Slavery, Slave revolt, Foreign relations, Daniel Webster, Lord Ashburton, Creole Affair
Many readers will be surprised to discover that Arthur T. Downey’s book is the first on the 1841 slave insurrection aboard the Creole. After all, slave insurrections in the United States, despite their relative paucity, have received much attention from scholars. Downey’s text seeks to popularize the story of the Creole in the same way that previous works, culminating in Steven Spielberg’s film, popularized the nearly contempo-raneous revolt aboard La Amistad. And the rebellion aboard the Creole is a storyteller’s dream. Nineteen slaves revolted aboard a slave-trading vessel traveling from Richmond to New Orleans, killing a member of the crew and injuring several others. Under the command of the slaves, the commandeered ship sailed into the Bahamian port of Nassau, where British officials—after much wrangling and a botched “rescue” coordinated by the American consul—freed well over a hundred slaves over the protests of American officials. The reverberations from the rebellion remained a thorn in the side of British and American diplomats and insurance companies for a dozen years thereafter. Undoubtedly, a book on the revolt was long overdue.
As far as popular history goes, this one is good. Downey spins a fine tale regarding the actual rebellion; the political context in the United States, Great Britain, and the British Caribbean; and the ways that the insurrection factored into Anglo–American diplomacy during the Webster–Ashburton Treaty talks in 1842. While rhetorical effect more than historical evidence led Downey to argue that the revolt brought the two nations to “the brink of war,” he nonetheless illustrates conclusively that the issues of slavery and emancipation played important roles in the two nations’ ongoing diplomatic relationship. Downey is at his finest in teasing out the diplomatic interchanges of Daniel Webster and Lord Ashburton, the two key players, with some of their formal notes transcribed and listed in Appendix III. Downey offers a broad contextual backdrop to help situate the story, summarizing in short order large swaths of American and British political history. This contextual breadth [End Page 423] will be quite helpful for readers somewhat unaccustomed to the political world of antebellum America.
Historians of the period, however, will be frequently frustrated. First, Downey’s text completely disengages from historiography. A number of fine works have investigated the same “triangle of linked tension” (1) formed by slavery, the United States, and Great Britain, but Downey fails to speak to them. He ignores studies implicating the political economy of slavery with diplomacy and international relations, such as those by Brian Schoen, Gerald Horne, Matt Karp, and Edward Rugemer. He also refrains from grappling with the voluminous studies on the intersection of race, migration, and legal conflict. This is not to say he does not mention them at all; for example, he cites Rugemer on a number of occasions. Yet, his citations are used purely for points of fact and not for interpretive value. Unfortunately, the same could be said about this book. Its primary contribution is to argue, as others have already, that the Creole Affair exacerbated Anglo–American relations. Beyond this rather pedestrian point, Downey only offers the briefest of ruminations on the other potential implications of his story, simply stating, “the tensions and issues that were exposed during that period grew in the years ahead and led to the Civil War” (157). Yet, he avoids explaining how those issues and tensions actually affected sectional strife or the politics of race and slavery.1
This leads to a second criticism; for being the first book on the Creole Affair, it does not break any new ground on the revolt itself. Secondary sources do most of the heavy factual lifting, and one would be hard-pressed to identify any new primary sources or novel interpretations of already-known documents. Downey does employ a number of secondary articles—again, solely for factual content—from the Journal...