1. Details of the Amistad Case
I’m very happy to have the chance to talk with you now about the Amistad rebellion which is subject of a book that I’ve just finished. I have a copy of the bound proofs which I’ll pass around. It will be out in November. But, I want to talk about the Amistad rebellion really as a case of a movement from below and how it created social, political and cultural change within a maritime context. So I do think it’s relevant to what we’re doing here.
Anyway, so let me begin by reviewing what happened in the case of the Amistad. How many of people have seen the Steven Spielberg movie? Okay, you are not beyond repair. That’s my first point. Okay, so let’s review what actually happened, okay? In early 1839, a large group of people were enslaved in southern Sierra Leone. They were taken to the coast to a place called Lomboko. Boarded onto a Portuguese or Brazilian slave ship called the Tecora and taken to Havana, Cuba to be sold in the slave markets and basically to work on Cuban sugar plantations. In order to move those people from one part of Cuba to another, they were then loaded onto this regional vessel called the Amistad. There were 53 people, 49 men and four children, three little girls and a little boy. They were going to a place called Puerto Principe about 300 miles away off the north coast of Cuba. On the fourth night out, there was a revolt at sea. The enslaved Africans rose up and killed, first of all, a slave sailor named Celestino and also killed the Captain, a man named Ramón Ferrer. They took control of the ship. They made prisoners [of] the two men on board who claimed to be their owners, Pedro Montez and José Ruiz, and kept them alive in order to help them navigate the vessel back to Sierra Leone. It turns out that Montez had actually been a ship captain, so he did know navigation. They told him to sail back towards the rising sun because the sun, the rising sun, had been at their backs as they left Africa, so they wanted him to sail in that direction. Well, basically, to make a long story short, the captain was very clever. He sailed eastward but kept the sail kind of loose and flapping in the wind during the daylight hours and at night he reversed course and sailed back to the west in order to remain in busy sea lanes so that they might be captured.This eventually happened. They were taken by a United States Naval vessel, brought to New London, Connecticut. Then they were taken to New Haven jail. Abolitionists flocked to the jail to meet them. A long legal battle, they’re in jail for 19 months. In the end, they win their case and their freedom before the Supreme Court. John Quincy Adams is one of two attorneys who represents them there and they are finally repatriated—the survivors at least, there are 35 of them left—in November of 1841. They go back to Sierra Leone with missionaries to establish what will be called the Mende mission, okay. It’s a very important event in the global struggle against slavery at this time.
2. How the Amistad Rebellion has been Treated in American History
Okay, now let me give you a quick summary of how the Amistad rebellion has been treated in American history. It’s kind of a long history of it. It’s a history of remembering and forgetting. The first thing I’ll mention is that when the Amistad Africans came ashore, they were an utter sensation. They caused an extraordinary amount of popular interest in what they had done. I’ll give you a few examples. Six days after they came ashore in New London, a play was being performed Bowerly Theater of New York about their uprising. Artists flocked to the jail. One man painted a 135 foot mural of the uprising. That’s twice as long as the Amistad itself. Another man made 29 life-sized wax figures which he assemble in the moment of insurrection and charged admission so that people could come and see a kind of wax figure reenactment of it. I’m just giving you some examples to show you how this captured the imagination. But probably the best and most revealing thing I could tell you is that tens of thousands of people lined up at the New Haven jail and paid admission to walk through there and see these people. So this is really an extraordinarily popular event. Well, very popular in its own day, it receded in the later 19th century. Abolitionist and African American artists tried to keep its memory alive but during a time of social Darwinism and the sort of extreme racism of the early 20th century, it began to disappear from the history textbooks. It was rediscovered, not surprisingly, in the era of the civil rights and Black Power movements when suddenly a lot of people wanted the United States history to look rather different and wanted to think of those moment of resistance – Nat Turner, Cinqué, as he was called. Those moments of resistance against an institution of slavery. Now, there’s been very good scholarship on the subject. I would mention especially Howard Jones’ book called Mutiny on the Amistad published in 1987. Another good book by a Sierra Leonean author named Iyunolu Osagie called The Amistad Revolt, 2002.But as we all know the big event is Stephen Spielberg’s film of 1997 called Amistad which created this sort of explosion of interest in the history. A cottage industry emerged in popular culture. Suddenly you had Amistad coloring books and Amistad school curricula. You had art projects, you had websites, and you had, of course, the recreation of the vessel which has its home here at Mystic Seaport. So, as a result, I think of all these things, the Amistad rebellion became one of the best known events in the history of slavery and Cinqué, its leader, became, I think, one of the best known people associated with the same subject probably on a level with Harriet Tubman and Frederic Douglass, very widely known.
