Review by Peter H. McCracken
If you don't yet know the story of the 1839 mutiny on the slave ship Amistad, you will soon. Steven Spielberg's next major film, scheduled for release near the beginning of 1998 and described by some as “an American Schindler's List,” will tell the world about this remarkable story. The film stars Morgan Freeman, Matthew McConaughey, Nigel Hawthorne, Anthony Hopkins, and others--there's little chance it won't be a major blockbuster. This is not to say that no one else knows the story, however: the event has been the subject of books of fiction (Echo of Lions by Barbara Chase-Riboud, 1989; Free Souls by Mary Dahl, 1969) and history (Mutiny of the Amistad by Howard Jones, 1987; Black Odyssey by Mary Cable, 1977) over the years. Mystic Seaport, the Connecticut Afro-American Historical Society, and other organizations created Amistad America, Inc., back in 1994, with plans to build a replica of the schooner at Mystic Seaport. The mutiny has long been a symbol of antebellum justice for enslaved Africans, and has been an important part of African-American history to the present day. With the upcoming release of Spielberg's Amistad, however, David Pesci's book by the same name is well-placed to make the most of the increased attention.
The story is certainly an interesting and compelling one: the coastal schooner Amistad (“friendship” in Spanish) was carrying illegally-taken Africans from Havana to Puerto Príncipe when the slaves on board rebelled and took control of the ship, killing all but three of their captors. The Africans sailed eastward toward home during the day, but at night the Spaniards-the only ones on board who new any type of celestial navigation-sailed northward. Amistad eventually ended up off the coast of New York, where officers of the USS Washington approached and took control of Amistad. They took the bedraggled-looking schooner to New London, Connecticut, and hoped to apply for salvage claims against the ship and its inhabitants.
Abolitionists, most notably Lewis Tappan, quickly got involved with the case, arguing that the Africans were free men who had been kidnapped illegally and traded as landinos, or slaves descended from slaves. Tappan argued that the Amistads, as they came to be known, were not landinos, and as evidence he particularly pointed out that although they had supposedly spent years in Cuba, they did not speak or understand a word of Spanish. In just the few months they had been in Connecticut, nearly all the Amistads had learned at least a few words of phrases in English. Tappan further argued that the Amistads were acting as free men when they took control of the vessel.
The Spanish crew who survived the mutiny sought the return of the ship and its “cargo” to their control; the result was that in the ensuing court case that abolitionists sought the return of the Africans to Africa as free men, the Spanish sought return of the ship to Cuba, officers from Washington sought a claim against the value of the vessel, a local who saw the Amistads when they first arrived also claimed salvage rights, and the administration of President Martin Van Buren sought a prompt resolution to the entire affair in an attempt to avoid further conflict with Spain.
The Circuit and District Courts in Connecticut determined that the men on board had legitimately attempted to regain their freedom, and should be free to return to Africa, but until the case had been reviewed by higher courts the Amistads had to remain in custody. Tappan argued that if they were white, they would not be treated in this manner, but he could not gain their freedom. The Van Buren administration, hoping that the court would rule that the Africans should be returned to Cuba, appealed to the US Supreme Court. In March, 1841, with former President John Quincy Adams arguing in support of the Amistads, the Court eventually affirmed the original ruling. The ruling centered on the fact that the men were falsely and illegally sold as slaves; the Court ruled that one Spanish slave who had been aboard and had survived the ordeal was to be returned to Cuba, but he was secretly taken to Canada via the Underground Railroad following the ruling. After several months of fundraising, those who had survived their time in Connecticut returned to Sierra Leone, and several eventually made it back to their families in early 1842, three years after initially being taken prisoner.
Pesci's work of historical fiction combines some aspects of the story and adds other plot twists, as he freely admits, but that does not detract from the remarkable events of this story, nor from the well-told tale he spins. Some aspects of the story are historically inaccurate--the Coast Guard makes an appearance but didn't actually appear until 1915, and some are heavy-handed--the Spanish minister who is upset at the Administration's inability to tell the press or the courts what to do blurts out, “This, this flaccid government of yours will be your ruin. Trust me, Señor Forsyth, you will never be a power in the world if you cannot impose the will of your leaders at home.” But on the whole, the story is a very readable and faithful description of the events surrounding one of the most interesting stories of early America. Read this novel, and when Freeman, McConaughey, and Hopkins appear in the local multi-plex, and Spielberg starts thanking the Academy before you have a chance to see the film, you'll know the story.
Copyright © 1997 by
Peter H. McCracken
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