by Howard Jones; Oxford University Press; 271 pages; $22.95.
That the story of the slave ship Amistad has been told more than once, both as fact and in fiction, is not surprising, because it is the only instance in American history in which blacks, captured in Africa to be sold into slavery, managed to fight back, win, and eventually get back home. The story is dramatic and complex, involving a handsome, forceful young black leader named Cinque, diplomatic and legal squabbling, the mounting emotional fury between abolitionists and Southern slave owners, and a former as well as the incumbent President of the United States.
The story starts in 1839, when a ship loaded with captured blacks sailed from Lomboko on the west coast of Africa to Cuba, after the importation of humans to be sold as slaves had been declared illegal by Spain. Slavers evaded the law by sneaking their cargoes ashore at night to avoid the Cuban patrols, but once on shore—where slavery itself was legal —the new arrivals could be passed off as native-born “ladinos” and then moved anywhere among the Spanish-ruled islands without much fear of detection. This was the situation when Cinquè led a mutiny aboard the coastal schooner Amistad , which was carrying fifty-three of the blacks from Lomboko between Cuba and Puerto Principe. The mutineers spared the lives of three of their Spanish captors as none of them were sailors and they needed pilots to get them back to Africa. It wasn’t hard for the Spaniards to deceive them, and when the ship was finally picked up by an American naval vessel, it was off the coast of New York.
The Africans were sent to a prison in Connecticut, and it was weeks before anyone who spoke any language they understood could be found. The controversy about whether they were or were not slaves started mounting before they were even able to tell their story. Four were children, obviously too young to have been born before the importation ban in Cuba, and they knew no Spanish and didn’t recognize the names they had been assigned in the ship’s ledger.
The Van Buren administration wanted to get the matter out of the way and return the ship and cargo to the Spainards so as not to agitate the South before an upcoming election. But interest in the case swelled. The Amistad blacks, in their prison cells, became a tourist attraction. Abolitionists determined to extract every possible advantage from the case for their overall cause. It was finally settled in the Supreme Court, where former President John Quincy Adams, who hadn’t been in a courtroom for more than thirty years, successfully defended the “helpless blacks from what he considered to be the machinations of the White House.…”
In spite of an abundance of rhetoric about “natural law,” virtue, and the Bible, Howard Jones feels that the Amistad victims won simply because the American legal system worked; the Supreme Court made a proper legal decision. It is a rousing and satisfying tale, and it is well worth hearing it again in this careful and thoughtful telling.