I got interested in this project because I felt as though the scholarship had done a very good job in dealing with the legal and diplomatic history but not a very good job in talking about who the Amistad Africans actually were and what their event contributed to the struggle against slavery. To put the same point another way, I felt as though the drama of the court room had eclipsed the drama of what happened on the decks of the schooner. Or to put it yet a third way, I felt as though the white abolitionists and judges and politicians had elbowed aside the original African actors who risked their lives in a bold bid for freedom. So I felt like the history had been, shall we say, “white washed”. I also objected to the way in which the American legal system was made the hero in the story. I always ask the question, “Oh, do you mean the same legal system that was holding 2.5 million people in bondage? That’s the hero of the story?” I don’t think that’s the hero of the story. I think the hero of the story is basically the collective heroism of the Africans who made the revolt. So what we had was a history from above,a great man-view of history embodied by John Quincy Adams, but even Cinqué was treated as a bit of a great man, although he was made to stand completely outside of culture, something of a noble savage, I think, in the movie. And I think that a history from below can put everything in a new light including the legal outcome. I think that if we attend to what the Africans did, how they did it, how the entire case unfolded, we will have a much richer understanding of the deepest causes of this rare successful rebellion. And I should just mention that in relation to the discussion of The Slave Ship, when I finished that book, I needed to write about something that had a happier outcome. And I was frankly fascinated that there were so few successful revolts on slave ships. How did this one manage to succeed? So that was one of the things that drew me to it. How did it happen?
3. The Amistad Captives' African Roots
So my interest is basically in returning to Africa. I spend a lot of time in the book talking about the African origins of these individuals and I should say, because they were in jail for 19 months with thousands of people coming through and lots of people talking to them through interpreters and then writing down what they learned, there is an absolutely unparalleled amount of evidence available about their lives. Some of this you’ll see in the pamphlet by John Warner Barber. He has a little biographical sketch of each person where they’re from, what their family was like. Really extraordinary information and this of course has never been used to full effect. So, my decision is to go back to Africa. My argument is that everything that the Amistad Africans did was by in large a function of who they were before they were enslaved. That the decisions they made,how they deliberated, how they organized themselves, how they thought about their dilemma all this is related to their African lives.
And I want to go here to a different image, if I may, to show a map of Africa…
Okay, I want to show you basically who these people were, where they came from. This is a region down here called the Gallinas coast which is a really crucial lead area for the illegal slave trade in the 1820s, 30s and 40s. This is southern Sierra Leone. Here you can see Liberia. It’s between Freetown and Monrovia. This is actually where all of the Amistad Africans are from. They consisted essentially of six different culture groups or ethnic groups. About two thirds of them were Mende, okay. Mende are really the dominant group. There were a few Temne, a few Bondi, a few Kono, one Loma, one Kondo, one Kissi, Sando is a part of the Konno kingdom. So that’s basically where they come from. Almost all of them were multilingual. They could speak 3 to 4 languages each. They had an unusual capacity to communicate among themselves which is very different from the traditional slave trade in which captains would try to maximize linguistic diversity to minimize cooperation. They could actually communicate very well. In terms of the labor they had done in this region, quite a few of them were rice farmers, but I also found out that quite a few of them were textile workers or weavers who lived in fairly large cities, Another thing that are counterintuitive. Those who lived in towns and villages were mostly commoners. Only four of the Amistad Africans claimed any sort of elite status and that was usually, “My father was a big man in the village.” So they’re all basically commoners, they are sort of working people. Young, mostly able-bodied men separated from their families and kin and almost all of them—except for the Bolom, there were about three or four Bolom men— come from the interior where they had had no contact with white people. In fact, a number of them said, “We never saw a white person until we were sold to the man who ran Lomboko, a Spanish slave trader , get this, firstwhite man they ever saw and his name was Pedro Blanco. Could it be more perfect? Pedro Blanco.
