October 14, 2010
Director Stephen Spielberg deserves credit for bringing to public attention what historians used to refer to dismissively as “the Amistad incident.” It is the story of a group of Africans who were captured in Sierra Leone and brought in chains to the Americas — and who revolted, captured their ship, the Amistad, and eventually were seized off the coast of New England. They won their freedom in a case before the Supreme Court and ultimately sailed back to their homeland in Africa. Unfortunately, Spielberg’s movie Amistad not only distorts the historical record – arguably an inevitability in a Hollywood feature – but also misses much of the story’s drama and significance. Fortunately the documents are available to tell a story that is not only truer but also more dramatic and meaningful.
In late August, 1839 the New London Gazette reported, “Much excitement has been created in New York for the past week, from the report of several boats having seen a schooner, full of Negroes, and in such condition as to lead to the suspicion that she was a pirate.”
The “long low black schooner” was the Amistad. A United States Navy ship sighted her near Long Island and captured her. It took prisoner the Africans who were in control of the ship, released two white Spaniards they were holding, and towed the ship to New London, Connecticut.
The next day Federal District Judge Andrew T. Judson heard the two Spaniards give their version of the Amistad‘s story. Jose Ruiz told Judge Judson, “I bought 49 slaves in Havana, Cuba, and shipped them on board the schooner Amistad.” Ruiz was accompanied by Pedro Montes and four children he had bought as slaves. The Amistad sailed for the Spaniards’ plantations in another part of Cuba. But after three days a rebellion broke out, led by Sengbe Pieh, whom the Spaniards called Joseph Cinque. Ruiz testified, “In the night I heard a noise in the forecastle. All of us were asleep except the man at the helm. I saw this man Joseph Cinque. There was no moon. It was very dark. I took up an oar and tried to quell the mutiny; I cried no! no! Then I heard one of the crew cry murder.” The captives rushed the deck and seized the Spaniards. “They told me I should not be hurt. They tied our hands. The slaves told us next day they had killed all.” Pedro Montes added, “”They were all glad, next day, at what had happened. They commanded me to steer for their country.
Montes and Ruiz were ordered to head the Amistad toward the rising sun — back to Africa — but at night they secretly turned around and headed up the coast of North America. They sailed for two months, losing ten of the Africans from lack of food and water. Eventually they made their way to Long Island Sound near Montauk Point.
The two Spaniards asked the court to hand over the Amistad to Spanish officials. They also demanded the cargo — and they included as part of the cargo the black men and children they claimed to own as slaves.
Judge Andrew Judson’s background did not suggest that he would be sympathetic to the Africans. Indeed, in 1831 he had instigated a law restricting schools for blacks in Connecticut and then prosecuted a young white schoolmistress, Prudence Crandall, for admitting black girls to her school in Canterbury. After hearing the Spaniards’ hair-raising story, Judge Judson decided that the African men should be charged with mutiny and murder and the children held as witnesses.
A New London abolitionist named Dwight Janes went to the first court hearing and asked Ruiz about the captives. “I inquired if they could speak Spanish. He said no, they were just from Africa.” Janes instantly grasped the significance of this fact, on which the entire case would ultimately turn. He immediately wrote leading abolitionists about the Amistad. They saw it as a heaven-sent opportunity to call public attention to the evils of slavery. They quickly formed the Amistad Committee and requested contributions to hire lawyers for the captives. Their first circular described the captives as “Thirty-eight fellow-men from Africa, piratically kidnapped from their native land, transported across the seas, and subjected to atrocious cruelties.”
Three veteran abolitionists led the Amistad Committee. Lewis Tappan was a wealthy New York merchant who with his brother founded the Journal of Commerce. In 1834 an anti-abolitionist crowd had ransacked his home and burned its furnishings. Joshua Leavitt was a lawyer and a Congregational minister who edited the abolitionist newspaper The Emancipator in New York. He helped found the Liberty Party, a predecessor to the Republican Party. Simeon Jocelyn was a draftsman who had founded and served as minister to the first black church in New Haven. He had tried to establish a college there for blacks but it was blocked by anti-abolitionists.
The Amistad Committee persuaded Roger Sherman Baldwin, a distinguished abolitionist attorney who would later become the governor of Connecticut, to serve as lawyer for the Africans. (Spielberg’s presentation of Baldwin as a callow young real estate lawyer — initially more interested in securing his fee than in securing the rights of the Africans and then preoccupied with winning Cinque’s respect — is only one of several calumnious portrayals of abolitionists that bear no relation to reality.)
