American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

AMISTAD. In the early morning darkness in a stormy sea off the coast of Cuba on 2 July 1839, the enslaved Africans carried as cargo aboard the Spanish schooner Amistad revolted against their captors. Led by fellow captives Cinque and Grabeau, the fifty-three slaves managed to overpower their captors, killing the captain and cook but sparing the two slave owners and the cabin boy so that they could navigate the ship eastward back to Africa. For sixty-three days the ship zigzagged up the Atlantic coast as the Spaniards sailed east by day and covertly altered course toward the north by night. In a desperate search for provisions, Cinque made a landfall on Long Island. There the schooner, the blacks, and the cargo were seized by the U.S.S. Washington. The Amistad was first brought into New London, Connecticut, and the Africans were imprisoned.

The ensuing legal proceedings pitted the abolitionist interest in the fundamental principles of personal liberty against the Spanish owners’ claims that the mutinous, murderous slaves were their rightful property. The antislavery movement saw the trial as an opportunity to bring into focus the issues troubling the country and dividing its people. As the case progressed, the abolitionists convinced former president John Quincy Adams of the righteousness of their cause; he ultimately argued the case before the Supreme Court, contending that Cinque, Grabeau, and the surviving Africans were neither slaves nor criminals but “self emancipated” free persons. The Court agreed, finding that the Spaniards had no property rights over their former captives and that the U.S. government had no obligation to compensate the claimants.

This decision had lingering aftereffects that complicated diplomatic relationships between the United States and Spain, while the abolitionists came perilously close to exploiting the Africans as individuals for the larger cause of abolishing slavery. Finally, on 27 November 1841, the thirty-five survivors of the original fifty-three “Amistaders” were returned to Sierra Leone, nearly three years after they had left their homeland. A contemporary play, The Black Schooner or the Private Slaver Amistad (first perf. 1840), ran several evenings in New York at four theatres.

The Amistad story, the “mutiny”* itself, and the landmark legal case gathered dust in historical limbo until resurrected in the mid-twentieth century by creative artists such as Robert Hayden* (“Middle Passage” [1945]) and modern scholars such as Mary Cable (Black Odyssey [1971]) and Howard Jones (Mutiny on the Amistad [1987]). Most recently, Steven Spielberg retold the story as a major motion picture (Amistad [1997]), for many the venue of our national consciousness and conscience. Alexs Pate’s novel Amistad (1997) was based on the screenplay of Spielberg’s movie and contains color photographs from the film; David Pesci also published his novel Amistad in the same year. Composer Anthony Davis and his librettist cousin Thulani Davis turned the story into an opera that premiered at the Lyric Opera in Chicago in 1997. A replica of the schooner Amistad was built in the shipyard of Mystic Seaport: The Museum of America and the Sea, Mystic, Connecticut, launched on 25 March 2000, and made her maiden voyage in OpSail 2000 in New York Harbor on 4 July 2000.

Fred M. Fetrow