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In 1839, the captives who carried out the Amistad mutiny had no idea it would become the most famous slave ship rebellion in American history. Taken from Western Africa and shipped across the Atlantic to be sold to the highest bidder, they wanted only to regain their freedom and return to their homes. But their efforts to commandeer the Amistad were only the beginning of their extraordinary story. Facing unfathomable odds, the rebels gained freedom after a court case that marshaled the full energy of the American abolitionist movement, pit a former U.S. president against a sitting one—and called on the U.S. Supreme Court to make a final determination.
Theirs was an unlikely escape from bondage. From the 16th to the 19th centuries, an estimated 12 million Africans were forcibly shipped across the Atlantic Ocean to the New World in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Of those, at least 1.5 million are believed to have perished before even reaching shore, done in by the horrid conditions onboard slave ships.
By the time of the Amistad rebellion, the United States and all other major slave destinations in North and South America had abolished the importation of enslaved people. Yet since slavery itself remained legal in most of those places, unlawful activities abounded. Along the coast of present-day Sierra Leone, for example, Spanish slave trader Pedro Blanco—said to live partly like a European aristocrat and partly like an African king—continued doing brisk business with the help of a powerful local leader who rounded up his human cargo.
READ MORE: 7 Famous Slave Revolts
Conditions Aboard the Amistad Were Grim
In February and March of 1839, the 53 Africans who would later find themselves on the Amistad arrived at Blanco’s slave depot, known as Lomboko, after being arduously marched there from Sierra Leone’s interior. Most of them had essentially been kidnapped, whereas others had been captured in warfare, taken as debt repayment or punished for such crimes as adultery. Kept in barracks, they were stripped naked and thoroughly inspected from head to toe. Disease, famine and beatings were purportedly commonplace.
Then, after several weeks, they and 500 or so other captives were loaded onto the Tecora, a Brazilian or Portuguese slave ship. According to testimony that the Amistad captives gave later, they were shackled around the ankles, wrists and neck and forced to sleep tightly together in contorted positions, with not enough headroom to even stand up straight. Whippings were handed out for even minor offenses, like not finishing breakfast, and each morning dead bodies were brought up from the lower deck and tossed into the ocean.
Following two months at sea, the Tecora landed in Havana, Cuba, then a Spanish colony, where potential buyers once again poked and prodded the surviving captives like livestock. Undeterred by the illegality of the transactions, José Ruiz purchased 49 adults and Pedro Montes purchased four children, with plans to bring them to sugar plantations a few hundred miles away in Puerto Príncipe (now Camagüey), Cuba. Ruiz and Montes, both Spaniards, then loaded the enslaved people onto the Amistad (which ironically means “Friendship” in Spanish).
On June 28, the Amistad left Havana under the cover of nightfall so as to best avoid British antislavery patrols. Onboard, the captives continued suffering severe mistreatment, including the pouring of salt, rum and gunpowder into freshly inflicted wounds. They developed a particular dislike for the cook, who delighted in insinuating that they would all be killed, chopped up and eaten.
READ MORE: 5 Daring Slave Escapes
The Rebels, Led by Cinqué, First Targeted the Cook
Despite being from at least nine different ethnic groups, the Africans agreed one night to band together in revolt.
Before dawn on July 2, they either broke or picked the locks on their chains. Led by Cinqué, a rice farmer also known as Joseph Cinqué or Sengbe Pieh, they then climbed up to the main deck, headed straight for the cook and bludgeoned him to death in his sleep. Though awakened by the tumult, the other four crew members, plus Ruiz and Montes, didn’t have time to load their guns. Grabbing a dagger and a club, the captain managed to kill one African and mortally wound another. But he was eventually slashed to death with cane knives the Africans had found in the ship’s hold. Two other crew members threw a canoe overboard and jumped into the water after it, whereas the cabin boy stayed out of the fighting altogether. Ruiz and Montes, meanwhile, were relieved of their weapons, tied up and ordered to sail back to Sierra Leone.
Having all grown up away from the ocean, the Africans depended on Ruiz and Montes for navigation. During the day, the two Spaniards set an eastward course, as they had been told to do. At night, however, they headed north and west in the hope of being rescued.
After passing through the Bahamas, where the Amistad stopped on various small islands, it moved up the coast of the United States. News reports began to appear of a mysterious schooner, with an all-Black crew and tattered sails, steering erratically. With little to drink onboard, dehydration and dysentery took a toll, and several Africans died. Finally, on August 26, a U.S. Navy brig ran into the Amistad off the eastern end of Long Island. Ruiz and Montes were freed at once, while the Africans were imprisoned in Connecticut, which, unlike New York, was still a slave state at the time.
READ MORE: The Last Slave Ship Survivor Gave an Interview in the 1930s. It Just Surfaced.
