THE AMISTAD REBELLION: An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom. By Marcus Rediker. Viking. 304 pages. $27.95.
Like Steven Spielberg’s 1997 movie, Marcus Rediker’s highly readable, meticulously researched account of the 1839 Amistad rebellion and subsequent court cases opens with the eruption of Joseph Cinque and his companions from the hold of the notorious schooner that was taking them from the slave barracoons of Havana to a sugar plantation at Puerto Principe.
The intense hand-to-hand violence is not the beginning of the tale, though, and its ending is not quite the vindication of U.S. legal practice that Spielberg makes of it.
Rediker’s “history from below” keeps the focus squarely on the Africans as protagonists in their own story, beginning in modern-day Sierra Leone, crossing the Atlantic to Cuba, making their uncertain way to the United States, even more fitfully steering their course through the American legal system, and finally regaining their freedom and returning to Africa.
Rediker draws three significant conclusions from the case: that the Africans’ collective resistance was made possible by their shared culture, particularly an understanding of structures of authority and violence sanctioned by the Mende secret society known as Poro; that their legal success was driven by massive public interest and support; and that the ultimate success of the rebellion played an important role in encouraging abolition and broadening the base of the anti-slavery movement.
Rediker does a great job setting the initial kidnapping and trans-shipment of Cinque and his companions in the pervasively violent context of the trans-Atlantic slave-trade in a period when the international trade was illegal but slavery itself still drove the economies of Spanish America and the U.S. South. His narrative of the Africans’ middle passage aboard the Tecora, and their transfer to the Amistad succinctly exposes both the grisliness of the trade and the profits still to be made. It also explains the unequal balance of power that granted slave-holders the sanction to use the most extreme violence, while stripping enslaved people of their most basic rights.
And although the U.S. court cases that followed in the wake of the Amistad rebellion hinged on the fraudulence of the vessel’s records — that claimed their “human cargo” were longtime slaves, rather than illegally kidnapped West Africans, everyone recognized that the case posed a far more fundamental ethical question: whether it was legitimate to use violence to throw off the yoke of slavery.
That question made President Martin Van Buren so nervous that when the first trial went in the Africans’ favor, the U.S. government appealed the case to the Supreme Court, and Cinque and his fellows were subjected to a further year of incarceration and legal proceedings.
By the time the Supreme Court heard the case, the public representation of Cinque and his fellows as noble and valiant Africans was so dominant and the evidence that the ship’s papers were fraudulent so clearly established that the Court ruled 7-1 in their favor.
Although the Court’s decision was a narrow one and did nothing in itself to undermine the notion that human beings could be held as property in the land of the free, Rediker makes a strong case that the publicity it attracted played a crucial role in changing the social composition of the anti-slavery movement.
As such, although the story of the Amistad rebellion may not lend itself to the triumphalist narrative of Spielberg’s movie, it does nonetheless represent one of the most significant moments in the history of this country’s long and painful movement toward an inclusive definition of the idea of liberty.
Reviewer Simon Lewis is professor of English at the College of Charleston who specializes in African and Third World literature. He is an associate director of the Carolina Lowcountry and Atlantic World (CLAW) program.