For the month of February, each writer’s post will begin with the same line, which we’ve borrowed from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.
All this happened, more or less. On October 25, 1841, a brig called Creole carrying 135 slaves and a large freight of tobacco departed Richmond, Virginia, for the slave-market in New Orleans. The brig sailed without incident, until November 7. That night, nineteen male slaves revolted. Under the direction of four leaders, including a slave named Madison Washington, the nineteen took control of the ship and ordered it sailed to Nassau, a British colony with a large population of blacks who had been freed under the Emancipation Act of 1833. Within a week of the brig’s arrival at Nassau, the British government overrode the American slave traders’ interests and freed 116 slaves. The remaining nineteen—those involved in the mutiny—were detained until March 1842 and then were freed as well.
Only one white man was killed during the revolt. Of the nineteen who secured the ship, two would later die during their detainment. By the numbers, the Creole mutiny stands as one of the most successful slave revolts in US history.
And that is the truth.
But the following is true, too. This also happened, more or less.
After the revolt, versions of the rebellion, based on depositions delivered by the white officers and crew, started circulating among the Southern states and among those of the North. Because memories fail and audiences and circumstances change, these versions often differ subtly. And while the overall trajectory of the mutiny remains pretty much the same and has allowed historians to stitch together something like an authoritative account, specific details—like who said what and sometimes dates—do change. With one notable exception.
The number nineteen remains constant.
In fact, the number nineteen is more than constant. By the time the officers and crew put to shore in New Orleans, nineteen had become a rabidly insistent feature of their story. Take this short excerpt from the deposition they delivered in New Orleans:
[BLOCK QUOTE]The nineteen said that all they had done was for their freedom. The others said nothing about it.—They were much afraid of the nineteen. … The nineteen took possession of the after part of the brig…. Some of the nineteen were hugging the female servants…. (Emphasis added)[/BLOCK QUOTE]
The number nineteen appears with such frequency in this deposition, it begins to feel rehearsed. Symptomatic, maybe. Nineteen, nineteen, nineteen. Over and over and over again, insisting upon the guilt of one group and the innocence of the other.
“All the women appeared to be perfectly ignorant of the plan.”
“None of the male slaves apparently under twenty years took any part in the affray.”
Nineteen, nineteen, nineteen.
While it can’t be proven, we’ve reason to doubt what’s gone down in history as fact. Because of the way the slaves were imprisoned on the brig itself, it’s unlikely that such widespread ignorance about the revolt existed. Plus, Washington himself reportedly served as the slave’s cook and therefore would have had opportunities to sound fellow slaves about the plan. Finally, the officers and crew of the Creole—again, all of them white save for one previously freed black man named William Devereux—had ample reason to downplay the extent of the rebellion, to settle on a number like nineteen and then worry that number like a bad tooth. Having lost cargo valued at more than $3 million in 2016 USD and now confronted with the task of convincing the ship’s insurers to cough up some dough, the officers and crew needed to define where criminality ended and property resumed. In other words, the Creole mutiny forced them to balance their lust for profit against their desire to see Washington and his associates dangling from a hangman’s noose.
So, nineteen mutineers. A good compromise.
The “more or less” of what happened.
And it is this uncertainty about the nineteen that, in the end, bring us to the tragedy that underlies the remarkable story of the rebellion. Despite the work of historians to challenge the accounts of these white slavers, theirs are the only accounts we have. No one, it seems, took depositions from Washington or the other slaves. No one thought to interview them. Faced with this silence in the record, it’s no surprise that in the years to follow, writers like Pauline Hopkins and Frederick Douglass would turn to fiction in order to imagine the experience of the slaves aboard the Creole. After all, fiction was the only avenue available to them. And us.
To borrow words from Douglass’s own short story about the mutiny, when it comes to the tale of the nineteen, history has left us little more than “marks, traces, possibles, and probabilities.”
Ben DeVries (’15) graduated with degrees in literature and writing. He and his wife Jes, a fellow Calvin grad, live in Champaign, Illinois, where Ben is looking to add some letters behind his name. On the academic off-seasons, he reads fantasy and works as a glorified “go-fer” at the Champaign Park District. He’s been known to make a mean deep-dish pizza.