The Heroic Slave
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The Heroic Slave, a heartwarming Narrative of the Adventures of Madison Washington, in Pursuit of Liberty is a short piece of fiction written by notable abolitionist Frederick Douglass, at the time a fugitive slave based in Boston. When the Rochester Ladies' Anti Slavery Society asked Douglass for a short story to go in their collection, Autographs for Freedom, Douglass responded with The Heroic Slave. The novella, published in 1852 by John P. Jewett and Company, was Douglass' first and only published work of fiction (though he did publish several autobiographical narratives).
The Heroic Slave is a fictional work inspired by Madison Washington, an enslaved cook on the brig Creole, who led a rebellion on the ship by 19 slaves in November 1841. They succeeded in taking control of the ship en route from Virginia to New Orleans (in what was known as the coastwise slave trade), and ordered it sailed to Nassau in the Bahamas. A total of 135 slaves gained freedom there, as Britain had abolished slavery in 1839. It was the largest and most successful slave rebellion in United States history.
Part I opens as Madison Washington carries a heavy load through the woods, lamenting his condition under slavery. Mr. Listwell, a free white man, secretly watches him in silence.
In Part II, the story moves ahead five years. Mr. Listwell is sitting at the table with his wife when they hear a knock at the door. Madison Washington is running from slavery, and Mr. Listwell is more than willing to help him escape. As they talk, Mr. Listwell tells Madison he remembers him from so many years before, and asks him where he has been all of this time. Madison reveals that on the day Mr. Listwell saw him, he left his wife and children to escape and seek freedom. Unable to find his way to the North, a week later he returned to his plantation. He met with his wife who regularly gave him food and provision, and for five years hid in the woods. However, a great fire caused Madison to lose his hiding place, which is why he ran to see Mr. Listwell. Mr. Listwell gives Madison a new coat and provisions and helps him escape to Canada.
In Part III, Mr. Listwell is in a tavern and reveals that he has traveled 40 miles that day. As he drinks, he sees a slave-gang on their way to market, and is surprised to see Madison Washington among the slaves. Madison reveals that he reached Canada, but he missed his wife so much that he returned to the United States to help her escape. He reached her bedroom window, but he scared her so much that he woke up her master. The couple were chased by the master and his dogs. His wife was shot down and killed and he had been sold to traders who would take him to the Deep South. Mr. Listwell realizes there's nothing he can do for Madison in these conditions, but implores the man to put his trust in God. As he is leaving, Mr. Listwell buys 3 files; he gives them and $10 secretly to Madison. Part III ends with Madison taken aboard a ship, put in chains together with other slaves, and sailing to the South for re-sale.
In Part IV, white men speak about "unfortunate" events that occurred aboard the ship Creole. Madison Washington gained the trust of all of the overseers on board and, using the files Mr. Listwell had given him, cuts through his fetters and leads the slaves in rebellion. Nineteen slaves survived the battle. Madison took over as captain of the ship, ordering it sailed to Nassau, in the British colony of the Bahamas. Britain had abolished slavery there in 1834. In Nassau, a group of black soldiers declared that they only protected property, and people were not property, so the nineteen slaves were freed.
- Douglass, Frederick. The Heroic Slave, The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass: Supplement Volume 1844-1860. Vol. V. Ed. Philip S. Foner. New York: International, 1975. 473-505.