HISTORICAL BACKGROUND:

Baltimore's Own Version of "Amistad": Slave Revolt

by Ralph Clayton


With the release of Steven Spielberg's new film, "Amistad," an increased interest in slave insurrections of the 18th and l9th centuries is certain to follow.

In the summer of 1839, Africans, while being illegally transported to Cuba on the Spanish ship Amistad, revolted, killing the captain and several of the ship's crew. Although they managed to elude detection on the high seas for eight weeks, the insurrectionists were captured off the coast of Long Island and taken to Connecticut. After several trials and the passage of more than two years, the surviving Africans were released and permitted to return home under the protection of the British government.

A similar insurrection, 13 years earlier, took place on a ship sailing from the port of Baltimore.

During the first half of the 19th century, Baltimore became one of the leading ports active in the domestic slave trade. Its well protected harbor and emerging status as a center of trade attracted some of the country's leading slave dealers. One of those traders, Austin Woolfolk, managed his business from a Pratt Street location not far from what is currently Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

As was customary, Woolfolk marched his slaves down Pratt Street during the night, while the city's inhabitants slept. On one night in particular, during the spring of 1826, 31 slaves, bound with chains, began their fateful journey into history.

Led by Woolfolk, they made their way down Pratt Street to Philpot Street and on to the wharf at the foot of Fell's Point. There, they were placed in small boats and rowed out to the schooner Decatur, at anchor a short distance offshore. Later, when a good wind blew up, the ship set sail with its human cargo, bound for the market in New Orleans. It was the 20th of April 1826, and the course of the lives of everyone on board was about to change dramatically.

Walter R. Galloway left his Whiskey Alley residence after saying goodbye to his wife and three children. They had become accustomed to not seeing him for long periods of time. As the captain of the Decatur, he was about to embark on yet another sea voyage that required the transportation of slaves to a southern port. By the time he reached the ship, he was informed that all of the ship's cargo, slaves included, had been loaded. Several hours later, the captain ordered the anchor pulled and the sails set for the journey down the Chesapeake.

Five days out to sea, on the last day of his life, Captain Galloway awoke to pleasant weather and a ship's speed of six knots. Shortly after 9 a.m. a seaman entered the captain's cabin, expressing his concern about the procedure of allowing small parties of slaves above deck. Galloway, experienced in transporting slaves offered reassurances to the sailor.

A short time later the captain made his way above deck for inspection. During the tour he noticed a great deal of mud on the anchor stocks and took a seat astride the rail to scrape it away. Suddenly, from beyond his field of vision, two slaves, Thomas Harrod and Manuel Wilson, rushed toward him, seized his legs, and threw him overboard.

Below deck, William Porter heard a series of loud, unusual noises emanating from above. He made his way topside and rushed toward the rail, where the noise was loudest. As he looked over the rail he saw the captain struggling in the water below. Just then three slaves attacked him from behind and tossed him into the sea.

Crew member James Brown, awakened from his sleep by the sounds of screaming, rushed up the steps to investigate. As he approached the rail he was forcibly restrained by several slaves from making any attempt to help his crew-mates. The slaves then took possession of the captain's cabin and all of its holdings. It was 10 a.m., and the insurrection on board the Decatur had begun.

The insurrectionists gave command over to a crew member whose attempts to steer the ship proved futile. Ironically they had killed the two men with the most sailing experience. As a result the ship meandered off the Eastern seaboard for five days.

On May 2, the crew of the Constitution, a whaling ship bound for Nantucket, spotted the Decatur. In need of supplies, the ship's captain pulled alongside the schooner and asked for permission to board.

Outclassed and fearing that they would not be able to outrun the larger ship, the slaves ordered the Decatur's surviving crew to allow the intrusion. It was not until a seaman from the Decatur reached the Constitution that he felt safe enough to tell the truth.

The Constitution's crew reboarded the Decatur, armed with muskets and sidearms, and successfully recaptured the schooner from the slaves. Although 17 slaves were taken on board the Constitution (eight women, two men, and seven children), the remaining 14 male slaves were left on board the Decatur along with the ship's crew.

Three days later, on May 5, the brig Rooke fell in with the Decatur and took the remaining 14 slaves on board. Not long after the brig's arrival in the port of New York, in an amazing turn of events, all 14 slaves escaped into the city. Although great effort was expended to recapture them, only one, William Bowser, was apprehended. After his capture at West Chester, New York, he was returned to New York City to await trial.

According to the New York Christian Enquirer, Austin Woolfolk attended the trial (an account he was to later deny). During the trial, William Bowser stood and looked directly at Woolfolk. He proceeded to tell the trader that he forgave him for all the injuries he had brought upon him and that he hoped to meet him in heaven.

On December 15, 1826, Bowser was executed for the murders of Galloway and Porter.

Back in Baltimore, Benjamin Lundy, editor of the abolitionist newspaper The Genius of Universal Emancipation, wrote a scathing report, attacking the character of Woolfolk. Calling him a "monster in human shape" for his conduct during the trial of Bowser, Lundy completed the column by stating `'Hereafter, let no man speak of the humanity of Woolfolk." Woolfolk was incensed and he went looking for Lundy.

According to Lundy he was heading toward the post office to mail some letters when Woolfolk found him. An argument ensued, during which Woolfolk, the much stronger of the two men, knocked Lundy to the ground. Although Lundy offered no resistance he was savagely choked and beaten by Woolfolk. Only the quick actions of several bystanders saved Lundy's life.

Lundy was later to write, "With a brutal ferocity that is perfectly in character with his business, he choked me until my very breath was nearly gone, and stamped me in the head and face, with the fury of a very demon."

The following month Woolfolk's trial on charges of attempted murder took place in Baltimore. During the trial he denied having been present at the trial of Bowser and brought several witnesses into the court in his defense. Nevertheless the jury found Woolfolk guilty.

When Woolfolk rose to hear the sentence that Judge Brice had decided upon, many in the court were stunned to learn that it was to be a fine in the amount of only one dollar.

After the trial, Austin Woolfolk continued as one of the leading traders in the history of slavery, profiting by tens of thousands of dollars a year well into the 1830's.

Lundy maintained his work for the abolitionist cause, managing to steer a clear course from Woolfolk. As for the 17 slaves delivered to the port of Boston, apparently nothing further was ever reported.

Ralph Clayton is a research assistant at the Pratt Library. He has published several books about Baltimore's Black population prior to the Civil War.


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This story was published on January 7, 1998.