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  • Rebellious Passage: The “Creole” Revolt and America’s Coastal Slave Trade by Jeffrey R. Kerr-Ritchie
  • Michael A. Schoeppner (bio)
Rebellious Passage: The “Creole” Revolt and America’s Coastal Slave Trade. By Jeffrey R. Kerr-Ritchie. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019. Pp. 345. Cloth, $99.99; paper $29.99.)

Jeffrey R. Kerr-Ritchie’s book is not the first study of the 1841 slave revolt aboard the Creole, but it is the best. While it includes the story of the nineteen individuals who led the revolt and the story of the diplomatic exchanges by well-known American and British politicians, neither group occupy center stage as they do in previous works. Rather, Kerr-Ritchie’s is an ensemble cast. He provides painstaking detail for his wide range of characters: the slave traders who invested in the American maritime slave trade, the Creole’s crew and “cargo,” the black Bahamians who escorted the formerly enslaved people ashore, British colonial officers, American and British diplomats, and even the lawyers who later litigated the insurance claims in Louisiana’s courtrooms. [End Page 258]

Kerr-Ritchie deploys this large cast of characters to situate the Creole revolt within a broad political, social, and economic context. In the first and third chapters, for example, he explains the divergent trajectories of the American and British empires with regard to the slave trade and, eventually, slavery itself. The geographic proximity of the two empires, especially the British Caribbean and the American South, meant that these diverging political regimes were in frequent contact. The Creole, then, did not just sail the treacherous waters between Florida and the Bahamas, it traveled between two starkly different and increasingly antagonistic political regimes. Likewise, the second chapter situates the fateful Creole voyage within the broader scope of the American maritime slave trade. Kerr-Ritchie aptly demonstrates the continuity of the maritime slave trade before and after 1808. Enslaved people’s experiences of detachment, dread, and violence in the transatlantic slave trade had their counterparts in the interstate maritime trade. The fourth chapter traces the actual brig Creole from its initial construction to its ultimate demise in 1842. The boat was constructed to be an ideal interstate conveyor of enslaved people. Slave trading was big business, and merchant houses, insurance companies, and banking institutions all contributed to its maintenance. So, while readers have to wait more than one hundred pages to reach the actual revolt, they are better prepared to understand it. The Creole rebels might have been an aberration insofar as successful slave “mutinies” go, but the diplomacy of slavery and the interstate maritime slave were anything but aberrational; they sat at the heart of antebellum America.

All of this contextual work lays the foundation for Kerr-Ritchie’s recounting of the rebellion and its massive reverberations. While much of the actual revolt is well known, Rebellious Passage offers the reader something important and new by placing people of color at the center of the postrevolt story, not just at the violent climax. The rebels who overtook the ship chose to head for British territory. Once reaching Bahamian waters, the formerly enslaved people decided to leave the vessel and seek protection from British authorities. The British West Indian regiment of black soldiers secured the vessel while diplomats debated the appropriate course of action. Everyday black Bahamians, many working on small watercraft, facilitated the enslaved people’s flight from the ship and forced the hand of the British state. Thus, while white officials at the time put themselves at the center of the Creole’s story of slavery and freedom, Kerr-Ritchie explains that their actions were always in response to people of color on the ground, on the waves, and on the ship itself. This is one of Rebellious Passage’s key contributions; the British state did not free the slaves of the Creole. Rather, [End Page 259] the self-emancipated allowed the British state, itself compelled by its black subjects, to protect the liberty they already held. Rebellious Passage, then, is self-consciously history from the “bottom upward” (xxv).

The final four chapters move away from the Bahamas and are largely situated in diplomatic parlors and Louisiana courtrooms...