We cannot verify your location
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE
The Peculiar Institution and National Honor: The Case of the Creole Slave Revolt

From: Civil War History
Volume 21, Number 1, March 1975
pp. 28-50 | 10.1353/cwh.1975.0036

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

THE PECULIAR INSTITUTION AND NATIONAL HONOR: The Case of the Creole Slave Revolt Howard Jones The slave mutiny on the brig Creole in 1841 has long been of interest to historians. Not only did it involve American domestic politics, it intimately concerned relations between the governments of the United States and Great Britain. Disposition of the case raised arguments and counterarguments similar to those which were to echo through American politics for two decades and result in the Civil War; it also indirectly affected the negotiation of the Webster-Ashburton Treaty in 1842. Because the Creole revolt occurred in 1841, not 1861, it eventually took its place as a minor incident in antebellum history; yet its potentially explosive nature justifies more attention than it has received. As far as this writer can tell, there has been no full, scholarly treatment of the Creole affair. Partially because of this, many accounts of the event have been either misleading or mistaken.' The reader is left with the erroneous impression that the British government won a diplomatic victory over the United States, that the incident was indicative of the spontaneous, disorganized nature of slave revolts, and that it caused many Southerners to consider seriously the possibility of having to fight England again. The purposes of this essay are to dispel some of the myths surrounding the Creole affair, to describe how such a seemingly unimportant event evoked serious questions of national honor, and to offer an explanation of the South's surprisingly subdued behavior in the latter stages of the controversy. By the I830*s that section of the United States, just embarking on the politics of slavery, was interested in almost any method to keep the peculiar institution intact. One of these was to prevent incendiary talk about the subject. Indeed, some * This essay was delivered in revised form before the Missouri Valley History Conference , Omaha, Nebraska, March 10, 1973. The author wishes to acknowledge the assistance of Professors Maurice G. Baxter and Robert H. Ferrell of Indiana University. 1 Examples are: Thomas A. Bailey, A Diplomatic History of the American People (New York, 1940; 8th ed., 1969), p. 211; Samuel F. Bemis, A Diplomatic History of the United States (New York, 1936; 5th ed., 1965), p. 265; Alexander De Conde, A History of American Foreign Policy (New York, 1963; 2nd ed., 1971), p. 157. The present article is derived from a book-length manuscript the author is preparing on the Webster-Ashburton Treaty. 28 Southern states passed laws against publications designed to encourage abolitionism, while freedom of the press on the slavery question did not exist in many Southern states after the 1830*s.2 William VV. Freehling has shown, in the South Carolina nullification controversy of 1832, that some Southerners sought to prevent widespread criticism of slavery by diverting attention from it to the tariff.1 In cases involving British interference with America's coastal trade in slaves, many in the South protested such actions as violations of the nation's honor. It is almost impossible to determine if they meant what they said, but it is a fact that some of the Southern press argued for maritime rights and national integrity when their real concern was the effect these British abuses could have on encouraging more slave rebellions. In its details—the event itself, and its ramifications—the Creole case constituted a microcosm of the ideas and actions of later years. The vessel had sailed from Hampton Roads, Virginia, for New Orleans in October 1841 with eight crew members, five sailors, a cargo of tobacco, 135 slaves, and six white passengers (three men in charge of the slaves, together with the captain's wife, child, and niece).4 For nearly eleven days the brig made its way down the coast, and during the evening of November 7 prepared to enter harbor at Abaco Island in the Bahamas the following morning. About 9:30 that night the chief mate, Zephaniah Gifford, discovered a male slave in the main hold with the females. When he and William Merritt, the white man overseeing the slaves, entered the hold, they found Madison Washington, the slaves' head cook. Merritt tried to seize him, but...