John Quincy Adams Defended the Africans in Court
As the Africans languished in poorly ventilated jail cells, thousands of curious visitors paid an admission fee to come look at them. Media coverage was extensive, and by early September a New York City theater was already putting on a play entitled “The Long, Low Black Schooner.” Influential abolitionists helped secure the Africans a trial in a Hartford, Connecticut, federal district court.
Yet they faced a formidable suite of opponents. The naval officers who captured the Amistad claimed salvage rights to both the vessel and its human cargo, as did two hunters who had come across some of the Africans looking for water along the Long Island shoreline. Ruiz and Montes likewise wanted their so-called property back, whereas the Spanish and U.S. governments requested that the Africans be returned to Cuba, where near-certain death awaited them. Believing the court would take his side, President Martin Van Buren sent a Navy ship to pick up the Africans and transport them away before the abolitionists could file an appeal.
Much to Van Buren’s chagrin, however, the Hartford court ruled in January 1840 that the Africans had been illegally brought to Cuba and that they therefore were not enslaved people. The Van Buren administration immediately appealed to a circuit court and then to the Supreme Court, basing its argument on a treaty between Spain and the United States that contained anti-piracy provisions. By then, the plight of the Africans had attracted former President John Quincy Adams, who offered his legal services and defended their right to pursue freedom. Nicknamed “Old Man Eloquent,” Adams accused Van Buren of abusing his executive power and dramatically gestured to a courtroom copy of the Declaration of Independence to get his point across.
READ MORE: The Shocking Photo of 'Whipped Peter' That Made Slavery's Brutality Impossible to Deny
The Supreme Court Granted the Amistad Rebels Their Freedom
In March 1841, the Supreme Court agreed with him, upholding the lower court in a 7-1 decision. After over 18 months of incarceration in the United States, not to mention the time spent enslaved, the Africans were finally free. To make matters even better, they learned that the British had destroyed Blanco’s Lomboko slave depot in a surprise raid.
In its decision, the Supreme Court cleared the U.S. government of any repatriation duties, and new President John Tyler declined to provide funds of his own accord. Salvage rights went to the naval officers; not to the Africans. As a result, abolitionists were forced to raise money from scratch for the journey back to Sierra Leone. When an African subsequently drowned in a possible suicide, the number of survivors fell to 35.
At last, on November 26, 1841, they and five Christian missionaries boarded a boat, arriving at their destination about seven weeks later. A few of the Amistad rebels stayed with the missionaries, including the four children, who all took English names. But most apparently made a beeline for their families and vanished from the historical record.
Document Essay: “The Amistad Affair”
In June 1839, 52 African captives revolted as they were being transported on the Spanish schooner Amistad from Havana to Guanaja, Cuba. Led by Joseph Cinque, a Mende from the Sierra Leone region of West Africa, the rebels ordered two surviving Spaniards to sail the ship eastward to Africa. The crew sailed eastward during the day, but veered north-westward at night, hoping to encounter a British ship patrolling for vessels engaged in the illegal slave trade or to reach a friendly port.
Four months earlier, the Africans had been illegally shipped to Cuba a third of the captives died along the way. During the 1830s, Cuba, the world’s leading sugar producer, imported over 180,000 slaves in violation of a law prohibiting the importation of slaves from Africa after 1820.
In late August, the U.S.S. Washington seized the Amistad near the Long Island coast. When the Amistad was captured, there were 39 African men and four children on board. A hearing was held in New London, Connecticut, and the Africans were charged with mutiny, murder, and piracy. They were then sent to New Haven, where the adults were placed in a jail cell, 20 by 30 feet in size. For 18 months, the Amistad rebels remained confined to their cell. Spectators paid 12 and a half cents to look at them.
Abolitionists quickly took up the cause of the Amistad rebels. They insisted that since the Africans had been illegally imported into Cuba and were free at the time that they entered U.S. waters, the rebels should be released from jail. The district court judge found on their behalf, but President Martin Van Buren (who came from a Dutch-American family that had once held slaves in New York and who was desperate to maintain southern support for his reelection bid) ordered the case appealed to the Supreme Court.
The Amistad Affair case raised critical issues of law and justice: whether captives had a right to rebel against their captors and whether American courts have jurisdiction over crimes committed outside this country. In September 1939 letter, William S. Holabird (1794?-1855), the U.S. district attorney in Connecticut and a staunch Jacksonian Democrat, informed the Van Buren administration that there was no legal basis for returning the Africans to Spanish authorities in Cuba. He argued that the United States had no right to try the Africans because their rebellion had taken place on a Spanish vessel on the open sea and involved only Spanish subjects.
Weakened by the disastrous economic Panic of 1837, President Van Buren feared that the Amistad case would shatter his support in the South. The administration rejected the district attorney’s argument and pressed ahead with the case.
