The Pearl Incident: The Largest Nonviolent Escape Attempt by Enslaved Africans in U.S. History

The Pearl Incident which took place in 1848, marked the largest recorded nonviolent escape attempt by enslaved Africans in U.S. history. The attempt was unsuccessful, and the escapees, all 77 of them, including women and children, were captured by authorities.

The Pearl Incident: The Largest Recorded Nonviolent Escape Attempt by Enslaved Africans in U.S. History

In the 19th century, the institution of slavery cast a dark shadow over the United States. Enslaved Africans were subjected to brutal conditions, forced labor, and the denial of their basic human rights. Despite these challenging circumstances, many slaves plotted and executed daring escape attempts in search of freedom. One such attempt was the Pearl Incident.

The Pearl, a sailboat, was chartered by Daniel Drayton to transport a group of 77 enslaved africans from Washington, D.C., to New Jersey, where slavery had been abolished. This escape attempt was a collaborative effort involving both abolitionist whites and free blacks. Notably, Paul Jennings, a former slave who had previously served President James Madison, also helped plan the escape.

The Escape Attempt

On April 15, 1848, under the cover of darkness, the 77 enslaved Africans boarded The Pearl, prepared to embark on their journey to freedom. The group was diverse, including men, women, and children, all bound by a shared dream of escaping the extreme horrors of slavery.

The escape went unnoticed until the next morning when slaveholders discovered their missing “property.” Panic swept through the city of Washington, D.C., as news of the escape spread like wildfire. The situation intensified as authorities launched a massive manhunt to recapture the fleeing slaves.

The runaways, despite the odds stacked against them, managed to navigate the treacherous waters of the Potomac River and made their way to the shores of Maryland. However, their elation was short-lived. A pursuing search party caught up with The Pearl and its passengers. In a heart-wrenching and dramatic confrontation, the escapees were forcibly apprehended and returned to their various “owners” in Washington DC.

The attempted escape outraged supporters of slavery, resulting in the formation of an angry mob. Over a three-day period, the crowds engaged in riots, prompting the dispatch of a significant number of police officers to restore order.

After the dispersal of the mob, the slave owners convened to discuss how to penalize their slaves. Ultimately, they chose to sell all seventy-seven of them to slave traders from Georgia and Louisiana. These traders intended to transport them to the Deep South, specifically the New Orleans slave market, where they would be sold for labor on the extensive sugar and cotton plantations that held two-thirds of the enslaved African population in the South at the time of the Civil War.

New Orleans was the largest slave market in the nation, and well known for selling “fancy girls” ( light-skinned enslaved young women) as sex slaves

Three white men were also charged on numerous counts with aiding the escape and transporting the captives; the captains Daniel Drayton and Edward Sayres were tried and convicted in 1848. After serving four years in prison, they were pardoned by President Millard Fillmore in 1852.

Although the escape attempt didn’t succeed, the Pearl Incident had a profoundly impact on the United States. It brought national attention to the struggles of enslaved Africans and the extraordinary lengths they were willing to go to gain their freedom. It also exposed the cruelty and injustice of slavery, stirring reactions from both abolitionists and pro-slavery advocates across the country, which contributed to the divisive rhetoric that eventually led to the American Civil War in 1861. Additionally, it inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe to write her well-received anti-slavery novel, ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’ published in 1852.

Talk Africana
Talk Africana
Fascinating Cultures and history of peoples of African origin in both Africa and the African diaspora


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