Some slaves managed to take over the ships
To see the men, women and children taken from Africa by slavers are merely passive victims is to do them a grave disservice. Certainly, many were largely helpless: they were shackled for almost every part of the long, gruesome journey, with not just their bodies but their minds and spirits broken, too. However, not all slaves were submissive. Instances of revolt were actually quite commonplace, especially while the ships were out at sea. Indeed, according to some estimates, as many as 15 to 20 per cent of all of the ships which left Africa with slaves on board never made it to the clients awaiting them in the “new world”.
Though they might have had the upper hand, the slave ships’ crews were always outnumbered. What’s more, many of the slaves were chosen for their youth and physical strength – many had, after all, been captured warriors – and so, if a fight did break out, the crews could soon find themselves in serious trouble. This was certainly the case in October of 1841. Then, the Creole, which was carrying around 135 African slaves from Richmond, Virginia, to New Orleans, was taken over. Led by Madison Washington, a slave who had previously escaped but who had been recaptured when he went looking for his enslaved wife, a group of 14 men managed to escape their shackles, pick up makeshift weapons and take control of the ship. Some of the crew were killed in the bloody fighting, though others were allowed to live. Captain took over as captain and sailed the ship into British territory. Since by that point the British Empire had outlawed slavery, once they arrived, they were immediately granted their freedom.
There were countless other instances of slaves revolting and taking control of the slave ships, though many stories have been lost to history. In 1764, for example, a ship belonging to the New London company and under the command of a certain Captain George Faggot was anchored off the coast of Senegal for the night. It had just picked up African slaves from Goree Island and the captain was waiting for first light to start his Atlantic crossing. Under the cover of darkness, however, some of the slaves managed to free themselves and, using nothing more than planks of wood, attacked the captain and his crew, earning their freedom. The freed slaves abandoned the ship and made their own way to shore.
However, the most famous slave ship revolt happened in January of 1839, on board the Spanish schooner Amistad. The ship had set sail from La Habana, Cuba, bound for plantations in the southern United States. Soon after leaving port, however, the slaves managed to break free and revolt. Led by a former sugar farmer called Mende who had been captured and enslaved in Sierra Leone, the men killed the captain and several Spanish sailors threw themselves overboard. This meant the men, though now free from their shackles, had no way of navigating the ship. They eventually drifted along the coast of America and were apprehended by the US Navy off the coast of Connecticut. Both the owners of the Amistad and the Spanish government claimed the men as their private property. However, in a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court ruled that they were free men – an historic decision and one that became an important moment and symbol for the abolitionist cause.