Okay, so here you see, in a sense, the catchment area of the slave trade in this region. This is how far they’re going afield. Here’s how it happened, basically. Pedro Blanco made an alliance with a local Vai king—you can see the Vai right there—a man named King Siaka. And King Siaka worked with Pedro Blanco organizing his well-equipped army to go into the interior to capture people and bring them to the coast. So Pedro Blanco has a very powerful ally. Now another thing you would need to know about the Amistad Africans is that they were…
This is another map. This is the first map in which the Mende ever appear. Europeans knew almost nothing about them which is one reason why it was very hard to find a translator, more about that in a moment. Another thing you would need to know about the Amistad Africans, the men, they were trained warriors. Their region was racked by warfare in the 1820s and 1830s, much of it caused by the slave trade. So they were trained as warriors. King Siaka had driven farther into the interior, extending his influence, extending his control, therefore a number of the Amistad Africans were trained in the use of muskets but, more importantly, especially for this story, their preferred weapon of combat by Mende warriors was the cutlass, the knife. This is actually a Temne warrior. Temne and Susu people from this region preferred poisoned arrows. This is what they tended to use. Another reason I want you to see this is that you’ll notice what the man has around his neck. This is a gris-gris bag. It’s very common in this part of West Africa for people going into war to have a bag with some spiritually charged objects which would protect them in battle. I found this reference that says: “Cinqué walked into the court with a snuff box attached to a ribbon around his neck.” The person had no idea what it was. This was a warrior’s spiritual protection. This was how he saw what he was going into. Two main wars were going on in this region. One was a war between King Siaka and another major African king named Amaraalu. We know that at least two of the Amistad Africans fought with Amaraalu against King Siaka,probably more. We also know that in Sierra Leone at this very moment, there was a massive slave revolt. Walter Rodney taught us very many years ago that the African kings who entered into the slave trade also accumulated a great many slaves of their own which King Siaka settled in towns along the rivers to keep them ready to ship to the Europeans when demands arose. There were major slave revolts in those towns. So the issue of slave revolt is not something that’s happening only on the western side of the Atlantic. Resistance to slavery is there in their very own societies and this is crucial. So, that’s the second thing that you would need to know about them. They were warriors.
4. The Poro Society
Third, all of the Amistad men on that vessel lived in societies that were governed by the “Poro” society. That’s P-O-R-O. This is an all-male secret society which guards over the spiritual knowledge of the group. It basically is a primary governing institution. It trains warriors. It presides over the rights of passage in which boys become men. There is a parallel society for women called the Sando society. Poro is very important. It settled disputes, it maintained social discipline, and it punished witchcraft, among other things, which was conceived as kind of spiritual power used for anti-communal ends—things that were damaging to the community as a whole. The Poro society was very powerful. We have a minister who’s actually among the Mende in the 1840s, he said, “All of the local kings are terrified of the leader of the Poro.” So in some ways, the Poro is supreme even above standard political leaders and frequent the members of the Poro choose the political leaders. Okay, so this is a very potent organization. One way you can tell how highly ranking people are in the Poro society is by the degree of scarification on the body. One of the Amistad Africans, a man named Grabeau, was said to be heavily tattooed. He was a very high ranking Poro member. The Poro also taught warrior moves, acrobatics, gymnastics, things like this which will also emerge as significant. Okay, so they were warriors, they were Poro Society members.
5. The Enslaved
We know a lot about how they were enslaved. All of the main methods were typical of the Atlantic slave trade. I’ll just give you a few examples. A man named Barry, who is pictured here. By the way these images, were drawn by a seventeen year old artist named William Townsend who went into the jail, like thousands of others and was able to sketch these. They are really remarkable. They’re at the Beinecke at Yale. Barry was a soldier captured by King Siaka. We know that’s his life story. We also know that Fuli, this man here, a very important figure to Amistad African was captured in something that was called Grand Pillage where the soldiers of King Siaka surrounded his village, set some buldings on fire, and then captured people as they ran out. He was captured. He was separated from his family—we don’t know what happened to them. Little boy named Kali, he was about 9 years old when they first got to New London. He himself was kidnapped. He and several other children were not being supervised. Grabeau, who I mentioned before who was one of the leading acrobats and a very high ranking Poro member, he was actually imprisoned/enslaved for debt, another common thing. If someone owed a debt, a slave might be used to pay for it. And then finally, Margru, the little girl, around a nine or ten year old little girl, she was the victim of a system called “Pawnship“. Her father was a trader of some kind. He left her as a security for credit and then he didn’t return in time to redeem her so she was actually taken as a slave in order to satisfy the debt that he had through an extension of goods that he had taken off into the countryside to trade. So this gives you a sense of the individual stories, things that we know about them, the richness of the sources.