The captives were taken to the New Haven jail, then to Hartford for trial. Justice Smith Thompson of the U.S. Circuit Court dismissed the charges of murder and mutiny on the grounds that a United States court could not try the captives for a crime alleged to have occurred on a Spanish vessel. But Judge Judson of the District Court refused to release the Africans because they were still claimed as property by Ruiz and Montes. They were returned to jail in New Haven.
Josiah Willard Gibbs, a professor of ancient languages at Yale, visited the Africans in the New Haven jail. He was determined to break the communication barrier with the Africans. By holding up first one, then two, then additional fingers, he was able to elicit the Africans’ words for the numbers from one to ten. Gibbs then went to New York and walked up and down the docks counting out loud until he found James Covey, an African seaman who could understand his counting. Covey had been captured by slavers, freed, taught English, and employed on a British warship. (Speilberg ridicules Gibbs as a fool who confidently gives absurdly false translations of the Africans’ speech.)
Gibbs brought Covey to meet the prisoners and serve as their interpreter. One of those present reported that “One of the captives, coming to the door and finding one who could talk in his own language, took hold of him and literally dragged him in. All seemed overwhelmed with joy, all talking as fast as possible.” Covey made it clear that most of the captives were Mendi, a people who live in what is now Sierra Leone.
With Covey to interpret, the Mendi were finally able to tell their story. He explained that they had been captured in Africa by Africans who sold them to European slave traders. “Cinque was a rice farmer with a wife and three children. He was seized by four men when traveling in the road and his right hand tied to his neck. He was sold to the son of a neighboring king who sold him to a Spaniard.” “Grabeau speaks four African languages. He was caught on the road when going to buy clothes.” “Kali was a small boy. He was stolen in the street.” “Teme, a young girl, lived with her mother, brother, and sister. A party of men in the night broke into her mother’s house and made them prisoners; she never saw her mother or brother again.”
Grabeau described how hundreds of captives from all over the region were brought to the slave port of Lomboko. “Slaves are put into a prison, two are chained together by the legs.” A Portuguese slave trader bought five or six hundred Africans and loaded them onto the slave ship Tecora. Grabeau recalled, “On board there was a large number of men, but the women and children were far the most numerous. They were fastened together in couples by the wrists and legs day and night. The space between decks was four feet — they were obliged, if they attempted to stand, to keep in a crouching posture. If they left any of the rice that was given to them uneaten, they were whipped. It was a common thing for them to be forced to eat so much as to vomit. Many of the men, women, and children died on the passage.”
The Africans were brought to Havana, in the Spanish colony of Cuba, and sold as slaves. Cinque recalled that when the captives were separated in Havana, most of them, himself included, were in tears. “They had come from the same country, and were now to be parted forever.”
Ruiz and Montes bought fifty-three of the captives and set sail in the Amistad for their plantations in another part of Cuba. The translator recounted Foone’s story of the voyage: “On board the vessel he had not enough to eat or drink, only two potatoes and one plantain twice a day, and half a teacup of water morning and evening. He asked for more water and was refused. For stealing water he was severely flogged. Powder, salt, and rum were applied to his wounds.” The marks of his wounds were still to be seen.
Foulewa recalled that the captives were told that a terrible fate lay ahead. “Cook told us they’d kill and eat us.” That night Cinque used a nail to break his padlock, then unchained his companions. They found sugar cane knives and stormed the deck. According to Foulewa, “Cinque killed cook, because cook said he was going to kill them and eat them. He killed the captain after he killed an African.”
Before their stories were known, the Amistad Africans had often been portrayed as violent savages. One newspaper opined, “They were hardly above the apes and monkeys of their own Africa; the language they jabber incomprehensible here.” Once they were able to tell their stories through a competent translator, the Africans were increasingly seen as victims of oppression who had fought for their freedom. They were portrayed as heroes in paintings, poems, and plays. They also developed a dense and evolving set of relations with the Yankee world into which they had been plunged. By omitting this interaction, Spielberg misses much of the human side of the Amistad story.
Students from Yale University began teaching the Mendi English and instructing them in Christian religion. An observer wrote the newspaper The Colored American, “It would do your heart and soul good to sit and see them learn. When they come to a hard word, soon as they find out what it is, so that they understand it, they will laugh right out loud, it makes them so glad.” One of their teachers wrote, “Those who have been with them have not unfrequently seen the tear start at the mention of the aged father, or the defenseless wife and child, and stout men turn aside and weep, and the little children cry as if their hearts would break.” Asked if they wanted to return to Africa, one replied in broken English, “Tell the American people, that we very, very much want to go to our home.”
