The Creole Slave Rebellion: Fact and Fiction
by Robert James Reese, 2004
After the successful publication of his autobiography, escaped slave Frederick Douglass decided to tell the story of a fellow ex-slave, Madison Washington, and his rebellion aboard the Creole slave ship. Rather than writing a purely historical account of the events, Douglass chose to embellish and alter the truth, creating The Heroic Slave, one of the first historical novellas and the first known piece of African-American fictional literature (Andrews 11). Douglass' choice to write the story as a fiction made the novella easier for readers to relate to and, therefore, more appealing to their sympathies. The Heroic Slave is based on the historical 1841 slave rebellion led by Madison Washington aboard the New Orleans-bound slave ship, the Creole. In his telling of the story, Douglass includes embellishments on, alterations to, and omissions of certain historical facts. By comparing his novella to other documents citing the actual occurrences, we can analyze the changes Douglass' made to the story and why he chose to make them.
Douglass' does not immediately discuss the Creole slave ship rebellion. Instead, the first three parts of The Heroic Slave concern the life of Madison Washington, the slave who would eventually become leader of that rebellion. In Part I, Douglass introduces us readers and Mr. Listwell, a white traveler, to Madison Washington. We overhear his soliloquy on the suffering he must endure as a slave. In this speech we are given the reason for his upcoming flight from slavery: "I am galled with irons; but even these are more tolerable than the consciousness, the galling consciousness of cowardice and indecision. Can it be that I dare not run away?" (27). This epiphany of Madison's leads directly to his decision to run away. By including it, even though it had not been documented in historical articles and probably never was spoken out loud, Douglass gave the readers a glimpse into Madison Washington's "motives, his justification, [and] his goals in perpetuating the uprising" (Andrews 13). The same motives that would later motivate Madison to rebel were here causing him to run north to Canada, away from slavery. Understanding the thoughts that push a man to risk his life in pursuit of slavery leads readers to become more sympathetic to him. Madison Washington's character remains very talkative throughout the novella. By giving Madison Washington's thoughts a voice, Douglass helped readers to understand the motivation for escape and rebellion.
Parts II and III tell of Madison's escape from slavery and then his decision to return to the South to rescue his wife. We again meet Mr. Listwell in these sections of the book. Although there is no evidence to suggest Madison actually encountered such a man by chance in Virginia, Ohio, and then Virginia again, Douglass chose to embellish his story with the improbably meetings between the two men. Mr. Listwell serves as an example of the white abolitionist who Frederick Douglass is trying to influence with this novel. Although not an abolitionist at the beginning of the novel, Mr. Listwell reached an epiphany of his own after listening to Madison's soliloquy: "From this hour I am an abolitionist... I shall go to my home in Ohio resolved to atone for my past indifference to this ill-starred race, by making such exertions as I shall be able to do, for the speedy emancipation of every slave in the land" (30). Douglass suggests here that indifference is a fault that atonement must be made for. He is calling out to other whites who may not be abolitionists to take action on behalf of the emancipation movement.
Douglass continues to mention Mr. Listwell throughout the story because he has already linked him personally to the white readers and, therefore, further mentions of him help them to continue relating to the text personally. Each instance in which Mr. Listwell aids Madison is a suggestion to white readers of ways in which they can do their part to aid other slaves. Madison stays at Mr. Listwell's house on his way to Canada and is treated with generous hospitality. This generosity is, again, a suggestion of the way Douglass wishes white abolitionists to act. The final meeting of Madison and Mr. Listwell comes in Richmond, where Madison has been recaptured and is about to board the Creole. Mr. Listwell decides to "do his friend Madison one last service, and he stept into a hardware store and purchased three strong files" which he then snuck into Madison's pocket (59). The decision by Douglass to place the files as a gift from the white abolitionist suggests that the rebellion could not have taken place without the aid of a white man. In fact, it is not known where Madison got the files which he worked through his chains with. According to Howard Jones, a Civil War historian, "no evidence has appeared to support the rumor that a plan had originated in Richmond" (30). There is no reason to believe that an abolitionist had given the files to Madison. He could have found them on board the ship or snuck them on himself. Either way, the credit for taking the first step towards rebellion belongs to him. Douglass chooses to give this first step to Mr. Listwell, suggesting that slave rebellions cannot get started without the help of white abolitionists. This suggestion makes it all the more important for white readers to do their part in aiding insurrections. Douglass' inclusion of the fictional character Mr. Listwell into the novella was well thought out and served to identify the readers with the story while calling them to action in the fight for emancipation.