In fact, Van Buren’s administration intentionally mistranslated Spanish documents in a desperate effort to mislead the court about whether it was legal to import slaves into Cuba. President Van Buren also ordered a ship to take the rebels to Cuba before the District Court could render its verdict. Both attempts to obstruct justice failed.
“However unjust…the slave trade may be, it is not contrary to the law of nations”
In the following legal brief, John Forsyth, Martin Van Buren’s Secretary of State, rejects the argument that since the Atlantic slave trade was illegal under U.S. and Spanish law, the Africans on the Amistad had been illegally held captive. If the courts had accepted Forsyth’s argument and returned the captives to Cuba, the rebels would almost certainly have been executed.
In a ruling that stunned the Van Buren administration, the District Court ruled that since the Amistad rebels had been born free, they could not be treated as property, and must be returned to Africa. The district attorney appealed the verdict to the Circuit Court, which upheld the District Court’s decision. The case then went to the U.S. Supreme Court.
John Forsyth, Secretary of State, 1839
“All we want is make us free”
The Amistad Affair took place at a critical moment in the history of the antislavery movement. By 1839, abolitionists had failed in their efforts to end slavery through moral suasion. Northern mobs, often instigated by “gentlemen of property and standing,” disrupted abolitionist meetings and destroyed antislavery printing presses. The House of Representatives had adopted the “gag rule,” automatically tabling antislavery petitions. The Amistad case offered a opportunity for abolitionists to dramatize the illegal violence in which slavery originated and the discrepancy between slavery and American ideals of natural rights. The affair helped shift the abolitionist movement away from moral suasion to new methods of political and legal agitation that would arouse thousands of Northerners against slavery’s immoralities. Among the Amistad captives were four African children. One, a boy named Kale, who was just eleven years old in 1841, learned English very quickly. When the rebels heard that John Quincy Adams would represent them before the Supreme Court, they selected Kale to write the following letter to the former president.
Kale to John Quincy Adams, January 4, 1841
“I appear…on…behalf of thirty-six individuals, the life and liberty of every one…depend on…this court”
Abolitionists persuaded former President John Quincy Adams to represent the Amistad rebels before the U.S. Supreme Court. Adams accepted the invitation, stating that “there is in my estimation no higher object upon earth…than to occupy that position.”
Adams, the son of one of America’s founders, was the only surviving statesman who had been on close terms with Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe. In a nine-hour closing argument extending over two days, the 74-year-old Adams contended that the Africans had “vindicated their own right of liberty” by executing “the justice of Heaven” upon a “private murder, their tyrant and oppressor.” He used the Amistad case to illustrate the federal government’s complicity with slavery and the discrepancy between slavery and American ideals of natural rights. Associate Justice Joseph Story, who wrote the majority opinion, described Adams’s summation as “an extraordinary argument…extraordinary…for its power, [and] for its bitter sarcasm….”
A majority of the Justices were Southerners, including Chief Justice Roger B. Taney. But one Southerner was too ill to participate in the case and another died of a heart attack during the trial. In the end, the Court ruled that the Africans had exercised the right of self-defense since they had been illegally transported as slaves from Africa to Cuba. As it turned out, private donors returned thirty-five surviving rebels to Sierra Leone almost a year after the Court ruling. While this outcome signified an extraordinary victory for black and white abolitionists, and for John Quincy Adams in particular, the Supreme Court made it clear that the Amistad case was highly exceptional and that slaves in general had no right to rebel or escape their bondage.
Cinque, the revolt’s leader, returned to his Mende homeland only to find his village destroyed as a result of a war with a neighboring people. Apparently his wife and children were sold into slavery during this conflict, and he never saw them again. He later worked as an interpreter for the American Missionary Association.
Argument of John Quincy Adams, before the Supreme Court of the United States, in the Case of the United States, Appellants, vs. Cinque, and Others, Africans, Captured in the Schooner Amistad, Delivered on February 04, and March 1, 1841
“No action of mine can…contribute…to the abolition of Slavery”
Five years after the Amistad affair, and a year after the House of Representatives ended the gag rule, John Quincy Adams expresses his resignation about the possibility of further actions against slavery, such as the abolition of slavery within the District of Columbia. Not until April 1862, long after Adams’s death, did Congress pass an act providing for compensated emancipation of “persons held to service or labor in the District of Columbia.”
In 1836 Adams had warned the South that if a war was fought in the South, the government would abolish slavery. “From the instant your slave-holding states become a theater of war–civil, senile, or foreign,” he predicted, “–from that instant the war powers of the Constitution extend interference with the institution of slavery in every way that it can be interfered with.”
In 1846, a year after he wrote the following letter, Adams suffered a paralytic stroke. He recovered sufficiently to return to Congress, but in February 1848, as he rose from his House desk to denounce the Mexican War, he suffered another stroke. As he collapsed, a fellow House member caught him. The stricken former president, too ill to be moved from the Capitol, was carried to the Speaker’s office, where he died two days later. The country’s last tangible political link with the world of the founders was gone.
