If you have ever come across the Washington Crossing the Delaware, the oil-canvas painting by the German-American artist Emanuel Leutze, you should notice the image of an African American man depicted rowing at Washington’s knee.
According to most historians, that man in the 1851 painting is Prince Whipple, an African American slave who is widely known for serving in the U.S. Army during the War for Independence.
In recent years, there have been debates about the authenticity of his figure in the familiar painting, but what is never argued about is his role in the Revolutionary War and an abolitionist.
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Historical accounts state that Prince was born in the mid-1700s in a village in Amabou (Anomabo) in present-day Ghana. He was born free and to wealthy parents who sent him and a cousin, Cuffy, to study in America.
Rather, the two were both sold into slavery in North America – first in Baltimore, before being purchased and renamed. Prince was sold to William Whipple, one of the influential leaders in Portsmouth, New Hampshire while his cousin was sold to William’s brother, Joseph.
As an abolitionist, Prince and 19 other African men signed a petition in 1779, arguing that they were taken from their native lands “while but children and incapable of self-defence.”
The petitioners made a plea to the New Hampshire legislature for manumission and for the abolition of slavery in the state. The petition was tabled without legislative action and slavery was not abolished in New Hampshire until 1857.
Being an important figure in Portsmouth society, Prince’s master, William Whipple, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and an aide to General George Washington. He was also a colonel in the First New Hampshire Regiment, who later became a brigadier general in the Revolutionary War.
What makes Prince’s story unique is the fact that William usually took him along to those tough battles, though there are doubts about that. History written about Prince shows that he participated in the American Revolution, yet there are no details that he allegedly accompanied William Whipple on early revolutionary campaigns or the Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1776, reports Encyclopedia.
Prince’s depiction in the Delaware River story was first talked about in William C. Nell’s 1855 book, Colored Patriots of the Revolution. Written during the abolitionist movement, the contents of the book were generally taken as the historical truth and several electronic and printed sites have used it as a reference.
What is generally agreed on is that Prince accompanied his master, Whipple, who was then a brigadier general on military campaigns, to Saratoga, New York, in 1777 and to Rhode Island in 1778. Prince also fought in those battles.
Legend further says that Prince accompanied Whipple and George Washington in the famous crossing of the Delaware River, and, he is, therefore, the black man portrayed in Washington Crossing the Delaware painting, painted 75 years after the event.
The painting commemorates General George Washington during his famous crossing of the Delaware River with the Continental Army on the night of December 25 to 26, 1776, during the American Revolutionary War.
Critics doubt that Whipple and Prince were present at the Battle of Trenton, which took place on December 26. This follows accounts that Whipple was, at the time, serving in the Continental Congress and was nowhere near Trenton.
Others state that there could be no way Leutze – the owner of the painting – would have known Prince at the time the painting was commissioned. The oil painting hangs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, where art historian, Natalie Spasskey, believes that the African American depicted is Prince, according to Encyclopaedia.
Meanwhile, as a reward for his service, Whipple emancipated Prince, but he only gained his freedom seven years later. When Prince married Dinah on February 22, 1781, which was also the date of her manumission, he was still not a free man until February 26, 1784.
The following year, Whipple died and his widow honoured his promise to provide a home for his servants. Prince was allowed to move into a house on Whipple’s property, where he and his wife raised their children. They shared this house with Cuffy, his cousin, and his family.
On November 21, 1796, at the age of 46, Prince passed away and was buried by his wife and at least one daughter and a granddaughter near the tomb of his former owner at North Cemetery in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.