We cannot suppress the slave trade – it is a natural operation, as old and constant as the ocean.
It is one thing to manage a company of slaves on a Virginia plantation and quite another to quell an insurrection on the lonely billows of the Atlantic, where every breeze speaks of courage and liberty.
This paper explores the voyage of the slave ship Creole, which left Virginia in 1841 with a cargo of 135 persons bound for New Orleans. Although the importation of slaves from Africa into the United States was banned from 1808, the expansion of slavery into the American Southwest took the form of forced migration within the United States, or at least beneath the United States's flag. About two-thirds of a million slaves were transported in this “domestic” slave trade between 1820 and 1860 (another three hundred thousands were moved by their owners in the same period). But those aboard the Creole were not to be among them: a group of slaves aboard revolted, and took the ship to Nassau in the Bahamas, where slavery had been abolished in 1834. The 1807 Congressional Act, which paralleled the British Act of 1807 ending British involvement in the African trade, forbade the further importation of African slaves after 1 January 1808 and sought to draw a line between the henceforth “domestic” economy of American slavery and the global economy in human beings. By instituting a distinction between “slaveholding” and “slave trading”, the act sought to align the limits of its economy with its polity, its slavery with its security, and its “property” with is “humanity”. The American flag gave protection to these trade actions, which became the flag of convenience for slave traders worldwide. The Creole and the contradictory imperatives of slaveholding and security aboard the boat; the dramatic attempts by those slaves aboard to attain freedom and transportation to a new home in Africa – although they came from different parts of Virginia, different communities, and different families – moments of white collusion, inter-racial cooperation, and black mercy aboard vessel; all combine in the telling of this story of slavery in the nineteenth-century Atlantic.