6. The Slave Trade Area
Now here we’ve got a more detailed map of the slave trading area. There are a series of islands. You can actually see some small buildings that have been built on them. Here’s Pedro Blanco’s house. The Gallinas River also known as the KerefeRiver and here is Lomboko over here, it’s called here Dumbakorra. The castle is sort of the military center. But this is where they were all taken. You would have to see a series of paths by which people were marched to the coast and also a series of creeks and lagoons and water ways by which they were canoed. But we can have a fairly detailed knowledge of exactly where they were and what kind of place Lomboko was. Lomboko was a slave trading factory of about 50 or 60 buildings and with barracoons that would hold up to 18 hundred people.This is actually a very small one. This is from the later 1840s but it is from Sierra Leone. You can see people being held here and you can see someone being lashed over here on the side. In the barracoon is a place where social bonding begins. This is crucial to the story. Cinqué later testifies that he and Grabeau, those are the two main leaders of the rebellion, met at Lomboko. They’re already talking about their dilemma, what they are going to do. Those two are in some ways the core of the rebellion. They were its two greatest leaders. Cinqué, I am convinced, was a head war man in his village, a leading warrior. Grabeau was a high ranking member of the Poro society, so they embodied both military and spiritual power. And this would have been very obvious to anybody who met them, certainly Grabeau. The Africans would take one look at his scarification and they would have known immediately that this guy is a high ranking Poro member. He is somebody whose authority we must honor. So this, I think, is part of who he was.
At Lomboko they were held, well, different amounts of time, some only two weeks, one man up to three and a half months. Then they were loaded onto canoes and taken out to a slave ship, this was a Brazilian or a Portuguese slave ship, but here’s what I would have you notice. There were innovations in the forms of canoes in the aftermath of the abolition of the slave trade. In other words, one thing that everyone would have agreed on whether this was a slave trader, an abolitionist or a naval officer, was that after abolition of the slave trade, when the slave trade was illegal, conditions got worse. They became even more degraded, more violent, because suddenly you had to load large numbers of people in a hurry because the British anti-slavery patrols are out there and you’ve got to get them on board in a hurry and get the vessel to take off. So these are much bigger canoes than you would have seen before 1807. All the function of the speed with which things had to be loaded.
7. Conditions of the Vessel
Now, the Tecora was a fairly typical large slave vessel of its kind. It was a brig. I’m actually happy to show you this. A friend of mine is an art dealer found this image. This is not a well-known image of a slave ship, in fact I think it’s more or less unknown. It’s been bought by the National Museum of African American History, but just to give you a closer view of it. This is a Portuguese vessel that was captured by the Brittish in 1838, literally the year before the Amistad Africans loaded a vessel called the Tecora and look at what you can see. A woman has died here, or maybe it’s a man, and it is being ministered to two other women, the body somehow prepared. Here’s a dead person being thrown overboard by a sailor and a marine. You see lots of people in this sort of crouch which was the way they had to sit on the lower deck. Some people’s bodies got frozen in that way. The liberated Africans who were taken by the British to Freetown, many people comment on the fact that their bodies are still stiff with having been confined to the lower decks for long periods of time.
The specific middle passage that the Amistad African experienced was one of somewhere between 500 and 600 enslaved Africans, that’s a pretty big number. 200 men, 300 women and a lot of children— I should say male and female, those children—jammed together very tight pack. An eight week voyage, the men chained by their hands and their feet and when the Amistad Africans actually came ashore, one of the things they very cleverly did in court and in jail was to get down in that crouch and to show what the conditions are actually like. In a way, they performed slavery. They performed the middle passage in order to give a sense what they had actually been through. This vessel they were on was a death ship. One of the Africans who actually kept track said that about a third of the people on that vessel died. So they were surrounded by extraordinary death. But here too you find that process of social bonding. What I mentioned in discussing The Slave Ship, fictive kinship is taking place, being established. In fact, one of the things Cinqué and others mention about their collectivity, we came over from Africa in the same vessel. Actually, all of the men did. The 4 children seemed to have come on a different vessel. But this was part of who they were. This was part of the bonding process.
