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The Little Revolt That Became a Hollywood Fairytale

I've always had a passionate love affair with the movies. I love the way they stimulate my imagination, be it with way cool special effects like that kung fu scene in "The Matrix," or the lovely New England musical soundtrack in "The Cider House Rules" or just the gorgeous face of Brad Pitt in general. I also have, in case you can't tell by my current job, a passionate love for history.

Now combining these two passions has often caused serious conflict. Movies, because of their cultural power, can shape what we know about history and affect how we feel about it. Most of us would rather watch a movie about the Civil War than read about it in a textbook. So I tend to get a little upset when I see lies and distortions on film, knowing that most people will never find out the truth. And when the movie deals with a touchy subject like slavery, I get really sensitive, as you'll soon see.

Cinque's Spirit still lives on inside the New Haven Historical Society

My assignment this week was to cover what used to be a little known slave revolt that happened aboard a ship called The Amistad, a name meaning "Friendship" in Spanish (ironic, isn't it). In 1839, 53 Africans held as slaves mutinied on their ship under the leadership of a Mende (African tribe member), Joseph Cinque, while heading to Cuba as part of the illegal slave trade. The captain and other crew members were murdered except for two sailors who the slaves believed would bring them back to Africa. Instead, they ended up on the shores of America, and caused a major commotion: Spain demanded that the slaves be brought back, while abolitionists in the United States argued that because the slaves had been captured illegally in Africa, they should be allowed to go free. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court. Former President John Quincy Adams argued on behalf of the 53 Africans and won them their freedom. The case captivated the hearts of anti-slavery groups in the North and further inspired their cause of eliminating slavery in the U.S., putting into place the forces that would erupt with the Civil War decades later.


Between our car breaking down, my digital camera not working, and the rain...

Well, thanks to Steven Spielberg, this once-overlooked event became one of the most publicized stories ever about slavery with the 1997 big-screen release of the movie "Amistad.". Before I headed off to Connecticut, the state that's become synonymous with the tale, I watched the movie with a queasy feeling, wondering at every turn what was true and what was not and most importantly, what things had been left out. When I arrived in New Haven, I set off to uncover the REAL story behind the Amistad. Here's the scoop once and for all.

The New Haven Green

Myth #1: Only Southerners were racists and supported slavery.

The movie "Amistad" makes the issue of slavery seem like a timeless battle of good (Northerners) vs. evil (Southerners). What's left out is the crucial fact that slavery was legal in Connecticut at the time of the Amistad revolt and would remain so until 1848. When the US Navy found the ship originally off the coast of Long Island, NY, they moved the boat to Connecticut because that way, the slaves would be counted as part of the "cargo." The navy men stood to earn $80,000 in Connecticut instead of $40,000 in free state New York for their "discovery."

Myth #2: The judges ruled that the African slaves were human beings deserving of their rights to liberty, justice and freedom.

The judge in the second trial that took place in New Haven was Andrew Judson, a notorious racist. He put into place a law in Connecticut that said for a black person to attend a school with white people, the townspeople had to all sign a consent form. President Andrew Jackson awarded him with a federal judgeship for his actions. The majority of the Supreme Court contained Southern slaveholders. Thus, the issue during the three trials that took over two years to complete was not about the morality of slavery or if black people deserved the same rights and freedoms as white people. The judges were only ruling on whether these Africans were legal slaves from Cuba and liable for murder, or had been illegally kidnapped from Africa which under a treaty written in 1809 and signed by the US and Spain would have made it justifiable for them to murder their captors.

The ruling in favor of the Africans did nothing at all to change the status of slaves in the United States. The Supreme Court, after all, would rule 16 years later that enslaved blacks were property and not human beings in the infamous Dred Scott case. But it's worth noting that the Amistad rulings were remarkable decisions given the political nature of the time and the judges hearing the cases.

Amistad Memorial built in 1992

Myth #3: The free slaves went back to Africa and lived happily ever after.

Nobody knows really what happened to the Africans after they returned to their homeland of Sierra Leone. The rumor that Cinque became a slave trader himself does not have any evidence. It is believed that many of the Africans, when they returned, found many relatives missing, probably victims as well of the slave trade. Cinque may have gone to the Caribbean to look for his family. The one member of the group we do know about is a girl named Margru who was the only one to return to the States and graduated from Oberlin College.

Now that we've smashed some of the myths regarding the Amistad movie, let's celebrate the truths:

Truth #1: Politicans are unprincipled egomaniacs.

The movie rightly portrays President Martin Van Buren as a politician more concerned with his re-election than with doing what's right. The US government supported Spain's position because it wanted to remain on good terms with them. Van Buren also feared alienating his Southern pro-slavery supporters, so much so that he had ordered the U.S. Navy to send the Africans to Cuba no matter what the outcome of the trials. This would have totally subverted the separation of powers that is the basis of our government. Van Buren lost the election.

The power of prayer

Truth #2: Ordinary people CAN make a difference.

The movie tends to glorify President Adams and overlook the hundreds of ordinary citizens who donated their time, money and energy into helping the Mende Africans. Nonetheless, it's clear that the efforts of those citizens turned New Haven into a media circus and made the Amistad case an OJ Simpson trial-of-the-nineteenth century. Without those citizens' help, the Africans would have been sent to live a life of permanent slavery in Cuba. Christians in particular contributed to the success of the trial. They raised money for the legal team and visited the Africans while they were held in the New Haven jail for a year. After the Africans won their freedom, the local church community built housing for them in Farmington where they lived and attended school for 8 months before returning on a ship to Africa. On the journey back, they were accompanied by several American missionaries who founded the United Methodist Church in Sierra Leone which today has 85,000 members.

The Amistad is a truly wonderful, heroic tale of the underdog overcoming incredible odds to triumph over adversity. And yet, I worry that the emphasis on this story distracts us from honestly confronting the horrors of slavery and its place in American history. The Amistad story seems to let us Americans off the hook and make us feel a little too smug about our judicial system, at the expense of those nasty Spaniards. For every one "right" decision regarding the civil rights of blacks, there were hundreds of unjust decisions. I still await the movie that will finally force us to confront what it means to have a country founded on both the principles of "All men are created equal" and the enshrinement of slavery in the Constitution.


Please email me at: irene@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Rebecca - The unluckiest lottery winner
Nick - What it means to be a slave: Gabriel's story
Teddy -The murder and mayhem that was Nat Turner's rebellion
MAD - America's shame: A death penalty that includes teens