Characteristics of the Heroic Slave

by , 2004

The fundamental element of a successful slave rebellion is a heroic slave rebel. Madison Washington of Frederick Douglass' The Heroic Slave and Henry Blake of Martin Delany's Blake or the Huts of America serve as models of that rebel. First, he must possess a will to stay and fight-he must not be content to just run away and gain individual freedom, abandoning his family and friends. Second, he needs intelligence, and preferably education as well, to be able to organize large, complex plans of rebellion. Finally, he must be a natural leader, drawing fellow slaves and free abolitionists to follow him and fight for his cause. Throughout the novels, examples of all of these characteristics can be found in both heroic slave rebels.

For most American slaves, there were only two paths to freedom: running away or successfully plotting and carrying out a rebellion. The path of flight was much easier and was the path chosen by almost all dissatisfied slaves who decided to take action. The slave who decided to stay and fight instead of fleeing had to have a force holding him back. This force could be described as a sense of duty to family and friends or a remarkable desire to make a change in the nation as a whole rather than just improving his own life. Both Madison Washington and Henry Blake, like all heroic slave rebels, were affected by this force, held back by it. They had acquired their individual freedom through flight, but then were called back to aid their families and friends. Without this force pulling them back, they would have been content to remain as runaways in Canada and would not have become heroic slave rebels.

Throughout the first half of The Heroic Slave, Madison Washington's successful escape to Canada is described. Many slave narratives would have ended there, with individual freedom gained. But, as Madison explained to Mr. Listwell, freedom is not complete for some while their loved ones are still held by the bondage of slavery. "Sir, I could not be free with the galling thought that my poor wife was still a slave. With her in slavery, my body, not my spirit, was free" (Douglass 57). The duty he felt towards his wife compelled Madison to travel back into the heart of the South to rescue his wife and her fellow slaves, rather than remaining a runaway. Unfortunately for Madison, his plan to aid his wife's escape failed and she was killed in the attempt. But, he knew that he could not have continued life without at least attempting to gain her freedom. As he said to Mr. Listwell, "I could neither work, eat, nor sleep, till I resolved to hazard my own liberty, to gain that of my wife!" (56). The force of familial ties drove Madison back into slavery and to rebellion. After his wife's death, Madison found himself once again a slave. He would lead a rebellion in which he eventually gained his freedom, but he had no way of knowing that would happen at the time he abandoned his freedom for the sake of her. Without this bond with his family, Madison Washington would have just stayed a runaway and never would have become a heroic slave rebel.

Similarly, Henry Blake, throughout the first half of Blake, successfully ran away to Canada. Instead of traveling alone, Blake took with him Mammy Judy, Daddy Joe, Charles, Andy, Eli, Polly, Clara, Ailcey, and the children Tony and Joe. From the beginning, he realized that individual freedom was not enough without the freedom of those he loved. But even the freedom of all these loved ones was not enough to keep Henry Blake satisfied as a runaway. The knowledge that his wife was still enslaved prompted him to leave Canada on a mission to rescue her. He said to Mammy Judy, "By the instincts of a husband, I'll have her if living! If dead, by impulses of a Heaven-inspired soul, I'll avenge her loss until death!" (Delaney 156-7). Blake's love for his wife superceded even his love of freedom. Without her, he knew that he could not live happily as a free man. The drive for his wife's freedom motivated Blake's heroic journey to Cuba. Without his love for her, his story probably would have also ended as the story of a runaway. It was his family ties that drove him to become a rebel.

An example of why the will for rebellion is necessary to the rebel comes at the end of Blake. When Henry Blake gains his wife's freedom, the Cuban slave rebellion that he was heading fizzles out into nothingness. The passion for freedom that he possessed while his family was still held in Southern slavery began to disappear. Although he continued to lead the rebel party, he allowed disagreements concerning the status of classes and sexes in post-rebellion society to sideline his plan for revolution. Without the will to fight, the slave cannot remain a heroic rebel. The torch of rebellion is handed to Gondolier, the tough Cuban slave who embodied Blake's former rebellious spirit. The novel ended with Gondolier's exclamation, "Woe be unto those devils of whites, I say!," not with a call to action by Blake himself (313). No rebellion had taken place at the end of the novel because the rebel's will to revolt had dissipated.

In addition to the will to stay and fight, heroic slaves required intelligence to plot their rebellions. Blake's massive rebellion could only be successful if it was planned well enough and kept secret from the white masters. The job of traveling all across the south (and later across Cuba) choosing only the right people to inform about the insurrection took a great deal of skill. Henry Blake was able to perform this task so well because of the education he received as a free youth growing up in Cuba. He was not always a slave, but was "seized... under loud and solemn protest, collared and choked" by Colonel Franks who declared Blake to be his new slave (194). This free, educated upbringing was vital to the planning of Blake's rebellion. He needed the intelligence that it gave him to organize such a large movement. The illiteracy that almost all slaves faced was a huge obstacle to rebellion. The heroic slave rebel leader had to be educated and intelligent enough to plan and carry-out such complex missions.

Although Madison Washington did not have the same level of education as Blake, he had a similar intelligence that allowed him to carry out the rebellion on the slave ship. Mr. Listwell gave Madison metal files before he boarded the slave ship, but did nothing beyond that. All of the planning of the rebellion was done by Madison himself. He was able to successfully free himself and his fellow slaves aboard the ship by adhering to a carefully thought out plan.

Even after planning an organized rebellion, a heroic slave rebel could do nothing without the aid of fellow abolitionists. Therefore, he needed leadership qualities that would allow him to gain support from other slaves and also an agreeable personality that would endear him to abolitionist supporters. Throughout their journey towards Canadian freedom Charles and Andy followed Henry Blake with the admiration of those following a great leader. He took his leadership qualities with him to Cuba as well when he began plotting rebellion there. In the rebel party, Blake was named "Commander in Chief of the Army of Emancipation" (256). Without a strong leader to follow, the slaves' rebellion would be uncoordinated and therefore unsuccessful. The heroic slave rebel had to be a good leader in order to command the respect of his supporters. Blake's diplomatic skills were also utilized in the Cuban rebel party. His personality and actions enlisted the support and money of several important free Cubans. Without their financial and social support, the party would not have means to grow and spread its seeds of rebellion.

Similarly, Madison Washington possessed skill in leadership on board the Creole when he led a successful rebellion. He commanded a well-timed exact coup of the ship and then took over the position of captain and successfully oversaw the landing of the ship in Nassau. A white sailor aboard the ship said of Madison, "I felt myself in the presence of a superior man; one who, had he been a white man, I would have followed willingly and gladly in any honorable enterprise" (Douglass 68). Madison Washington's leadership skills during the insurrection aboard the ship were so great that they even impressed an old, prejudiced white sailor. Without this quality of leadership, his rebellion would have never been executed successfully.

These three characteristics-a will to stay and fight instead of running, intelligence, and great leadership-are all necessary to the successful rebel. Both Madison Washington of Frederick Douglass' The Heroic Slave and Henry Blake of Martin Delaney's Blake or the Huts of America embodied these characteristics and serve as good examples of the heroic slave rebel.

Works Cited

Delaney, Martin R. Blake or the Hunts of America. Boston: Beacon, 1970.

Douglass, Frederick. The Heroic Slave. New York, Penguin Books, 2003.