Famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass based his only fictional work on the gripping true story of the biggest slave rebellion in U.S. history. The Heroic Slave was inspired by a courageous uprising led by Madison Washington in 1841. Washington rallied 18 of the 135 slaves aboard a ship bound for New Orleans, the country's primary slave-trading market. The mutineers seized control, landing the ship in the British-controlled Bahamas, where their freedom was recognized.
Originally published nearly a decade before the Civil War, Douglass's novella was one of the earliest examples of African-American fiction. Douglass presents Madison Washington's heroism less as a matter of violent escape and more as a voluntary act of claiming self-ownership. Douglass's retelling encouraged readers to engage in the abolitionist cause. It captivated readers by equating black slaves' rebellion against tyranny with the spirit and democratic ideals of the American Revolution.