Greenspan, Jesse. 2014, July 2. &ldquoLife on a Slave Ship: How the Amistad Rebellion, and Its Extraordinary Trial, Unfolded,&rdquo History Channel. Retrieved on February 5, 2021 from: https://www.history.com/news/the-amistad-slave-rebellion-175-years-ago).
Guyatt , Nicholas . 2012. &ldquoA Peculiarr Revolt,&rdquo The Nation , 295, (22): 27-32.
Haynes, LeRoy Jr. 2005. &ldquo The theology and philosophy o f King's concept of non - violence ,&rdquo
Cultural Encounters , 1, (2): 61-74.
Joiner, Lottie. 2020, February 2020. &ldquoFinding Their Roots: Blacks Repatriate to Africa,&rdquo Pulitzer Center. Retrieved on February 2, 2021 from: https://pulitzercenter.org/projects/finding-their-roots-blacks-repatriate-africa
Kaba, Amadu Jacky. 2021. &ldquo Sierra Leone as a Cultural Capital of Pan-Africanism,&rdquo (38 pages). Under peer review by a scholarly journal.
Kaba, Amadu Jacky. 2017. &ldquoEducational Attainment, Citizenship, and Black American Women in Elected and Appointed National Leadership Positions,&rdquo The Review of Black Political Economy, 44, (1-2): 99-136.
Kaba, Amadu Jacky. 2009. &ldquoExplaining President Barack Obama&rsquos First Visit to Africa (Egypt): Three Phenomena of Africa and Africans as the Core of U.S.-Arab/Muslim Relations,&rdquo African Renaissance , 6, (2): 103-107.
Lewis , Rupert . 2001. &ldquoMarcus Garvey: The Remapping of Africa and Its Diaspora,&rdquo Critical Arts , 25, (4): 473-483.
McDonald, Jermaine M. 2016. &ldquo Ferguson and Baltimore according to Dr. King: How Competing Interpretations of King's Legacy Frame the Public Discourse on Black Lives Matter ,&rdquo Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics , 36, (2): 141-158.
Parker, Kim., Horowitz, Juliana Menasce., and Anderson, Monica. 2020, June 12. &ldquoAmid Protests, Majorities Across Racial and Ethnic Groups Express Support for the Black Lives Matter Movement,&rdquo Pew Research Center. Retrieved on January 22, 2021 from: https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2020/06/12/amid-protests-majorities-across-racial-and-ethnic-groups-express-support-for-the-black-lives-matter-movement/
3. The Amistad Captives' African Roots
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So my interest is basically in returning to Africa. I spend a lot of time in the book talking about the African origins of these individuals and I should say, because they were in jail for 19 months with thousands of people coming through and lots of people talking to them through interpreters and then writing down what they learned, there is an absolutely unparalleled amount of evidence available about their lives. Some of this you&rsquoll see in the pamphlet by John Warner Barber. He has a little biographical sketch of each person where they&rsquore from, what their family was like. Really extraordinary information and this of course has never been used to full effect. So, my decision is to go back to Africa. My argument is that everything that the Amistad Africans did was by in large a function of who they were before they were enslaved. That the decisions they made,how they deliberated, how they organized themselves, how they thought about their dilemma all this is related to their African lives.
And I want to go here to a different image, if I may, to show a map of Africa&hellip
Okay, I want to show you basically who these people were, where they came from. This is a region down here called the Gallinas coast which is a really crucial lead area for the illegal slave trade in the 1820s, 30s and 40s. This is southern Sierra Leone. Here you can see Liberia. It&rsquos between Freetown and Monrovia. This is actually where all of the Amistad Africans are from. They consisted essentially of six different culture groups or ethnic groups. About two thirds of them were Mende, okay. Mende are really the dominant group. There were a few Temne, a few Bondi, a few Kono, one Loma, one Kondo, one Kissi, Sando is a part of the Konno kingdom. So that&rsquos basically where they come from. Almost all of them were multilingual. They could speak 3 to 4 languages each. They had an unusual capacity to communicate among themselves which is very different from the traditional slave trade in which captains would try to maximize linguistic diversity to minimize cooperation. They could actually communicate very well. In terms of the labor they had done in this region, quite a few of them were rice farmers, but I also found out that quite a few of them were textile workers or weavers who lived in fairly large cities, Another thing that are counterintuitive. Those who lived in towns and villages were mostly commoners. Only four of the Amistad Africans claimed any sort of elite status and that was usually, &ldquoMy father was a big man in the village.&rdquo So they&rsquore all basically commoners, they are sort of working people. Young, mostly able-bodied men separated from their families and kin and almost all of them&mdashexcept for the Bolom, there were about three or four Bolom men&mdash come from the interior where they had had no contact with white people. In fact, a number of them said, &ldquoWe never saw a white person until we were sold to the man who ran Lomboko, a Spanish slave trader , get this, firstwhite man they ever saw and his name was Pedro Blanco. Could it be more perfect? Pedro Blanco.
