Freedom Lab Event Report | Freedom’s Proximity: The Interconnections between American Slavery, British Colonial Abolition, and Slave Ship Revolt

By Sihan Wang

Class of 2023

Click [HERE] to watch the recording

With 50 participants, on February October the 13th, a talk on the Creole Slave-Ship Revolt was carried out via Zoom by Professor Jeffrey Kerr-Ritchie, a prestigious historian whose research interests include slavery, abolition, and post-emancipation societies, especially in North America and the Caribbean during the nineteenth century.

According to Professor Ritchie, the official termination of American participation in the trans-Atlantic slave trade announced in 1807 was marked as an end of seafaring commerce in the black population. However, this scenario ignores the arisen coastal dimensions of the slave trade, with many US slavery ships taking the maritime routes between different parts of America and the Caribbean. Consequently, despite the abolition of slavery in the British Empire and governmental manipulation, captives continued to be transported on US merchant ships in large numbers for decades due to the profit gained from buying and selling slaves as labors. The continuation of slave trading played a critical role within the context of the expansion of the United States as a maritime and territorial empire. Numerous ships transported men, women, and children for the manufacturing of products like tobacco and cotton, to spread commerce and develop new markets. Supported by primary sources, Professor Kerr-Ritchie concluded that between the 1820s and 1850s, more than 50,000 captives were moved from ports in the Upper to Lower South, in which thousands of lives were consumed and countless African-American families were torn apart.

The main topic of this presentation begins in November 1841, when an unexpected revolt took place on the US slave ship Creole that transported 139 slaves aged between 13-25 from Virginia to Louisiana. Nineteen rebels on board seized the ship, killing one of the slave traders aboard and wounding the ship’s captain, Robert Ensor. After some debate about where to go on the ship, the rebels then ordered the crew to sail them into free waters, that is, the British Bahamas. After the diplomatic debate between the US consul and British colonial officials, because of the illegality of slavery in the British colonies, a declaration was delivered by the British officials that no intervention would be made if the captives decided to leave the slave ship. Eventually, more than 130 of these former “slaves” managed to flee from their original destinies full of sufferings and stepped towards the free soil and free land.

Success of the mutiny that took place on Creole inspired abolitionists and struck fear in slaveholders. It represented the waves of anti-slavery rebellions led by African Americans in pursuit of their freedom in the context of the international struggles over the abolition on slavery. The Creole Slave-Ship Revolt also serves as an important part contained in African-American history and cultural memory. One reason that led to the rebel’s success, Professor Kerr-Ritchie emphasized, was the new proximity of slave and free coastlines caused by the emergence of slave shores on one side and free shores on the other side that began in the 1830s. It was the proximity that later acted as a vital part in the Creole story, helping the black American captives to choose a short passage to liberty on foreign soil rather than staying on the voyage destined for slavery in the USA.

What significances lie behind the history of Creole slave ship? Professor Ritchie used several points for his conclusion. Firstly, the ship Creole itself sheds light on the expansion of slavery during the 19th century, conducted by the young American empire, at a time when Britain and other nations were beginning to abolish slavery. Secondly, a broader framework describing the frequent interactions between the Caribbean Sea and the United States appeared due to an increased offshore slave trade, apart from the continental expansion of the domestic slave trade on black bodies. Thirdly, it demonstrates the collective power of the enslaved black Americans who fought together to liberate themselves by raising up a mutiny that was somewhat benefited from a unique geopolitical condition of spatially proximate free shores and slave shores. One should hardly be surprised that the anti-slavery actions were made possible by the slaves themselves—the African Americans who carried with them intense desires for freedom.

With the talk at an end, there still remains with great space for deeper thoughts. Professor Ritchie shared with us the Creole revolt by specially situating this issue into an international framework that includes the “clashing interests over slavery, slave trading, abolition, and empire building”. As slavery and freedom still occupy a core position in popular debates worldwide, the history of American slavery trading and the epic success done by the blacks shall not be excluded or forgotten. Looking back to the revolutionary 1841 Creole Slave-Ship issue, to summarize: what the rebels have done, they have done for freedom, for their new life controlled in their own hands.