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.
As they were paddled through choppy surf and shark-infested waters to the slave ship Teçora, bound for Cuba, these Africans already had the skills and sensibilities that would enable them to engineer their escape from slavery, Rediker argues. Most could speak more than one language; several were warriors, versed in the guerrilla tactics that structured small conflicts in the Mende country. Many were members of the Poro, a secret society that helped to enforce the laws of the region. All were resourceful and could forge lasting bonds beyond their immediate families. These were practiced, skilled and worldly-wise men with a strong inclination toward collective action.
Their captors had their own problems. Since 1807, Britain had been trying to extend its ban on the slave trade to other countries. Spain, in the process of losing much of its Latin American empire, was an obvious target for British pressure. In 1817 and 1835, Spain signed treaties that made the voyage of the Teçora illegal. But the sugar planters of Cuba, who had no say in Madrid’s diplomatic maneuvers, were desperate for slaves. The Haitian Revolution had stripped France of the world’s most valuable sugar colony and virtually stopped all production. The Cubans hoped to corner the sugar market with their own plantation empire, but had to smuggle slaves across the Atlantic past a network of British patrols. By the end of the 1830s, with Spanish and Cuban officials working tirelessly to disguise their activity, slave captains were illegally landing some 10,000 Africans in Cuba every year. The slaves of the Teçora may have sensed this skulduggery when they reached Havana. The British had a man-of-war in the harbor, on the lookout for illicit trading. (To further annoy the Cubans, Britain had crewed the ship with black sailors from its West Indian regiments.) Slave traders were forced to unload their cargo by night, to obtain false papers masking the Africans’ origins, and to solicit customers quietly. Fifty-three of the Teçora’s slaves were bought by Pedro Montes and José Ruiz, who had hired the Amistad to transport their new purchases to sugar fields 300 miles east of the capital. On the night of Friday, June 28, 1839, Cinqué and his colleagues were disguised in sailors’ clothes, led quietly through dark streets, and shepherded past the British warship and onto the Amistad. When the schooner reached open water in the early hours of Saturday, the Cubans must have thought that the dangerous part of their journey lay behind them.
Rediker’s account of the uprising that took place the following night is so gripping that I’m wary of providing spoilers. What emerges with wonderful clarity, though, is the influence of the captives’ African experiences on what Rediker calls their “direct action.” The flashpoint below decks was the deteriorating relationship between Cinqué and Celestino, Captain Ferrer’s mulatto cook (and slave). The captives responded badly to Celestino’s menacing gestures and cryptic threats of cannibalism: the rules of the Poro society obliged them to punish or kill malevolent sorcerers. In the event, Celestino was the first to die, but not before the Africans had convened a palaver to consider their options. Rediker persuasively argues that, in the hours before they struck, the Africans drew on their traditions of collective decision-making. Although they killed Celestino and Captain Ferrer in the first minutes of their revolt, the Amistad Africans resolved to spare the lives of Antonio—Ferrer’s cabin boy—and both Montes and Ruiz. In the heat of the uprising, the rebels coolly reasoned that all three would be useful in securing their new objective: to sail the Amistad to Sierra Leone.
That objective was brave and desperate in equal measure. The schooner had little fresh water, and its new masters had neither maps nor nautical expertise. Montes was ordered to steer toward the sun, but he rigged the sails loosely; by night, he turned the ship to the west, hoping that a Spanish or even a British ship might rescue him. Over the next seven weeks, the Amistad carved a dramatic course through the Caribbean and the Atlantic. The Africans couldn’t have known that, had they sailed brazenly into any British port, they would certainly have won permanent freedom. Instead, they avoided other ships, sneaked onto islands and cays to replenish their water supply, and fled at the first sight of a white person.