Okay, so here you see, in a sense, the catchment area of the slave trade in this region. This is how far they&rsquore going afield. Here&rsquos how it happened, basically. Pedro Blanco made an alliance with a local Vai king&mdashyou can see the Vai right there&mdasha man named King Siaka. And King Siaka worked with Pedro Blanco organizing his well-equipped army to go into the interior to capture people and bring them to the coast. So Pedro Blanco has a very powerful ally. Now another thing you would need to know about the Amistad Africans is that they were&hellip
This is another map. This is the first map in which the Mende ever appear. Europeans knew almost nothing about them which is one reason why it was very hard to find a translator, more about that in a moment. Another thing you would need to know about the Amistad Africans, the men, they were trained warriors. Their region was racked by warfare in the 1820s and 1830s, much of it caused by the slave trade. So they were trained as warriors. King Siaka had driven farther into the interior, extending his influence, extending his control, therefore a number of the Amistad Africans were trained in the use of muskets but, more importantly, especially for this story, their preferred weapon of combat by Mende warriors was the cutlass, the knife. This is actually a Temne warrior. Temne and Susu people from this region preferred poisoned arrows. This is what they tended to use. Another reason I want you to see this is that you&rsquoll notice what the man has around his neck. This is a gris-gris bag. It&rsquos very common in this part of West Africa for people going into war to have a bag with some spiritually charged objects which would protect them in battle. I found this reference that says: &ldquoCinqué walked into the court with a snuff box attached to a ribbon around his neck.&rdquo The person had no idea what it was. This was a warrior&rsquos spiritual protection. This was how he saw what he was going into. Two main wars were going on in this region. One was a war between King Siaka and another major African king named Amaraalu. We know that at least two of the Amistad Africans fought with Amaraalu against King Siaka,probably more. We also know that in Sierra Leone at this very moment, there was a massive slave revolt. Walter Rodney taught us very many years ago that the African kings who entered into the slave trade also accumulated a great many slaves of their own which King Siaka settled in towns along the rivers to keep them ready to ship to the Europeans when demands arose. There were major slave revolts in those towns. So the issue of slave revolt is not something that&rsquos happening only on the western side of the Atlantic. Resistance to slavery is there in their very own societies and this is crucial. So, that&rsquos the second thing that you would need to know about them. They were warriors.
Understanding the History of Black Rebellion
In the year since the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the mass mobilization of protest that followed — the largest collective gesture against police violence in this country’s history — there’s been a constant and energized call to defund or outright abolish policing as we know it in the U.S. This week on Intercepted: The U.S. has been grappling with this same cycle of violence for more than nearly a century: A Black person is killed by police, and protests follow. In 1968, the U.S. tried to find out why this kept happening in cities and small towns across the country with an unprecedented frequency. President Lyndon B. Johnson assembled the Kerner Commission to study the extraordinary violence and destruction of uprisings in cities like Newark, New Jersey, and Detroit the year prior. Their findings should surprise no one. Systemic and institutionalized racism was to blame. Structural white supremacy maintained two societies: “One Black, one white. Separate and unequal.”
Historian Elizabeth Hinton, author of “America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion since the 1960s,” argues that protestors were not rioters but rather political participants in rebellion against their own poverty, inequality, and constant surveillance and brutality by the police.
Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.
Jack D’Isidoro: I’m Jack D’Isidoro, lead producer for Intercepted.
In the year since the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, in the mass mobilization of protests that followed — the largest collective gesture against police violence in this country’s history — there’s been a constant and energized call to defund or outright abolish policing as we know it in America.
Much of this sea change is due in large part to the tireless work of grassroots activists and organizers under the banner of Black Lives Matter, and the countless others who preceded the current iteration of the movement.
Over the past year, there have been actual legislative attempts at reimagining policing, some more ambitious or wider in scope than others.
More than half of U.S. states have passed some kind of police reform bill, and more than 20 of the largest cities in America have voted to reduce their police budgets in 2021. Then there is the George Floyd Justice and Policing Act, which promises, among other things, to ban racial profiling, the use of chokeholds, and eliminate qualified immunity.
President Joseph R. Biden: We have to come together to rebuild trust between law enforcement and the people they serve, to root out systemic racism in our criminal justice system, and to enact police reform in George Floyd’s name that passed the House already.
JD: The reality is, the bill barely passed the House in March and is currently stuck in the Senate where negotiations have not only delayed a symbolic vote this week on the anniversary of Floyd’s death, but have watered down many of its original promises.
As many people have pointed out, this act would not have prevented the killing of George Floyd. A police officer’s knee to his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds is what killed George Floyd, not a chokehold, which accounts for less than 1 percent of police killings.
