Between the mid-1500s and the mid-1800s, some 11 million captured Africans were deported across the Atlantic Ocean, under ghastly conditions, to be auctioned into slavery. It was the largest forced migration of people in all of history. When Parliament outlawed the slave trade in the early 1800s, Britain's powerful navy soon became the prime force in efforts to suppress the African slave business. While some European nations allowed their vessels suspected of carrying slaves to be searched by British naval authorities, the United States would grant no such permission. Without doubt, America's refusal to cooperate with the countries of Europe perpetuated the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
In 1839, a large group of African tribesmen from the Mende-speaking region of Sierra Leone were abducted by Portuguese slave traders and exported to Cuba, then a Spanish colony, for sale. Upon arriving in Havana, 53 of the natives were transferred to a Spanish schooner, the Amistad, for final delivery to the Caribbean plantations of their purchasers, Pedro Montes and Jose Ruiz. On the fourth day out, the slaves somehow managed to break their shackles and take control of the ship. In the melee, two crew members were killed and two others escaped. When the struggle subsided, the Africans detained Montes and Ruiz, along with a young cabin boy; the remaining crewmen were forced ashore.
Under the leadership of one particularly strong and daring member of their force, named Sengbe (called Cinque by his captors), the Africans ordered Montes and Ruiz to steer them back to Sierra Leone. Although the Spaniards obediently sailed eastward during daylight hours, they covertly navigated a northwesterly course at night. For many miles, unbeknownst to the Africans, the Amistad zigzagged a route adjacent to, but beyond vision of, the American coastline.
After drifting at sea for nearly two months, the ravaged vessel dropped anchor off the Long Island coast so that a party of men could row ashore to replenish the ship's vastly depleted food and water supplies. The next day, the Amistad was intercepted by the USS Washington on routine patrol for piracy and maritime smuggling. The Africans were promptly arrested and confined at New Haven, Connecticut, pending disposition of the American government. Upon learning of the Africans' plight, a circle of influential northerners organized a determined campaign to secure their freedom. The subsequent court case was a judicial octopusfive separate parties held significant interest in the outcome of the Africans. Ultimately, the Amistad cause célebre would be decided by the Supreme Court, with a former President (John Quincy Adams) and the sitting President (Martin Van Buren) drawing lines in the sand against one another.
The slave trade was part of the commercial network often referred to as the "triangular trade" because the most common round-trip routes (there were several) resembled a triangle. One version began in New England, where vessels carrying rum would depart for Africa. Once there, the rum was exchanged for slaves. Then the ship would recross the Atlantic, transporting its chattel cargo to the West Indies, where the slaves were sold for sugar and molasses. Finally, these products were shipped to New England to be distilled into rum. And so it went. Each third of the trip meant a handsome profit for the experienced trader. The portion of the voyage that brought slaves to America (considered the middle leg of the triangle) was known as the Middle Passage. It generally took the better part of two months to complete.
The infamous Middle Passage was nothing short of a living hell. As many as 600 blacks, sometimes even more, were cast into irons and then tightly packed into the dank and fetid cargo hold of a single ship. So great was the profit for each slave delivered that most vessels were stocked to their utmost capacity. The captives were sparsely feda handful of warm vegetable mush per day was typical. The stench of blood, sweat, vomit, and excrement filled the three- or four-foot-high holds. Air vents on the side of the ship were closed when the seas became rough or the rain heavy, hence many of the Africans suffocated or were overcome by the extreme heat. The excruciating torment of the Middle Passage even caused some slaves to turn against others, as one eyewitness revealed: "The sense of misery...was so terrible in the 'tween-decks...that the unfortunate slaves could not [even] turn round. In their frenzy some killed others in the hope of procuring more room to breathe."
The African women were often sexually abused by their captors. Additional atrocities faced those slaves who offered resistance or became ill. The unruly were mercilessly whipped and beaten into submission; the sick were simply tossed overboard, weighted with chains, to the sharks. Slaves would be also heaved into the ocean should a ship run low on food or if detection by legal authorities seemed probable. Deaths due to diseases such as dysentery and smallpox were common. (There are cases on record of entire shiploads, including the crew, going blind from ophthalmia.) Some historians estimate the average mortality rate of the Middle Passage at upwards to 15 percent, although there were numerous times when half or two-thirds of the slaves were dead upon a ship's arrival in the West Indies. In a sense, those who died were the lucky ones.
The compelling story of Cinque and his companions is vividly retold in the 1997 Steven Spielberg movie Amistad. The film has been compared favorably with another Spielberg masterpiece about unbounded racial injustice, Schindler's Listthe former does for blacks what the latter did for the Jewish community of the Holocaust (both films were scripted by Steve Zaillian). The Amistad stars Djimon Hounsou as the heroic Cinque, Matthew McConaughey as the aspiring attorney Roger Baldwin, Anthony Hopkins as the tenacious Congressman John Quincy Adams, and Nigel Hawthorne as the loathsome President Martin Van Buren. Also featured is Morgan Freeman, cast as Theodore Joadson, a former slave, now a well-to-do businessman who is one of the Amistad Committee's chief figures. The character is fictional, although it's entirely conceivable that a person or two of his makeup took part in the affair. Associate Justice Joseph Story, who announced the Supreme Court's decision, is portrayed by Harry Blackmun, a real-life Court justice who retired in 1994. The movie's R rating is due primarily to some unpalatable scenes showing treatment of the African slaves.
Other than Freeman's character and Cinque's escape (instead of using his fingers to claw a spike from a wooden beam, he surreptitiously obtained a loose nail from on deck), most of the film's ahistorical content concerns Adams. In the true course of events, the pragmatic Adams did not deliver an appeal to the human conscience of the Supreme Court, as he does in the movie version, where it's his impassioned summons of the memories of Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Washington, and of course the senior Adams, that seems to carry the day. Instead, the thrust of his argument was strictly technical and jurisdictional. (Still, we can be certain his Puritan faith and devotion to the principles of the Declaration of Independence were stirring in his soul, even if he did not put those feelings to words.) Further, Adams did not invite Cinque to his home, nor did he hail Cinque as a hero. Beyond these relatively minor Hollywood fabrications, the movie is well-researched. Even the Mende language and costumes are authentic. The film's closing credits acknowledge Black Mutiny: The Revolt on the Schooner Amistad, by William A. Owens, as a major source of reference material.
Amistad provides an important lesson in American history. But it does not stop there. The movie challenges its viewers to realize that slavery, with all its unspeakable horrors, is more than just a nasty chapter in a history book, sandwiched somewhere between the Missouri Compromise and the Civil War, that can be side-stepped by simply flipping a few pages to a more emotionally-generic subject. The inhumanity of slavery should not be that easy to dismiss. If, when watching Amistad, you feel yourself squirming just a little, then consider it time well spent.
The Amistad movie itself became embroiled in a judicial battle. Charges surfaced that the movie was plagiarized from Echo of Lions, a minor historical novel written by Barbara Chase-Riboud a decade earlier. An accompanying lawsuit threatened to block the movie's release. Apparently, there were definite similarities between the stories presented by the movie and the book, but logic dictates overlap since both are based on an actual historical event. Is there such a thing as copyright infringement on history?
Select the best response for each item according to information learned by viewing Amistad, as well as through lecture and assigned reading.
Choose one of the following. Your response should be 3-5 typed, double-spaced pages and include a list of sources used (minimum of two required).