8. The Revolt on the Tecora
Now, this again would’ve been about the number of people on board, about 500. The conditions were pretty extraordinary and there was a great deal of resistance. One of the things I found from doing this research was that there was a major slave revolt on board the Tecora. How do we know this? Because in the revolt that happened on the Amistad two sailors jumped overboard. It was assumed that they died, but in fact they didn’t. They had thrown a canoe overboard. They eventually made it back to Havana and they gave testimony and here’s what they said, I’m quoting: “The captain, owner of the schooner, was warned previous to sailing, to keep a lookout for the Negros,” That’s the captain of the Amistad, by the way, “To keep a look out for the Negros as they had attempted to rise and take the vessel in which they were brought from Africa.” So, on the Amistad, there was the experience of slave ship revolt. They had already done it once and failed and now they felt that they had a new opportunity. So they come to Havana. They’re in Havana for about ten days, between ten and fourteen days. They are loaded on the Amistad on June 28th. And what do they see when they get there? They see that their opportunities for seizing the ship are much better than they were on the Tecora so the organizing begins.
The organizing begins; it begins with Cinqué and Grabeauand they then recruit a second circle of people who, I’m convinced, were very well know warriors in their native societies. Their names were Fa-kin-na, Fa, Kimbo, and Shu-le. They will lead the attack, this daring, midnight attack. In that secondary group, they’re not all mende, that’s something that’svery important to know. It’s not just a Mende uprising. Still, all that considered, there was a catalytic event that led to the rebellion. The slave sailor I mentioned named Celestino took the very unwise decision to taunt Cinqué. This was an Afro- Puerto Rican sailor. Why he wanted to taunt Cinqué I don’t know, but he did. One day he slapped him in the head with a plantain. Now Cinqué was a very strong personality. And then came this faithful moment when Celestino the cook—he’s the ship’s cook so he also has a big knife in his hand. He and Cinqué get into it and he basically says, using sign language—and we have a detailed description of this—he says: “You!” pointing to all of you, “Are going to be killed. And then you,” and he uses his knife, “are going to be chopped up. And then you are going to be eaten.” And then he gestures to a cask of beef, implying that that contains the flesh of previous slaves from this vessel. And then he gesture to an empty cast and implies, “That’s what’s going to happen to you.” Now you got to put this in the context of the very widespread belief in West Africa that Europeans were cannibals. I’ve had people say to me, “Well of course they should have known otherwise.” Why should they have known otherwise? And in fact, there is a metaphorical truth to it. Human being and their bodies would be eaten alive by the plantation system. That was a cannibalistic system if ever I saw one. It produced death. So anyway, this event produced a crisis. Among the Amistad Africans and that night, in the hold of the vessel, they had a big discussion about what to do. They thought they were going to be killed and eaten.
Now, I have to pause and tell you about one of those great moments in research. You know how you spend your whole life looking for something? I had one of those moments. After the Mende mission was established and the Amistad African repatriated there, 11 years later—which would be 13 years after the rebellion, a young abolitionist went over there and there were about five of the Amistad Africans left. This was a woman who had been a missionary among Cherokee and she wrote a letter home saying, “Yeah, and they recounted the whole history of the rebellion to me!” She got the oral history of the Amistad Africans themselves. How they remembered the uprising and part of what she detailed was the debate of what happened down in the hold of the vessel where they said an old man named Lubos—and elderly people, you got to remember , had great authority in these West African cultures—challenged the rest of the people saying, “Well, are you going to stand by and let them kill you and eat you or are you going to fight for it?” But the four Bullom men said they didn’t want to be involved in the attack. So then this debate breaks out. Cinqué at this point speaks up and says, “This is an honorable death, if we should die. To be killed and eaten is not an honorable death. We must fight! Are we not a bold and warlike nation?” he said. The Mende were known for their ability to wage war. The Bullom men went along and so they said, the way they remembered it is, “We had one word: war. And war immediately.” That meeting was a meeting of the Porro Society whose job it was to declare war. They had a debate; they achieved one word, or unity. This is actually what the Poro Society always tried to build, complete consensus for a dramatic action. And their decision was to go to war.
