Slave Ships: The Rebellions

With all of this mind, it’s not surprising to learn that slave revolts did occur on these ships. There is evidence of at least 392 cases of enslaved Africans staging revolts aboard slave ships. In fact, it’s estimated that around ten percent of all slave ships experienced an attempted revolt at one point or another (Richardson). While many of these attempted revolts failed, as slave ships were generally very well armed and their captains well aware of the possiblity of rebellion, some were successful (Richardson). Two of the most well-known and successful slave ships revolts were the Amistad revolt in 1839 and the Creole revolt in 1841.

In 1839, 53 African captives aboard the Amistad (which, ironically, translates to “friendship” in English), staged a revolt against the ship’s crew while they were sailing off the coast of Cuba (Britannica). Their goal was to take over the ship and return to Africa. During the revolt, two of the captives, along with the captain and the cook, were killed (Osagie). Once the captives successfully took control of the ship, they told the two remaining members of the crew to head east and sail back to Africa. However, the two shipmasters instead sailed north, into US territorial waters, where they were picked up by a US naval ship (Osagie). They were brought to Connecticut, where the former captives were charged with murder and piracy. With the help of US abolitionists, however, they won their case before the US Supreme Court and were awarded their freedom (Britannica). Many of them chose to return to their home of Sierra Leone, where they lived as free persons.

The Creole was a slave ship transporting 135 enslaved Africans from Virginia to New Orleans. During the voyage, a group of 18 captives, led by Madison Washington, took control of the ship and forced the crew to sail to the Bahamas, a British colony where slavery was illegal (Eschner). Washington was a formerly enslaved man who had escaped to Canada only to be recaptured when he returned to Virginia for his wife (Britannica). Despite the efforts of the US government, the enslaved people aboard the Creole were set free upon arriving in the Bahamas, as the US and Britain had no treaty outlining whether former enslaved people would be returned to the US, or how that would occur (Eschner). The leaders of the revolt were tried on charges of mutiny, but were found not guilty (Britannica). The Creole revolt is generally considered the most successful revolt of enslaved people in US history, as 128 people gained their freedom as a result (Eschner). 

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