And while many of America’s cities have worked to overhaul their own police departments, some have backtracked on reform. In Floyd’s city of Minneapolis, the same city council that promised to disband the police department entirely, has agreed to spend $6.4 million to recruit new police officers. In Los Angeles, a year after the city agreed to take $150 million away from the LAPD, they’ve since re-increased the budget to hire more police officers, essentially cancelling out any divestment.
America has been grappling with this same cycle of violence for more than a century. A Black person is killed by police, and protests follow.
Newscaster: The worst race riots since those two years ago in the Watts section of Los Angeles, rock New Jersey’s largest city north for five consecutive days and nights. At least 24 persons are killed, more than 1,800 wounded, some 1,400 arrested. Two days after its beginning, police are augmented by National Guardsmen snipers make the streets a battlefield. Governor Hughes terms the rioting open rebellion, just like wartime.
JD: In 1968, America tried to find out why this kept happening in cities and small towns across the country with an unprecedented frequency.
President Johnson assembled the Kerner Commission to study the extraordinary violence and destruction of uprisings in cities like Newark and Detroit the year prior. Their findings should surprise no one: Systemic and institutionalized racism was to blame. Structural white supremacy maintained two societies: “one Black, one white, separate and unequal.”
Our guest today, historian Elizabeth Hinton argues protesters were not rioters, but rather political participants in rebellion against their own poverty, inequality, and constant surveillance and brutality by the police.
Elizabeth has an incredible new book out tracing this history. It’s called “America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion Since the 1960s.”
Elizabeth, welcome to Intercepted.
Elizabeth Hinton: Thank you so much for having me, Jack.
JD: In reading your book, I was really struck by not just the scope and ubiquity of these rebellions, but also the degree of violence involved. You write in the book that between 1968 and 1972, the United States endured internal violence on a scale not seen since the Civil War. Can you explain what you mean there?
EH: Yeah. And so even that ’64 to ’68 period, the number of civilians killed by police, the hundreds of millions, what amounts to billions of dollars in property damage, coming 100 years after the end of the Civil War this was, in many ways, the results of the unfinished and unfulfilled promises of the Civil War and Reconstruction, the legacy of that violence. The archive that I based the book on, which is the Lemberg Center for the Study of Violence, these researchers, after John F. Kennedy was assassinated, sought out to document and understand American violence again, at this moment of domestic bloodshed we hadn’t seen for a century. And they began doing quantitative research, they interviewed people, and they went to every local newspaper they could get their hands on and started collecting articles not just covering Black rebellions, or violent clashes that erupted between police officers and residents of color, but also, you know, anti-war protests, labor struggles, the student movement in high schools during the 1960s. It’s just such a rich archive.
And I was really interested in the ways in which residents responded — Black residents in particular — responded to the deployment of the programs of the war on crime as they unfolded in their communities.
Newscaster: Six days of rioting in a negro section of Los Angeles left behind scenes reminiscent of war-torn cities. More than 100 square feet —
Newscaster: — Newark, New Jersey became a city of race riots, violence, looting, and hate. For five days, it was a battleground and a looter’s paradise.
Newscaster: — the sweltering Negro areas of the North, a new phase of racial relations. In Harlem, the funeral of a teenager who had been shot by a policeman set off demonstrations against alleged police brutality —
Malcom X: — the day of the sit-in, the lie-in, the crawl-in, the cry-in, and the beg-in is outdated.
Stokely Carmichael: — you can sit in front of your television set and listen to LBJ tell you the violence never conquers just anything, my fellow Americans. But you see, the real problem with violence is that we have never been violent. We have been too non-violent.
EH: But what this archive shows is that the rebellions didn’t peak after Martin Luther King’s assassination. But, in fact, that was just the beginning. The rebellions, in fact, peaked in for the remainder of ’68, ’69 and ’70 as the programs of the War on Crime were deployed in mid-size, smaller, and rural cities.
JD: Right. I mean, you write that between that time period, ’68 and ’72, that some 960 segregated Black communities across the United States witnessed 1,949 separate uprisings.
EH: Right, let me back up a little bit to kind of give a lay of the land for why this post-King, this May ’68, June ’68 date is so important.
So Lyndon Johnson officially called the War on Crime in March 1965, one year after the first major incident of urban unrest in Harlem in 1964, after a New York police officer killed a Black 15 year old high school student. He calls [it] the War on Crime — of course, this is coming one year after the war on poverty —
President Lyndon B. Johnson: And this administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America.
EH: And, initially, the seed money that the federal government allocated for Johnson’s crime war funded experimental programs in usually big cities like Los Angeles and New York and St. Louis and Baltimore, big city police departments with communities that seemed prone to rebellion, that seemed like they might rebel. And the objective was to provide riot-control training, and professionalization techniques, and surplus army equipment to these big city departments so that when and if rebellion occurred, the local police forces would be ready for it.