Low on supplies and hope, the Amistad Africans finally made landfall near Montauk in the last week of August 1839. They may have been ready to beach their vessel and form a settlement, along the lines of the maroon communities of runaway slaves in Sierra Leone and the Caribbean. But they encountered a group of local whites on the shore, who had perhaps been drawn by newspaper reports of a mysterious schooner with a cargo of gold. In a lovely twist, the Amistad Africans got the measure of their welcoming committee: they flashed a doubloon at the whites and asked for their help in sailing back to Africa. Quickly sensing what motivated their new friends, the Africans rowed to the Amistad, ransacked the sugar-refining machinery in the hold, and returned to shore with two heavy, locked chests that clanked suggestively. Before a deal could be reached, however, a US Navy vessel came into view. The ship’s commander, Thomas Gedney, had motives no higher than those of his onshore compatriots. Accepting the testimony of Montes and Ruiz, he towed the Amistad to Connecticut and made his own claim to salvage rights—on the vessel and its human cargo. The Africans who had dramatically seized their freedom were again behind bars.
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After its superb opening chapters, The Amistad Rebellion describes in its second half how the Africans imprisoned in New Haven shaped and experienced the public battle over their future. We see them adapting to their new situation, forging an alliance with local anti-slavery activists and insisting on their African identity. This insistence was integral to their legal strategy: no US court would validate a slave uprising. The rebels’ only hope lay in persuading the judges that they were African (and therefore illegally enslaved) rather than Cuban. The rebels also made it clear that, at the end of their ordeal, they wanted to return to Africa rather than remain in the United States.
Even for a group that had seized a slave ship and sailed from Cuba to Long Island, the prospect of victory seemed slim. During the 1830s and early 1840s, the anti-slavery movement struggled with internal divisions and a storm of public hostility. Abolitionists and free blacks were attacked in every major city, and a number of states passed laws that riveted racial discrimination in place. But the Amistad Africans seemed to captivate the general public, at least in the North. Not only were they spared physical assaults and threats—save from their avaricious jailer, who charged the public for admission to their cell—but they inspired paintings, newspaper accounts, theatrical dramas, even a waxworks exhibit. When the Supreme Court ordered their release in March 1841, they embarked on a tour of dozens of venues from Pennsylvania to New Hampshire, drawing huge crowds and generous contributions for their homeward passage.
Did the Amistad Africans alter the course of the slavery debate in America, or did they tack around it? Rediker came to this story after writing The Slave Ship (2007), a book about the “profoundly human drama” of those countless Africans who endured the Middle Passage before 1808. When set against this earlier project, The Amistad Rebellion offers a “hopeful counterpoint to a gruesome history.” Without denying the courage of the rebels or the quality of Rediker’s new book, I’m not sure that the case had a transformative effect on the American struggle with slavery. The courtroom battles turned not on the rights and wrongs of the institution, but on whether the Africans had been legally enslaved. In a perverse sense, the willingness of conservative politicians to observe the distinction between legal and illegal forms of slavery could only strengthen Southern boasts that their institution was properly regulated. It’s telling that the Supreme Court decision in favor of the Africans was joined by every Southern justice, including those who owned slaves. (The single holdout was from Pennsylvania, and he didn’t explain his reasoning.) Even the man who would write the Dred Scott decision, Justice Roger Taney—whose baleful visage peers from every American history textbook—agreed that the Africans should go free.
And the public’s fascination? It could certainly carry an anti-slavery charge, even if some depictions of the rebellion slid into prurience. (The first drama based on the events, which reached the New York stage less than a week after the Amistad landed on Long Island, gave Pedro Montes a fictional daughter who could be menaced by an African.) The parallels drawn by newspaper columnists between Cinqué and George Washington pointed boldly toward a freedom that could not be bounded by race or nation. Yet the excitement surrounding these unfamiliar prisoners surely owed something to a popular taste for the exotic. In reading Rediker’s account of the Amistad waxworks and paintings, I found myself thinking of the artist George Catlin and his traveling Indian gallery, and the displays of Native American dancing and rituals that drew enormous public interest in the 1830s—even as the government drove tens of thousands of native people across the Mississippi. The New York theater that played host to the Amistad waxworks had previously hosted a display by “live Indians”—which, for the audience’s amusement, included a mock scalping. Not for the last time in American history, public sympathies and political outcomes could easily drift in opposite directions.
