It’s been fifteen years since Steven Spielberg’s Amistad arrived in theaters, and the initial controversies surrounding the film’s sources and sentimentality have largely been forgotten. Instead, the Cuban schooner is now a fixture in textbooks and history classes. College students pore over the trial documents that upheld the freedom of the Amistad Africans, and New England children clamber over a replica vessel at Mystic Seaport. As Marcus Rediker’s new book reminds us, the place of the rebellion in popular memory hasn’t always been secure. While public interest in the Amistad Africans was instant and overwhelming, their story was almost entirely forgotten after the Civil War. In 1953, the Texas writer William Owens produced a historical novel, Black Mutiny, which would serve as the starting point for Spielberg’s movie. But it was left to the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s to rediscover the political power of the narrative. For the teachers and activists of those movements, the Amistad rebellion was a case study in a new kind of scholarship: “history from below.”
Rediker hails from this tradition, and it informs his definition of the basic problem with the post-Spielberg understanding of the story: “The drama of the courtroom has eclipsed the original drama that transpired on the deck of the slave schooner,” he writes in The Amistad Rebellion. We’ve been fed a version of events in which “the American legal system has emerged as the story’s hero”—a bitter irony because, at the time of the uprising, “that very system held two and a half million African Americans in bondage.” Rediker’s solution to the problem is startlingly obvious: retell the saga from the perspective of the rebels themselves.
This was, after all, an unusual slave revolt. Insurrections in the Atlantic Hemisphere were rare, and they typically left ambiguous evidence concerning the motivations and even the actions of their protagonists. (In the case of Denmark Vesey’s supposed uprising in Charleston in 1822, historians are still arguing over whether there was a conspiracy in the first place.) The Amistad rebels had two key advantages: first, their original enslavement violated Spanish law and international treaties; second, they were taken into custody in New England, where slavery was waning and a noisy abolitionist movement was finding its voice. Thanks to an extraordinary series of intermediaries and translators, the rebels’ stories—about their African origins, passage into slavery and bold uprising—found their way into print. Mining this material, Rediker argues that the Amistad Africans had accumulated a measure of extraordinary experience even before they drew two American presidents—Martin Van Buren and John Quincy Adams—into their desperate legal struggle before the Supreme Court. For Rediker, this experience was not just a prelude to an American drama, but the heart of the captives’ story. The African values of the Amistad rebels—forged in their towns and villages, and tested on the high seas—were crucial to securing their freedom.
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After reading the first half of The Amistad Rebellion, even John Grisham junkies may wonder how this tale could have reached the big screen as a courtroom drama. Rediker begins in the Mende country of the Sierra Leone interior, tracing the diverse trajectories that brought the Amistad rebels into captivity. Some were soldiers who’d been captured in the region’s incessant wars; most, including the leader of the Amistad revolt, Cinqué, were kidnapped on the trading routes that linked their towns. The Mende country was fertile, with a well-developed economy of cotton, yams, rice and iron ore, but the politics of the region were contaminated by the influence of slavery. Rediker argues that slavery in the Mende country was typically “paternal and familial”—a world away from the sweeping cruelties of the American plantation system. But traditional patterns of African bondage and warfare were disrupted by the demand for labor across the ocean. New alliances between local rulers and unscrupulous Europeans encouraged wars for people rather than territory, and African captives were funneled with grim efficiency toward the slave factories of the Gallinas coast. Cinqué, Burna, Grabeau and the other Africans who would eventually board the Amistad were ground between the gears of the African and American slave systems.