LBJ: The American people have had enough of rising crime and lawlessness in this country. [Cheers and applause.] But the people also recognize that the national government can and the national government should help the cities and the states in their war on crime to the full extent of its resources and its constitutional authority. And this we shall do! [Applause.]
EH: And, of course, the decision to invest in these measures, these punitive measures, these crime control programs at the direct expense of community action programs as part of the War on Poverty did not effectively prevent rebellions from continuing through every summer of Johnson’s presidency. And, in fact, the rebellions became more disruptive, causing more civilian deaths, the deployments of more National Guardsmen, and — in the case of Detroit and cities like Washington, D.C., and Chicago, and Baltimore during the Martin Luther King Rebellions — federal troops.
LBJ: This does not mean a national police force. It does mean help and financial support to develop state and local master plans to combat crime, to provide better training and better pay for police, to bring the most advanced technology to the War on Crime in every city and every county in America. And there is no more urgent business before this Congress than to pass the Safe Streets Act this year that I proposed last year. [Applause.]
EH: A month after the King Rebellions had seemed to subside, Johnson, in what would be the last significant piece of domestic legislation he would pass, signed the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act into law. And this basically expanded the earlier programs from ’65 to ’68, that had mostly benefited larger cities.
And now with the enactment of the Safe Streets Act, which established a new grant-making agency within the Department of Justice called the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, now not just big cities, but mid-sized cities, smaller cities, and rural areas, received those surplus military weapons from Vietnam and interventions in Latin America and the Caribbean, started getting tear gas and Riot helmets and baton sticks and bulletproof vests and helicopters. The elements of urban policing that have become ubiquitous today really begin in this period.
So what the persistence and escalation of rebellion shows after the enactment of this legislation is that the residents and the communities of color in which these new crime control measures were targeted, didn’t say, “Oh great, this is what we wanted. When we said we wanted jobs and expanded educational opportunities, thanks for bringing in the police.” No, when ordinary and everyday life became policed by a militarized force in new ways following this legislation, residents in these smaller cities began to fight back and so this is actually the moment that we get, as I said, a peak in rebellion. We had missed the peak years before. It was not ’67 and ’68. It was in fact, the second half of ’68 and into the early 1970s.
LBJ: A moment ago, I spoke of despair and frustrated hopes in the cities where the fires of disorder burned last summer. We can and, in time, we will change that despair into confidence and change those frustrations into achievements. But violence will never bring progress. We can make progress only by attacking the causes of violence and only where there is civil order founded on justice. [Applause.] And today, we are helping local officials improve their capacity to deal promptly with the disorder. And those who preach this order, and those who preach violence, must know that local authorities are able to resist them swiftly, to resist them sternly, and to resist them decisively. [Applause.]
JD: And during this time you write that spending on local police departments with federal funding increased 2,900 percent. And I do want to talk about Johnson. He described the Harlem uprising as a “riot,” right? And I think that language is very important. And the book itself is sort of centered on this use of the word “rebellion.” Why refer to them as rebellions? And how does this fit into the notion of what are acceptable forms of protest?
EH: That’s a really excellent question. So I mean, first, I think the decision to use the word “rebellion” reflects the way that many — if not most — of the participants in this form of political protest chose to understand their own actions. So, in Detroit, in my home state of Michigan, the events of ’67 are not known as the Detroit Riot they’re known as the Detroit Rebellion. And many residents understood themselves as rebelling against an oppressive, and exclusionary, and racist system, not as rioting against that system. So part of the use of the term is an attempt to honor how the people who participated in this form of protest understood their own actions.
In deciding to label this form of protest as riot, we then have been stuck in this place where we can’t effectively provide the kinds of programs and interventions that would be necessary to prevent it in the future.
Detroit Protestor: This is going to happen all over America. It’s going to be a hot world, not a hot summer. It’s a hot world. But brother, America better wake up to this. If they don’t, we gonna burn down America. Or they gonna kill 22 million Negros.
LBJ: The fact of the matter, however, is that law and order have broken down in Detroit, Michigan. I know that, with few exceptions, the people of Detroit, and the people of New York, and the people of Harlem, and of all of our American cities, however troubled they may be, deplore and condemn these criminal acts. Riots, looting, and public disorder will just not be tolerated.
EH: Beginning in Harlem in ’64, Johnson responds to collective violence that was precipitated by an incident of police violence, the killing again of a Black child. Harlem residents, just like their counterparts in thousands of other cities were rebelling against continued structural exclusion, mass unemployment, slum landlords and housing projects that were ill-kempt and decaying with roaches and rats and running through their beds at night. They were demanding equal educational opportunities and robust school systems in their communities, much of the same socio-economic demands that we’re hearing from people today. And instead of recognizing these root causes, and acknowledging that the people who participated in this form of violent protests shared many of the same grievances — shared all the same grievances — as mainstream civil rights organizations, Johnson said: What happened in Harlem is criminal, it’s senseless, it’s meaningless. “It has nothing to do with civil rights.” That’s a direct quote.