9. Revolt on the Amistad
Well, in the middle of the night, Cinqué and Fakinna apparently come up first, followed by others. Now, the way this story is usually told is that they found these cane knives and they came out and they attacked people, these machetes. They didn’t have the cane knives in the beginning because all of the evidence said the first thing that they did was not go to the captain to kill him and take the vessel. The first thing they did is that they went for Celestino. And they picked up hand spikes and barrel staves and things that could be used as weapons from the deck of the ship and they literally bludgeoned him to death. I mean with extreme prejudice. Now, I have a hypothesis about why. I think they thought that he was a sorcerer. You would need to know that among the Mende, there is a great deal of spiritual power attached to the possession of body parts, especially the body parts of powerful warriors, like Cinqué who were believed to have these powers that you can then assimilate to yourself. So they went and they killed Celestino, who I think they though was a honé, or a sorcerer and at that point, all hell broke loose. And at that point, people began to come up from below with cane knives. I also found evidence about how they found the cane knives. This has been one of the minor mysteries about the Amistad rebellion. How could the captain be so stupid as to put a bunch of machetes in the vessel? Well it turns out that it was the three little girls who found them because they had free runof the ship. They weren’t chained. I found this in correspondence with a British consul in Cuba riding home saying that three little girls found the cane knives and then once they heard the uproar, they told the men, they opened the box of knives and so out come the Mende warriors with their weapon of choice. This must have seemed like a gift from the ancestral spirits. What would you want in a situation of war? You would want a knife to fight with. And that, of course, is what they used, to win the battle. Here’s a famous image of the uprising. This was produced by John Warner Barber, it’s in the pamphlet that some of you may have read. Barber was a New Haven artisan artist who actually visited the Amistad African in New Haven jail. Therefore, we can identify specific people. This is Antonio, the cabin boy of Captain Ferrer. Captain Ferrer is right here.
This is José Ruiz, the slave owner of the 49 men. Cinqué. A man named Kon-no-ma. This is Burna who was said to be who was said to be a kind of protector of the Spaniards. This is a portrait of Cinqué that Barber [made]. So there it is. And Kon-no-ma who had dental modification—his teeth kind of came outward—he was Konno man in which this was considered an aspect of personal beauty. You can actually see that that was meant to be him. Silhouette drawn by Barber and there he is in the actual uprising. So, anyway, Mende warfare carries the day. The knives are the weapons of choice. They use war shouts. They actually engage in a customary Mende ritual called Kutu that as soon as they kill the captain, they behead him. This is all recounted in the letter that the abolitionist missionary wrote describing what they did and how they did it. It’s also interesting that they chose to rise on a moonless night. I found several references saying this is the way of Mende warfare. They wait until the clouds are dark and they attack in total, total darkness.
10. After the Takeover of the Amistad
Okay, the big question facing the Amistad Africans at this point was “could they sail the ship?” The Cuban authorities, once they got news of this, would assume that the answer to that is no and they would run the vessel ashore to the north coast of Cuba and go ashore essentially as maroons but they actually outwitted the Cuban government. They decided they wanted to sail and they were actually able to do it. Now, they didn’t know navigation, that is true, but they did manage to sail the ship. Most of the scholarship on the subject has assumed that they had no idea what they were doing. Well, they managed to anchor thirty times. They managed to hoist the sail. They managed to operate the long boat. They managed to weigh anchor. They managed, in short, to move that vessel—they went around the Bahamas Islands for a while looking for water. They eventually made it up the coast to northern Long Island and they had a purpose. The purpose was when they realized they couldn’t get all the way home to Africa, they told the captain, “We want to go to a place that’s not slavery country.” And Montez said, “I can take you to such a place,” and he planned on taking them to Charleston. What do you think would have happened if they had gone ashore to Charleston? They would’ve been back on their way to Cuba, an execution, in a split second. Maybe they went on shore to Charleston and discovered it was slavery country. Anyway, they went ashore and actually, in this image what is being depicted here is a meeting that the Amistad Africans had with several white men who were out hunting. What’s fascinating is that even though they were hungry, even though they were literally dying of thirst, when the Amistad Africans came ashore and encountered these white men, what do you think was the first question they asked? There was one of the African men named Burna who could speak a little bit of English. The first question they asked was: “Is this slavery country?” And the man said, “No. No slavery here.” And the group that had come to shore began to hoop and to holler and to cheer that they had finally gotten to a place that wasn’t slavery country. It scared the white men who went running for their muskets. Then they engaged in a peace ritual in which they handed over their musket and crucially for a Mende warrior, their knives to say “we are peaceful toward you. We want you to help us get home to Africa.” So in a way they had, by their own labor, actually managed to get to a place, where there was no slavery. Slavery had been abolished in New York in 1827. So by their own labor, they had the chance now of defending the freedom they had won under arms.
