Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 28, 2014

Madison Washington and the Creole Rebellion

Filed under: african-american,slavery — louisproyect @ 5:30 pm

From Marcus Rediker’s “The Amistad Rebellion: An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom“:

During the fall of 1841, Madison Washington, a self-emancipated former slave from Virginia, knocked on the door of Robert Purvis in Philadelphia as he was on his way back south to assist his wife’s escape from bondage. Washington had certainly come to the right place. Purvis had been active for several years in the Vigilance Committee and the Underground Railroad. He remembered, years later, “I was at that time in charge of the work of assisting fugitive slaves to escape.” Purvis already knew Washington because he had helped him gain his freedom by getting to Canada two years earlier. Washington had since “opened correspondence with a young white man in the South,” who had promised to ferry his wife away from her plantation and to bring her to an appointed place so that the two of them could then escape northward. Purvis did not like the plan. He had witnessed others undertake such dangerous labors of love and fail. He was sure that his visitor would be captured and reenslaved. Washington, however, was determined to carry on.

By coincidence Washington arrived at the abolitionist’s home on the very same day a painting was delivered: Nathaniel Jocelyn’s portrait, “Sinque, the Hero of the Amistad,” as Purvis called it. It so happened that Cinque and twenty-one other Amistad Africans had also been in Purvis’s large, majestic home on the northwest corner of Sixteenth and Mount Vernon streets, when they visited Philadelphia on their fund-raising tour of May 1841. (Cinque later sent a message, “Tell Mr. Purvis to send me my hat.”) Purvis had long been inspired by the Amistad struggle and in late 184o–early 1841, as the Supreme Court prepared to rule on the case, he commissioned Jocelyn to paint the portrait.

Washington took a keen interest in the painting and the story behind it. When Purvis told him about Cinque and his comrades, Washington “drank in every word and greatly admired the hero’s courage and intelligence.” Washington soon departed, headed south-ward in search of his wife, but he never returned, as he had hoped to do in retracing his steps toward Canada. Someone betrayed him, as Purvis had predicted (and only learned some years later). Washington was “captured while escaping with his wife.” He was clapped into chains again and placed on board a domestic slave ship called the Creole, bound from Virginia to New Orleans in November 1841.

As the Creole set sail, Washington remembered Cinque’s story—the courage and the intelligence, the plan and the victory. Working as a cook aboard the vessel, which allowed him easy communication with his shipmates, Washington began to organize. With eighteen others he rose up, killed a slave-trading agent, wounded the captain severely, seized control of the ship, and liberated a hundred and thirty fellow Africans and African Americans. Wary of trickery, Washington forced the mate to navigate the vessel to Nassau in the Bahama Islands, where the British had abolished slavery three years earlier. In Nassau harbor they met black boatmen and soldiers, who sympathized with the emancipation from below and took charge of the Creole, supporting the rebels and insuring their victory.

Representatives of the federal government literally screamed bloody murder, just as those of Spain had done two years earlier, following the rebellion aboard the Amistad. They demanded the return of the slaves, who must, they insisted, be tried in the United States for rising up to kill their oppressors. U.S. officials self-righteously defended the institution of slavery and called for all property to be restored to its rightful owners. The British government, however, refused to comply with the order. Madison Washington and many of his comrades gained their freedom, boarded vessels bound hither and yon around the Atlantic, and left no further traces in the historical records.

The reverberations of the Amistad rebellion were beginning to be felt in the wider world of Atlantic slavery, as predicted by abolitionist Henry C. Wright, an associate of William Lloyd Garrison. He foresaw that Purvis’s painting, properly displayed, would confront slaveholders and their apologists with a powerful message about successful rebellion against bondage. To have it in a gallery would lead to discussions about slavery and the “inalienable” rights of man, and convert every set of visitors into an antislavery meeting.

Wright did not imagine a meeting of only two people, one of them a rebellious fugitive, nor could he have known that the painting would inspire radical action on another slave ship, which would result in both a collective self-emancipation and an international diplomatic row between the United States and Great Britain. The combination of the Amistad and Creole rebellions had a major impact on the antislavery struggle, pushing activists toward more militant rhetoric and practices. As Purvis concluded many years later, “And all this grew out of the inspiration caused by Madison Washington’s sight of this little picture.”

3 Comments »

  1. Life mimicking art that mimicked life. Dialectics?

    Comment by Larry — October 29, 2014 @ 7:35 am

  2. Perhap this painting could work its magic again were it mass produced and distributed…or were it and the story to go “viral”…?

    Comment by thom prentice — October 30, 2014 @ 8:03 pm

  3. Never knew about this piece of black history….wow

    Comment by Leslie Bryan — January 29, 2017 @ 6:40 pm


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