After months of delay, the Amistad case finally came to trial in New Haven, with Andrew Judson again presiding. Lawyers for President Martin Van Buren strove to keep the courts from letting the Africans go free. Van Buren had no strong views on slavery, but he needed votes from slaveholders in the South to win reelection. His District Attorney William Holabird secretly wrote the State Department, “I should regret extremely that the rascally Blacks should fall into the hands of the abolitionists, with whom Hartford is filled.” The President had a ship waiting in the New Haven harbor to carry the Africans back to Cuba — and almost certain death — should they lose their case.
Hundreds of spectators crowded the trial, which lasted a week. Representatives for Spain demanded that the United States return the Amistad and its cargo. They cited Pickney’s treaty between Spain and the United States which provided that “All ships and merchandise which shall be rescued out of the hands of any pirates or robbers on the high seas [shall] be taken care of and restored entire.” Spain’s lawyers argued that the black prisoners were “merchandise” that should be returned along with the ship. They pointed out that slavery was legal in Cuba, and that the Amistad’s papers showed that the blacks were legally the property of Ruiz and Montes.
Lawyers for the Africans answered that while slavery might be legal in Cuba, the slave trade between Africa and the Americas had been outlawed by a treaty between Spain and Great Britain and had been declared a “heinous crime” by Spain itself. The papers saying the Africans were legal slaves of Ruiz and Montes falsely stated they had long been slaves in Cuba. “They are natives of Africa, and were born free, and ever since have been and still of right are and ought to be free and not slaves.”
The Mendi were familiar with court proceedings because Mendi society had a legal system of its own. Cinque’s testimony can be read in the court record: “Four men took me on the road. Came from Mendi to Lomboko. Three moons from Africa to Havana; ten nights in Havana. The cook told us they carry us to some place, and kill and eat us.”
To the surprise and relief of the abolitionists, Judge Judson found that the Africans were neither slaves nor Spanish subjects. They were therefore free by the law of Spain itself. “Cinque and Grabeau shall not sigh for Africa in vain. Bloody as may be their hands, they shall yet embrace their kindred.”
The United States government appealed the decision to the Supreme Court. The abolitionists persuaded former President of the United States John Quincy Adams to help argue their case before the Supreme Court. One of the African children named Kale, eleven years old and a star student, wrote him in English,
“Dear Friend Mr. Adams,
“I want to write a letter to you because you love Mendi people and you talk to the great court. We want you to ask the court what we have done wrong. What for Americans keep us in prison. Some people say Mendi people dolt, because we no talk American language. Merica people no talk Mendi language; Merica people dolt!
Dear friend Mr. Adams, you have children, you have friends, you love them, you feel very sorry if Mendi people come and carry them all to Africa. We feel bad for our friends, and our friends all feel bad for us. We want you to tell court that Mendi people no want to go back to Havana, we no want to be killed. All we want is make us free.”
Before the Supreme Court, John Quincy Adams, known as “Old Man Eloquent,” condemned the role played by United States government officials as “an immense array of power” exerted “on the side of injustice.” “Have the officers of the U.S. Navy a right to seize men by force, to fire at them, to overpower them, to disarm them, to put them on board of a vessel and carry them by force and against their will to another State, without warrant or form of law?” The Supreme Court ruled that the Africans were entitled to their liberty like any other freeborn human beings and should be free to go wherever they wished. The court said they had exercised “The ultimate right of all human beings in extreme cases to resist oppression, and to apply force against ruinous injustice.”
The decision gave heart to abolitionists both black and white. A New York abolitionist meeting declared, “The decision by which the Amistad captives were liberated has a powerful influence on the question of human rights, not only in this country, but throughout the world. We can behold the faint glimmering of a more auspicious morn when the judges of our land will declare that property in man cannot be held.”
The Mendi greeted the news of the Supreme Court’s decision with joy. Free at last, the survivors – 35 men and boys and 3 girls — were brought to Farmington, Connecticut by abolitionist supporters. Charles Ledyard Norton was a child in Farmington at the time. “When it was decided to quarter them in Farmington pending arrangements for their return to Africa” he later recalled, “there was consternation among the timid souls in the quiet village. Stories of cannibalism were plentifully circulated, and there were formal protests against forcing such a burden upon the community.”
Nonetheless, the supporters of the Mendi prevailed. “Barracks were erected and here the former captives made their home. Cinque was a born ruler and ably seconded by his lieutenant, Grabbo, he maintained a very creditable degree of discipline among his followers. They were, for the most part, free to roam about, except for regular school hours, and townsfolk soon ceased to fear them. Anxious mamas at first trembled and kept their children behind bolted doors, but before long it was no uncommon sight to see the big grown-up blacks playing with little white children in village dooryards.”