Okay, so they came ashore and when they came ashore, as I already mentioned, there was this stunning interest in what they had done. I mentioned the play. The other thing I should mention, and this was really quite a surprise to me, there are a whole series of images like this that were drawn up. It turns out, when I first saw this image, I thought it was done by some sort of extreme abolitionist group, right? Look at this! He’s like a hero, right? Here’s the weapon! At the moment his was actually done, this lithograph, Cinqué was facing execution for piracy and murder. And yet here’s somebody depicting him as if he is a conquering hero. A swashbuckling kind of hero. A slayer of tyrants. And guess who produced all these images? The penny paper The New York Sun. It was the most astonishing thing for me to find this. The New York Sun was very interested in selling newspapers and selling images of Cinqué that they depicted both him and the rebellion in a very positive, even romantic, light. So before Cinqué ever came to shore he was already being treated as a hero in the mass media of the time. This I think had a very important role to play in the evolution of the case. So, in that first week that they’re ashore, first in New London and then in New Haven, you get, not only the play, you get thousands of people coming to see them. I think the first Sunday they were in New Haven, 2000 people came that day alone. You get this and about four other images of Cinqué which sell out when they are hocked on the streets. Moses Yale Beach, the editor of New York Sun says,” We can’t keep them in stock. We sell these things out as quickly as we produce them.” He’s kind of a hero. And this is a slave society, it’s a really fascinating thing. Only at the end of this first crazy week to the abolitionists get organized. All this stuff has happened before the Amistad committee is formed on September 4th and before Louis Tappan and some other very wealthy abolitionists decide that they are going to try to organize a defense campaign. The Amistad African had already captured the popular imagination. And this, to me is crucial to their case.
11. Building an Alliance / Interactions in Jail
Well, the next important thing that happens is the building of an alliance between these Africans insurrectionists and this group of mostly white, mostly middle class abolitionists in New Haven jail. One of the things I got an entire chapter of this book about the interactions that happen in jail. Jail as a place of learning. Jail as a place of teaching in which Africans are teaching the Americans, the Americans are teaching the Africans. These folks are the two great wings of the international antislavery movement. African rebels on the one hand, middle class abolitionists on the other. Never before had they met in quite this way. So what happened in that jail is exceedingly important. How would they work together? How would you even allow the Africans to tell their own story because nobody and understand them? Well, then a tremendous search is organized to find Africans who speak the Mende language. Well, actually first they find the man who speaks Kissi and through a series of translations they can get some information. Then that great—this is actually the best part of the movie. Remember that part when the Yale professor walks up and down the docks of New York counting from 1 to 10 in Mende? That’s how they did it. They found two African sailors who could speak Mende. They became the translator. What the movie doesn’t say is that guess who taught him how to count from 1 to 10 in Mende? The three little girls. There’s a description of them tutoring some of the gentlemen about how to count to 10. The little girls play a very significant role in all of this.
So, in the jail it’s a very long complex process. After the translators are found they set up the jail as essentially a school. The Amistad Africans start studying reading, writing and religion. The abolitionist project here is to civilize the savage. The Amistad Africans have a different project. They’re not interested in being reformed, but they are very shrewd in recognizing what’s important to their allies. And what they recognized is that they must learn Christianity and they must demonstrate their learning of Christianity in order to secure the commitment of these people to getting them home, okay. The relationship, as it evolves—and I was thinking of this earlier when Danny was talking about debt involving Native Americans—the relationship between the white abolitionists and the Amistad Africans, I call it one of a working misunderstanding.Working literally. They were able to work together but they did not have the same goals. They didn’t have the same perception of the situation, but they were able to cooperate. Now, what I found is most interesting about the cooperation is this: the more the abolitionist wanted them to demonstrate that they were pious, sober, disciplined Christians, the more the Amistad Africans insisted on their own African identity. Now what I found was that in January—December 1840, January 1841—the Amistad African develop a new way of talking about themselves. They invent a new “we”. They start, in all of their writing—and they’re actually writing in English now—and in their spoken interactions with Americans, they call themselves the “Mende people”. “We are the Mende people.” Now, there are 5 other ethnic groups besides the Mende but what I see as the process here is that those people are being acculturated to a dominant Mende group within the hold. They are learning to speak Mende as well as English and the Mende are actually projecting themselves as a sovereign power. I’m sure they heard all these things about the sovereign American people, right? Well, they say, “We are the Mende people. Why do they want to be the Mende people? Because the Mende people can make political demands, they can talk about what their legal strategy should be and they can insist that “we must be taken home.” So that’s what they do and what you’ll find is that after January 1841 and especially in a famous letter that the little boy Kali, with the assistance of his elders, wrote to John Quincy Adams. They talked repeatedly about the Mende people. The Mende people. Kali, in writing this letter, tells the 73 year old former president what he’s supposed to say to the Supreme Court. I mean the hutzpah of this is unbelievable. This is a little eleven year old kid saying, “Here’s what you tell them!” and there’s this whole undertone to the letter which says, “You know what? We’ve done what you wanted us to do. We learned your religion. We studied your language. Now you do what you’re supposed to do. You win the court case and you take us home. Pretty interesting stuff. But it’s all based on this new identity and I would call this an example of ethnogenesis. This thing called the Mende people is something that happened in the American jail. This was a creative response to their circumstances that allowed them to make political demands.