The first three parts of The Heroic Slave are all told in a third person point of view that closely follows the actions of Madison Washington. However, Douglass' narrative leaves Madison in Part IV and goes to the conversation of some old, white sailors who are discussing the rebellion aboard the Creole. Again, Douglass cites an example of a white man's conversion to abolitionism as a way of calling upon the readers to aid the cause themselves. A white officer aboard the Creole during the insurrection, Tom Grant, confesses to the sailors he is speaking to, "I dare say here what many men feel, but dare not speak, that this whole slave-trading business is a disgrace and scandal to Old Virginia" (63). This was a very surprising statement to come from the mouth of a slave trader. Douglass' inclusion of Grant's confession of abolitionist views helps to show that anyone-even a slave trader-can become sympathetic to the abolitionist cause. The conversation that ensues between Tom Grant and some other white sailors details the events of the rebellion. By telling of the revolt through a conversation, Douglass makes the story seem more real and easier to identify with personally. It would have been easy for readers to imagine a conversation among sailors like the one which is described. Furthermore, the account given of Madison Washington by Grant seems more credible because it is coming from someone who was not the slave's ally. When Grant says, "I confess, gentlemen, I felt myself in the presence of a superior man; one who, had he been a white man, I would have followed willingly and gladly in any honorable enterprise," readers are sure to realize that Madison Washington must have had tremendous qualities to earn such praise from a white officer of a slave ship (68). Douglass' choice to frame the rebellion within a conversation in the narrative stressed the positive qualities of Madison Washington and again caused the white readers to identify personally with the story.
In addition to these embellishments to the story, Frederick Douglass omitted and altered certain facts about the mutiny on board the Creole in order to make the story better suit his purposes. The first of these changes is a rather significant one: in The Heroic Slave, the captain of the Creole was killed in the rebellion whereas in real life he was only wounded. In both the story and reality, John Hewell, owner of thirty-nine of the slaves was killed during the struggle. However, according to Howard Jones, "There was indeed only a single death among the whites" and Captain Ensor was only wounded, not killed (30). The reason for there not being more white casualties was Madison Washington's reluctance to shed blood. Unlike other rebels who were driven to kill as many whites as they could out of revenge, Madison was only interested in achieving freedom. As his character says in the novella, "God is my witness that liberty, not malice, is the motive for this night's work. I have done no more to those dead men yonder, than they would have done to me in like circumstances" (66). The fact that Madison's rebellion was just about freedom and not revenge earned him the sympathies of many who would otherwise be unsympathetic. This brings up the question, why then would Douglass portray Madison as killing two men during the insurrection rather than one? I believe he did this to make a point that those who profit most from slavery will be the first to pay retribution for it. In the story, the owner of many of the slaves and the captain of a slave trading ship, both men who had gotten wealthy from the subjugation of slaves, were both killed for their misdoings. Additionally, the captain was, according to Jones, "severely wounded," and so it would not have been much of a stretch to say that he died (30). A witness to the actual incident, however, "credited Washington with saving the life of the wounded captain of the brig" (Andrews 12). Through this aid towards his own enemy, Madison Washington shows a great deal of compassion. Douglass describes Madison saving the life of others on board the ship, but not the captain. Tom Grant quotes the words Madison spoke to him, "when you lay helpless on deck, my men were about to kill you. I held them in check" (67). Douglass still shows the compassion of Madison Washington by describing his efforts to spare the lives of as many whites as possible. But, the captain was not spared in the novella because Douglass felt that those who profit most from slavery cannot be spared in a story of rebellion.
Frederick Douglass chose to end The Heroic Slave without mentioning the legal trials that followed the Creole revolt. The ending of his story suggested that the battle was over when, in fact, it would continue within the courts for years. You could say that these trials were not included simply because the story ended before they took place, but I believe that Douglass purposefully omitted them in order to conclude the book on a more positive note. When they arrived on board the ship, "British authorities detained nineteen of the identified rebellion instigators," including Madison Washington, who remained imprisoned for five months before being "set free due to lack of evidence" (MacDonald 1). The rebels who were only fighting for their own freedom were imprisoned as mutineers. Though they were eventually set free, for five months they had to remain imprisoned after gaining their "freedom." Additionally, "an Anglo-American claims commission awarded $110,330 to owners of the liberated slaves, thereby vindicating the Southern position" (Jones 47). In the end, the courts ruled that the slaves were, in fact, property that had to be compensated, not people. This ruling leaves a discouraging note on Madison Washington's courageous fight for freedom. By omitting the trials that ruled in favor of the slaveholders, Douglass left the story in a more positive way. And by overlooking the courts' opinion, the Creole rebellion can be looked at as a step towards the eventually emancipation of all slaves, rather than an isolated, exceptional story.
Because he wrote The Heroic Slave as a work of fiction, Frederick Douglass had the freedom to make many authorial choices that made the story of Madison Washington's rebellion aboard the Creole a more effective case for the abolitionist cause. Through embellishments, alterations, and omissions, Douglass molded the history of the revolt to better serve his purposes. A simple, utterly accurate telling of the story would not have been nearly as powerful to the abolitionist movement.
Andrews, William L. Introduction. Three Classic African-American Novels. Ed. William L. Andrews. New York, Penguin Books, 2003. 7-21.
Douglass, Frederick. The Heroic Slave. New York, Penguin Books, 2003.
Jones, Howard. "The Peculiar Institution and National Honor: The Case of the Creole Slave Revolt." Civil War History. Volume 21. Mar. 1975. 20-50.
MacDonald, Robin. "'The Heroic Slave': Frederick Douglass' Revolutionary Revision." 1996. 20 Apr 2004.