Frederick Douglass was born a slave in Maryland in the year 1818. As a seven-year-old child, he was sent to Baltimore to work for Hugh Auld. During his time there he was taught to read by his master’s wife, Sophia Auld. She treated him as a human being and not a slave. This kindness and education greatly influenced his desire for freedom and his actions later in life In 1833, his resolve to escape was strengthened by ill-treatment as he worked under a cruel new slave owner. He plotted his escape with the help of Anna Murray-Douglass, a free black woman who would later become his wife. He escaped in 1838, disguised as a sailor. He devoted his life to the abolitionist movement. He gave many lectures abroad on the topic, and wrote multiple essays and biographical narratives for the cause. He died in 1895.
His one work of fiction, The Heroic Slave, is based on the true events of a slave ship mutiny. Madison Washington, the main character, was a real slave who escaped but was recaptured when he returned to free his wife. He assisted in instigating the most successful slave rebellion in American history on the Creole. The rebellion took place on November 9, 1841, resulting in the death of a slave trader and one slave. One hundred and twenty-eight people were freed when the ship arrived in British territory. Madison Washington and eighteen others were taken into custody for mutiny.
The work of short fiction follows Madison Washington through his journey as an escaped slave. It’s told through the perspective of Mr. Listwell, a white staunch abolitionist. He observes Washington in the woods while he gives a long oration about being free. Listwell becomes committed to the abolitionist cause on the spot after hearing the slave’s passionate words. Years later, Washington appears at Listwell’s door, seeking help. Washington recounts his time surviving in the wilderness. Listwell then brings Washington to Lake Erie to be brought to Canada and to freedom. Later, Listwell encounters Washington, who has been recaptured. He returned to save his wife and failed. Listwell is unable to help Madison before he is sent off to New Orleans, but he arms him with three files. Washington uses them to escape, lead a slave revolt, and sail to freedom.
The Heroic Slave most notably covers themes of abolitionism and heroism. Douglass frames Madison Washington as the slaves’ own herculean hero who fights for freedom and equality. Madison is not depicted as subservient, but as equal to his white counterparts in the story. The only difference between Madison and Listwell, or any other white person, is the color of their skin. Throughout, Douglass insists to readers that Washington is an idealized brave hero.
Mr. Listwell acts as the lens through which most of the story is told. His outlook supports the idea of Washington as the stoic hero, and furthers the abolitionist cause. Listwell curses his own society and religion for the sin of slavery and spends most of the novel fighting or speaking out against it. Most importantly, his assistance allows Washington to lead the rebellion and free his fellow men aboard the Creole.
When read in tandem with Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno,” a novella which also details a mutiny on a slave ship, readers can truly appreciate the perspective of an African American author. Melville, through the perspective of a white American character, illustrates the slaves as barbaric creatures. The main character, Delano, is a product of societal conditioning who believes that the African people are born to be subservient to the white man. In contrast, Douglass understands what it means to be a slave. He shows that they are not barbaric, but desperate for freedom and equality.
The Heroic Slave is the first of a kind of narrative that details the life of a slave and promotes abolitionist values. Because it is based on real events, the arguments that Douglass makes catch the reader’s attention more powerfully. African Americans are not depicted as lesser or “other,” but as equal human beings for perhaps the first time in American literary history. Within the timeline of America, this writing marks the beginning of many literary movements that follow the abolishment of slavery including similar slavery narratives and the Harlem Renaissance. The African American identity evolves as its people are integrated into society. The Heroic Slave and the subsequent reactions to it become important events that drive America’s literary history. It tells a real story about an essential part of America’s developmental past.
“Frederick Douglass Biography” Biography Online, 7 Nov. 2017, https://www.biographyonline.net/writers/frederick-douglass.html
“The Creole Case (1841)” Blackpast.org, 7 Nov. 2017, http://www.blackpast.org/gah/creole-case-1841