Well they do eventually win the Supreme Court decision. John Quincy Adams plays a crucial role in that. Although, in fact, if you read the one judges commentary about Adams’ speech was that he said Adam spent all of his time talking about things that had nothing to do with the case. They do eventually go home in November 1841 with a group of missionaries. War is still going on. Cinqué’s village has been destroyed. His wife and three children are missing, they can’t be found. But I think that, to me, the main part of the story is that within a few months, two-thirds of the Amistad Africans who went home find their families and return to them. About ten of them stay with the Mende mission for a while. Then eventually others slowly slip away. They wanted to go home, they did go home. This repatriation was a major victory. It was a major victory for the abolitionist movement both in the United States and worldwide. This, by the way is an image, and anti-Amistad African image depicted of the interior of the New Haven jail. That’s one of the reasons this is the only depiction inside the jail. This is by theNew York Morning Herald which was a very racist proslavery paper.
Here you have Cinqué kissing a little white girl. Theories of amalgamation, racial amalgamation, cause of many anti-abolitionist and anti-black riots in this period. Here’s Lewis Tappan holding his hat. Here is Grabeau turning a somersault because he was such an acrobat. They did all these acrobatics. That was Poro training. And here are the people of Connecticut who have paid their admission to go through and see them but you do get a sense of what’s going on inside the jail. The jail as a place of learning.
And finally, I’m sure everybody has seen this portrait there is a history to this portrait that I think is not known. This is actually a portrait of Cinqué done in late 1840, early 1841by a quite well-to-do New England artist named Nathaniel Jocelyn. Well, it’s also known that the man who commissioned the portrait was an African American abolitionist named Robert Purvis. He contacted Jocelyn, had Jocelyn pain the painting. What’s not really understood is the political connection between these two men. Both of them were both very radical abolitionists involved in the Underground Railroad and in fact, we know in retrospect, Jocelyn was one of the people who was prepared to undertake an armed jailbreak in case the legal decision should be made against the Amistad Africans. He was going to break in there with other abolitionists and take them out and get them to Canada. This is a very radical thing to be doing. There’s that political connection and this is linked in turn to what I think is the most important long term effect of the Amistad rebellion: it increased the most militant brand of abolitionism by showing that enslaved people themselves had to fight the battle, okay.
This can actually be followed in the use of a particular phrase that originated with Lord Byron which went, “those who would be free must themselves strike the first blow.” This was picked up by Henry Highland Garnet. This was picked up by David Ruggles. This was picked up by Frederick Douglass. This was picked up by a great many African American abolitionists and it was picked up by John Brown who wanted to strike the first blow at Harper’s Ferry and instigate or initiate slave revolts across the south. So, this most militant brand of abolitionism that I think is actually strengthened by abolition and then there’sjust one more point about this. One day in 1841 at the home of Robert Purvis in Philadelphia, a runaway enslaved person showed up who Purvis had already helped to escape to Canada. Now this man was on his way back south to Virginia to free his wife. And he tells Purvis the story, what he’s going to do. Purvis didn’t like the idea because he had seen lots of people undertake these kinds of things and then fail and then the person who was once free is also re-enslaved. So Purvis told him it’s a terrible idea. But the man was going to carry on and it so happened that the very day this man showed up, this painting arrived at Purvis’ house. And so the man says, “Who is that?” And so Purvis says, “Well that’s Cinqué.” And he tells the man the whole story and he says the man just soaked up every detail and was just fascinated by this and asked a lot of questions and was really quite taken by the courage and the intelligence of Cinqué and all the rest. Well, anyway, that man left, he went on south to get his wife. Things happened as Purvis feared they might. The man was captured, re-enslaved, and then loaded onto a slave ship to be sent from Virginia to New Orleans where upon that man, named Madison Washington organized his own slave ship revolt and captured the Creole and carried it to the Bahamas where he and 130 others were liberated. So even the iconography of the Amistad rebellion intensified the process ofrebellion from below. Thank you very much.