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As for the anti-slavery alliance that developed around the Amistad Africans, Rediker lingers more on the energetic advocacy of white abolitionists than their occasional high-handedness. He’s also keen to assure us that the Africans’ white allies were firm opponents of black colonization, which remained popular in Connecticut. The view that black Americans should be relocated to Africa had been galvanized in 1816 by the formation of the American Colonization Society, an organization that drew many of Washington’s most prominent figures to its masthead. In 1819, at the society’s urging, Congress passed a law that authorized the creation of an ACS colony to the south of the Mende country. Liberia, as it became known, had three objectives: it would provide a destination for black Americans who could never win meaningful equality in the United States; it would serve as a refuge for illegally enslaved Africans intercepted on the high seas; and it would become a beachhead for the projection of Christianity and “civilization” in the African interior.
Lewis Tappan, the chief organizer of the Amistad defense effort, had been an ACS supporter until the early 1830s, when he became disillusioned by its focus on Northern free blacks rather than Southern slaves. He also recognized that free blacks themselves wanted equal rights in America rather than removal to Africa. But the Amistad Africans weren’t looking for American citizenship or even equality: they simply wanted to go home. Their cause resonated with Connecticut’s anti-slavery “moderates,” who comfortably outnumbered the state’s radical abolitionists and clung to colonization. New Haven itself was a stronghold of ACS support, and Tappan’s Amistad alliance included men committed to black removal. Leonard Bacon, generously described by Rediker as an “abolitionist,” took charge of the effort to educate the Amistad Africans in 1839. That same year, he was honored in two ways by the New Haven community: with election to the Yale Corporation, and with a life directorship of the colonization society. To secure the latter, the townspeople collected $1,000 for the ACS in the same summer that the Amistad rebels arrived in the town jail. (Leonard Bacon was still a colonization enthusiast in the 1870s—though, in fairness, so was the president of Yale.) Meanwhile, the ACS magazine, normally wary of alienating any Southern planters who might be persuaded to colonize their slaves, ran several articles in sympathy with the Amistad Africans. By the mid-1840s, ACS members openly compared their activities with those of Tappan and his allies. If Africa was a fitting destination for Cinqué and his brave band, why not ask America’s struggling free blacks to join them in the noble work of redeeming a continent?
If the demands of the Amistad Africans for repatriation rather than American citizenship allowed for a quiet amnesty between white “moderates” and radicals, colonization perhaps played a small but crucial role in steering the legal process toward its happy destination. As Rediker and other historians have noted, Martin Van Buren was convinced that the Amistad Africans would lose their battle at the admiralty court in New Haven in January 1940. He even placed a ship on standby to carry out the expected judgment that the rebels should be returned to Cuba, in a flagrant attempt to prevent an appeal to the Supreme Court. The Africans’ fate rested entirely with Judge Andrew Judson—who, seven years earlier, had worked tirelessly to shutter a school for black women in his hometown of Canterbury. But Judson was a committed member of the ACS and found a way to channel its spirit in his Amistad decision. The rebels, he ruled, should be treated under the provisions of the 1819 Slave Trade Act that had led to the creation of Liberia. “I do not want to consider whether every letter and syllable of that act has been followed by the officers of the law,” he admitted. “When the spirit of goodness is hovering over us, just descending to bless, it is immaterial in what garments we are clad to receive the blessing.” Judson accepted that the Africans had been enslaved illegally, but he didn’t actually free them. Instead, he placed them under the authority of the president pending their deportation. (The Amistad rebels were delighted to be deported at the government’s expense, though their chief defender, Lewis Tappan, conceded that this was an unfortunate detail.) The following year, the Supreme Court rejected any connection with the Slave Trade Act. But if Judson hadn’t suddenly succumbed to its “spirit of goodness” in 1840, Van Buren would surely have sent the Amistad Africans to the gallows in Havana.
