Two independent scholars attempt with only moderate success to flesh out the skeletal story of an 1841 mutiny by slaves aboard a ship headed from Richmond to New Orleans.
The authors set themselves a daunting task: to reconstruct from minimal documentary evidence both the life of Madison Washington, leader of the revolt, and the mutiny itself. But at nearly every crucial moment they are forced to acknowledge that little or nothing is known, or to ask questions that simply make the same point. “Did Madison Washington arrive in Richmond in a coffle?” they ask. “How did the slaves happen to have a gun?” they wonder. With so little supporting material, they decided to tell similar stories about which more is known and imply that the cases of Madison Washington and the Creole must have been similar. The result is a collection of excerpts from slave narratives, histories of the period, and accounts of other slave revolts. (Melville’s “Benito Cereno” earns some space here.) Even the illustrations are sometimes a stretch: one shows another slave ship, while the caption indicates that the Creole resembled it neither in size nor rigging. Washington’s story is an engaging one nonetheless. He initially escaped into Canada, then took the Underground Railroad in reverse in a failed attempt to rescue his wife. He was recaptured and put aboard the Creole; he and 18 others took over the vessel, killed one officer, and sailed to Nassau in the Bahamas. British authorities there eventually freed them all, and Washington vanished from history. So the volume must suffice as a set of suppositions accompanied by a primer about the slave trade and the unspeakable conditions endured by its victims.
The facts might fill a scholarly article, the story could form a film or novel, the scholarship would make a compelling memoir. But there isn’t enough detail for the conventional history essayed here. (24 b&w illustrations)