling him in the business of human trafficking.

The rebellion, which occurred November 7, 1841, in waters 130 miles northeast of the coast of Abacos, Bahamas, succeeded because its organizers knew they had a chance at freedom if they could seize and reroute the ship into British territory, where the British Slave Abolition Act of 1833 had deemed human bondage illegal. Indeed, once the brig reached Nassau, local Bahamian officials, operating under British law—and pressured by its own population of formerly enslaved people—informed the Creole’s captives that they were free to go.

But that didn’t end it. The Creole incident highlighted the growing international disparity over how countries viewed the practice of human bondage. Specifically, it renewed debate over whether the British, using their own anti-slavery laws, had the right to seize American property. (In the years before the Creole revolt, British officials had freed the enslaved captives of four other American slaving brigs that had been shipwrecked in their territory.) And it aggravated ongoing tensions between Britain and the United States over jurisdiction disputes and how international law defined the boundaries of legalized slavery.

Courtesy of the Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift from the Liljenquist Family Collection
Iron shackles, dated pre-1860.

How the Mutiny Unfolded

It’s unlikely the Creole revolt was spontaneous. Instead, it appears to have been coordinated by a handful of enslaved men led by Madison Washington, who had already fled to freedom once. Born into slavery in Virginia, Washington had escaped to Canada two years earlier and was recaptured after coming south to liberate his wife. As Washington traveled the Underground Railroad and mingled with abolitionists, he likely learned—if he didn’t already know—of the British slavery ban, the fate of the earlier ships and of the Amistad mutiny. Abolitionist Robert Purvis, who had hosted Washington when he traveled through Philadelphia, later wrote about his guest’s deep fascination with the story behind a painted portrait Purvis owned. It depicted Cinque, the African rice farmer who became the hero of the Amistad uprising.

The rebellion began about one week into the voyage, around half past 9 o'clock on Sunday, November 7. That’s when the Creole’s first mate Zephaniah Gifford, out on watch, discovered and demanded that Washington disclose himself from the hold reserved for enslaved women. Like many other slaving brigs of the time, the Creole maintained separate holds for enslaved men and women. And unlike the transatlantic slave ships, Creole’s captives weren’t chained or restrained; they were locked in the cargo hold. Some were able to move around above deck during the day. Washington, who worked onboard as head cook for the enslaved, had a prime perch to find weapons and observe the crew’s routines.

After being discovered, Washington ascended to the deck and shoved Gifford to the ground. Before the first mate could recover himself, he was shot and severely wounded. As the sound of the shot echoed across the brig, Washington called to those below deck, "Come on, my boys, we have commenced and must go through with it." While the wounded Gifford fled to alert the rest of the crew, three other enslaved people, led by one named Ben Blacksmith, followed and killed the slave manager John Hewell and wounded the ship captain, Robert Ensor.

Amid the uproar and commotion, Ensor and Gifford climbed up to hide on the platform atop the mainmast. When the enslaved ringleaders found them, they demanded Gifford come down or they would shoot them both. After the first mate descended, Blacksmith held a musket to his chest while Washington demanded he direct the Creole to British territory. En route to Nassau, the enslaved people kept the crew under watch and locked the captain with his family in the fore hold with two other enslaved persons posting guard.

Battle for Jurisdiction in the Bahamas

When the Creole reached Nassau on November 9, Gifford managed to contact the American consul, John Bacon. The consul immediately notified the Bahamas’ British governor, Francis Cockburn, who sent 25 soldiers to seize the ship and tie down the culprits. Afterward, in a special session to discuss the Creole, Nassau’s council declared that municipal courts had no jurisdiction over mutiny and murder at sea. They decided to investigate, send a report to London and await further direction. The governor also refused the American consul's request to hold the captives till a U.S. warship could arrive and extradite the mutineers to America for trial.

News of enslaved people held aboard the Creole mobilized a massive crowd of Afro-Bahamians to surround the ship in boats, loudly demanding the liberation of those aboard. Most had been freed in the 1833 British Abolition Act; others were African Americans who had been liberated when their slaving brigs shipwrecked on Bahamian shores. Anxious that the local mob might overtake the Creole, the crew attempted to seize the ship and make a break for New Orleans, but soldiers posted on board thwarted their efforts. After the Nassau attorney general had the 19 Creole mutineers transferred ashore for confinement, he announced that the remaining enslaved captives were "free, and at liberty to go on shore, and wherever you please."

When news of the Creole's fate reached U.S. Secretary of State Daniel Webster, he declared it a violation of the Laws of Nations. The U.S. minister to Great Britain, meanwhile, appealed for redress. He argued that since enslaved people were recognized as property by the U.S. constitution, the liberation of American-owned enslaved people by Nassau authorities constituted an illegal seizure of U.S. property. British officials rebutted that through their Slave Abolition Act, they no longer legally recognized slavery and had no power to hold enslaved people against their will without criminal charges.

The Creole Incident Was Folded into a Broader Negotiation

By 1842, however, the Creole question became part of a broader series of disputes with Great Britain concerning the unresolved border between British Canadian colonies and the northern American states. To resolve these issues, a British delegation traveled to the U.S., headed by Lord Ashburton, to negotiate a treaty.

After negotiations hit an impasse, Ashburton promised Webster the British government would instruct its colonial officials to avoid "officious interference with ships driven by necessity into British ports." And he agreed to send the Creole question back to London for consideration. But the Webster-Ashburton Treaty, signed August 9, 1842, left it unresolved.

The following year, a joint claim commission finally settled the Creole affair between the two nations. The committee awarded the owners of the enslaved people freed at Nassau $110,330, declaring the seizure of an American ship's cargo a violation of international law.

Through it all, U.S. officials’ persistent demand for redress illustrated America’s investment in the institution of bondage. While Great Britain, the U.S, and other various powers signed treaties to end the transatlantic slave trade, America's domestic slave trade, which powered the burgeoning nation’s agrarian economy, continued to expand well into the mid-19th century. 

Clifton Sorrell is a doctoral student in History at the University of Texas at Austin. Daina Ramey Berry is the Michael Douglas Dean of Humanities and Fine Arts at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is a scholar of the enslaved and the award-winning author/editor of books on slavery including The Price for Their Pound of Flesh, the Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation. Follow her on twitter @DainaRameyBerry.

History Reads features the work prominent authors and historians.