Norton’s father was President of the New York Central Railroad and a major supporter of the Amistad captives. “The African visitors were often welcomed by my father at his home. A broad flight of steps led down from the southern piazza, and I distinctly remember seeing the athletic Cinque turn a somersault from these steps and then go down the sloping lawn in a succession of hand springs, heels over head, to the wonderment and admiration of my big brothers and myself.”
The Mendi spent eight months in Farmington, even planting and harvesting their own crops. But they made it clear to their hosts that what they wanted was to go home. So their supporters began raising money to help them return to Africa. They hoped that the Mendi would help set up a Christian mission in Sierra Leone.
Not only Spielberg but also most historians writing about the Amistad have ignored the important role that black communities played in this effort. James Pennington, pastor of the First Colored Congregational Church in Hartford and himself an escaped slave, wrote, “I love the Mendians. I love their country. I purpose to cooperate in fitting out a mission in every possible way, and also to give my prayers and labors to its support.” Pennington helped form the Union Missionary Society, the first such organization which refused to accept money from slaveholders. Its first convention, held in Hartford, was attended by Cinque and other of the Mendi as well as black leaders from throughout the Northeast.
The Union Missionary Society and the Amistad Committee organized dozens of fundraising meetings. At a typical one, “The Africans read from the New Testament, by which they showed the success with which they had mastered our language, as well as the proficiency they had made in learning to read. They sung two hymns in English with great melody and harmony, and sung, also, two of their native songs. Kinna made an address in English, giving the history of their captivity.”
Nearly a year after the Supreme Court decision, they had raised enough money to hire a ship for the thirty-five surviving Africans and five missionaries. As they reached the coast of Sierra Leone, Cinque wrote Lewis Tappan of the Amistad Committee, “I thank all ‘American people, for they send Mendi people home. I shall never forget ‘merican people. Your friend, Cinque.”
Some of the Mendi returned to their home villages; others remained at the Mendi mission. Many of the future leaders of Sierra Leone were educated at schools established by the Mendi mission. Sarah Margru, one of the children from the Amistad, returned to Africa with the other Mendi, came back to the United States to study at Oberlin College, then went back to teach at the Mendi mission.
In the United States, the Amistad Committee and the Union Missionary Society joined with other groups to form the American Missionary Association, which became the largest abolitionist organization in the country. After the Civil War it founded hundreds of schools for freed slaves in the South and many of the historically black colleges. The Race Relations Institute it set up at Fisk University trained many of the civil rights leaders of the 1960s.
The “Amistad incident” played a significant role in the struggle against slavery. It provided an issue around which the often-divided abolitionist movement could unite. It focused public attention on the conflict between slavery and widely-held religious and political values. And it showed the humanity and the capacity for heroism of those who might be enslaved.
The legal decision in the Amistad case did not challenge slavery itself. But for the first time the United States Supreme Court asserted that people of color had the same rights as anybody else and that the courts must enforce them. It would be many years, however, before the United States would actually begin to respect the rights of people of color. Indeed, sixteen years after the Amistad decision, the Supreme Court in the Dred Scott case declared that a Negro had “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” “They are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word ‘citizens’ in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States.” Only in the wake of the Civil War did the United States begin to implement the racial equality that the Amistad case had seemed to promise. Judge Constance Baker Motley has called the Supreme Court’s Amistad decision “the first legal milestone in the long, difficult struggle in the courts by persons of color for equal justice under law.”
Twenty-two years after the Amistad case, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation declaring slaves in the South free. At an abolitionist meeting to celebrate, Lewis Tappan pointed out the connection between the Amistad case and the abolition of slavery. As he spoke, he held in his hand the letter he had received from John Quincy Adams twenty-two years before telling him the results of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Amistad case: “The captives are free.
An 1841 letter in the abolitionist newspaper The Emancipator prophesied, “Cinque will continue to be an object of interest, and his name will be the watchword of freedom to Africa and her enslaved sons throughout the world.” A century-and-a-half later, the Amistad captives remain a powerful symbol. In the past few years they have been represented not only in Spielberg’s movie but in plays, novels, and an opera.
Much of the credit for the recovery of the Amistad story goes to grassroots citizens groups in Connecticut and elsewhere who began to revive the Amistad’s memory well before Spielberg started work on his movie. On the hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of the Amistad’s liberation, a new “Amistad Committee” of New Haven citizens unveiled a bronze sculpture of Cinque on the New Haven green. A Connecticut Freedom Trail has been established to commemorate African American historical sites, with a strong emphasis on the Amistad story. On March 8, 1998 the keel will be laid for a full-scale reproduction of the Amistad, which will serve as a sailing educational monument to this formative struggle for human rights.