Review: The Amistad Rebellion: An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom

By Marcus Rediker

The 1839 rebellion on board La Amistad has waxed and waned in the public consciousness. This shipload of slaves who broke free of their chains, killed the captain and attempted to sail back to Africa—only to be captured and put on trial for piracy in the United States— once dominated slavery debates around the world, and riveted the emerging popular media in the U.S. Their story then faded from view, until movie director Steven Spielberg brought his version to the big screen in 1997. Since then, a cottage industry of Amistadia has enjoyed a resurgence, including a life-sized replica moored in New Haven, Conn., and an outsized presence in American high-school texts.

Making his contribution to modern interest in the rebellion, Rediker aims to tell the parts Spielberg left out. While the Supreme Court ultimately set the Amistad Africans free in a politically charged trial, Rediker figures the slaves themselves deserve the bulk of the attention. He redirects the story away from the courtroom, where the movie spent most of its time, and back to the shores of Africa. “Curiously,” writes Rediker, “the American legal system has emerged as the story’s hero—the very system which, in 1839, held 2½ million African Americans in bondage.”

Contemporary public fascination with the slaves provides the historian with a rich trove of information to draw upon. The 53 men and children, led by charismatic Joseph Cinqué, became instant national celebrities. They attracted ample newspaper coverage, both pro and con; academic investigations into their language, physiology and culture; plus travelling art exhibits, and even a stage version of their tale. A much fuller picture of the Amistad rebels thus emerges, covering their life and eventual enslavement in Africa, membership in the secret Poro society—a kind of African Masonic Lodge—as well as their efforts directing their own legal defence.

It might have required skilled lawyers and aggressive abolitionist lobbying to spare the Amistad Africans from conviction at the hands of the American judicial system, but Rediker leaves no doubt they were free men from the moment they were born.

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