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Rediker acknowledges that the (mostly white) anti-slavery activists and the Amistad rebels had different objectives: the Africans wanted to go home and resume their lives, and the activists wanted to promote anti-slavery and evangelism. They forged what Rediker calls a “working misunderstanding” in which the Africans adopted the trappings of Christian belief—and even agreed to help found a Christian mission in the Mende country—in return for the activists’ support. But after January 1842, when the Amistad Africans made their improbable return to the continent, the alliance was stretched beyond its breaking point. The five missionaries who followed them home expected the rebels to dedicate themselves to Christian evangelism, but the Africans no longer saw any reason to take directions from their benefactors. Around a third of the Amistad rebels, including all of the children, stayed with the mission; the rest decided to search for their families and to embrace the region’s familiar problems and opportunities. Alarmed by this betrayal, the missionaries sent waves of bad news back across the Atlantic: the Amistad Africans had refused to accept authority; they had cast off their European clothes; they had succumbed to “licentiousness.” (Bigamy and whoring, mostly.) In America, newspapers that had previously been captivated by the rebels now tut-tutted at their reversion to heathen ways. Even the abolitionist press struggled to account for their behavior. Perhaps if the Amistad Africans hadn’t spent so much of their American sojourn in jail, one paper reasoned, they wouldn’t have left the United States with so many “superficial, confused, and absurd notions.”
The widening gulf between American activists and African rebels makes for a curious coda to the Amistad story. It also reflects a paradox about the international anti-slavery movement in the nineteenth century, one noted recently in these pages by Samuel Moyn [“Of Deserts and Promised Lands,” March 19]. If the origins of what we now call human rights law can be traced to the struggle against the slave trade, the concept of human rights has an avowedly imperial history. Britain and the United States established colonies on the West African coast that combined a sincere opposition to slavery with an arsenal of “civilizing,” Christianizing and commercial ambitions. The British and American navies projected power in the name of curbing the slave trade; commentators in both countries argued in the 1840s that Cuba should be seized from Spain so that it could be liberated from slavery. While The Amistad Rebellion maintains an impressive focus on the agency and identity of its African protagonists, it hasn’t much to say about the process by which benevolence, law and imperialism came to seem mutually dependent in the struggle against slavery.
As for the Amistad’s contribution to the American anti-slavery cause, Rediker suggests that it inspired those who had already been radicalized against slavery to imagine bolder forms of “direct action.” An early example came in November 1841, when another rebellion broke out on a ship transferring slaves from Virginia to New Orleans. The leader was a free-black cook—a happy obverse of the Amistad’s Celestino—who had been inspired by a picture of Cinqué and his colleagues that he’d seen in Philadelphia. But while these uprisings quickened the pulse of Frederick Douglass and John Brown, ordinary people didn’t automatically connect the plight of the Amistad Africans with the fate of American slaves. The National Anti-Slavery Standard, an abolitionist newspaper, recognized the danger that the public’s sympathies for “innocent” Africans demanding repatriation might not extend to enslaved African-Americans demanding citizenship: “Let not the Amistad affair be held up before their eyes so as to eclipse the grand antislavery enterprise,” it wrote after the Supreme Court decision in 1841, “as the human hand sometimes shuts out the sun and the whole heavens.” The public ought to recognize that “anti-slavery saves not only the brave Cinque and his gentle brothers, but it annihilates the slave system that sends the ships to Africa.”
In November 1843, on a visit to Cincinnati, John Quincy Adams received warm thanks from the city’s free blacks for his long opposition to slavery. In a brief reference to the Amistad Africans he’d defended before the Supreme Court, the free blacks noted that they’d been “raised from a level with the brute creation, and placed in the scale of human existence.” Adams took issue with this, offering ten long paragraphs in response. “With regard to the services you are pleased to say I performed in the case of the Amistad captives, it is right that I should say, they are not entitled to that importance which you give them.” Adams claimed that he’d taken the case “altogether independently of the question whether they were slaves or freemen.” He’d quickly realized that they had a perfect right to freedom under Spanish law—but he didn’t disguise his disappointment that the returning Africans had fallen so far from the expectations of their American defenders. Adams asked the free blacks of Cincinnati to consider the condition of the Amistad Africans when they made their desperate landfall in America, and to compare this with “their condition when taken back to Africa.” Could anyone say confidently that “any service had been done them more than to save their lives”? For Adams, at least, the Africans’ courage and cultural persistence had little to do with the American fight against slavery. “That case was peculiar,” he concluded.
Last year, Eric Foner reviewed  Robin Blackburn’s The American Crucible Slavery, Emancipation and Human Rights.