LBJ: It has nothing to do with civil rights. They are criminal conduct.
EH: And in labeling it criminal and meaningless instead of saying, OK, what are the larger conditions that drive people to feel like they have no other recourse but to throw a Molotov cocktail or throw a rock at a police officer? Instead of asking those questions and labeling this protest a riot, the only solution then is more police, which is the catalyst for the collective violence in the first place.
So the term “riot” keeps us stuck in this cycle where, instead of recognizing the causes, we’re continuing to embrace a solution that is based on punitive programs, that is based on law enforcement and social control and surveillance in targeted communities. And in doing so, that policy approach ensures that both police violence and violent responses to that police violence on the part of the community will continue.
JD: It’s a very intentional use of the word riot. And it’s never applied to white vigilantism.
EH: For most of the 20th century, the kind of mob violence or collective violence had been white mobs who terrorized and massacred Black communities in bloody riots — throughout the 20th century. We have Springfield in 1908, when white mobs terrorized Black wartime factory workers and lynched a number of community members in Springfield, Ohio. We’re coming up on the 100-year anniversary of the complete destruction of the Greenwood community in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921 when white men were deputized by the county government to murder and destroy the Greenwood community, and it was only you know, when Black collective violence against exploitative and exclusionary institutions surfaced that riots became seen as something that was criminal and senseless.
JD: And the word also is used to pathologize people to say they’re inherently prone to violent outbreaks.
EH: Those ideas about Black pathology that both steered liberal social welfare programs during the ’60s and the crime control programs are very much seeped into how policymakers understood, again, the root causes of so-called rioting. One of the big responses, or the reactions, to Watts, which was at its time and its moment was the most destructive rebellion that the nation had encountered, causing far more poverty damage than the rebellions of the previous summer. And this was, of course, a few months after Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s “The Negro Family” was released.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan: … In central Harlem, the area which the great American sociologist Kenneth Clark described in his report as having undergone a massive deterioration of the fabric of society and its institutions — and right under our prosperous noses that happened. That hasn’t existed for 50 years. That’s happened in the last 15 years with America. And we’ve been sitting around thinking things have been getting better, and they haven’t been getting better for those children. And I think I, for one, if you think, see what people can face for the civil rights movement, in the way of sheriffs, in the way of howling mobs, in the way of the disapproval of their entire society, I would certainly am willing to face the disapproval of a few white liberals from Boston who think I shouldn’t raise the subject because it’s impolite.
EH: Moynihan’s report and the idea that somehow Black, female-headed households were breeding, again, using policymakers’ language — criminals, and hoodlums, and rioters — became this really important, for the American public, way to understand what caused people to rebel in Los Angeles instead of issues of employment, and continued discrimination, and political and economic exclusion that were the true precipitating causes or root causes of the violence that summer.
JD: And I feel like the Kerner Commission is attempting to identify those root causes, yet the response is: Let’s arm police officers with surplus military weapons from the war in Vietnam.
EH: Exactly. The Kerner Commission’s report is such a missed opportunity and, in many ways, casts a shadow over a lot of the book. Johnson called the Kerner commission during the Detroit Rebellion in 1967, in this televised address to the nation, in part as a way to appear as if he was taking concrete action and what was happening.
LBJ: My fellow Americans, we have endured a week such as no nation should live through, a time of violence and tragedy. For a few minutes tonight, I want to talk about that tragedy. And I want to talk about the deeper questions that it raises for us all. I’m tonight appointing a special advisory commission on several disorders. Governor Otto Kerner of Illinois has agreed to serve as chairman.
EH: The Kerner Commission released its report and drew policymakers and the American public’s attention to the underlying socioeconomic causes of the Rebellion, but also to the impact of white racism that the commission members famously warned: This nation is moving towards two societies, one Black, one white, separate and unequal.
Newscaster: Chairman Otto Kerner reads from the report.
Gov. Otto Kerner: This is our basic conclusion: Our nation is moving toward two societies — one Black, one white — separate and unequal. Reaction to last summer’s disorders has quickened the movement and deepened the division. Discrimination and segregation have long permeated much of American life. They now threaten the future of every American. To pursue our present course will involve the continuing polarization of the American community, and ultimately the destruction of basic democratic values. The alternative will require a commitment to national action, compassionate, massive and sustained, backed by the resources of the most powerful and richest nation on the Earth. From every American, it will require new attitudes, new understanding, and above all, new will.
EH: And the Kerner Commission said, OK, if we really want to prevent rebellion in the future and address its causes, then the federal government must go way beyond the War on Poverty programs, because — another sidebar here — of the pathological assumptions about Black poverty and crime, that really went into Johnson and other officials’ conceptions of the War on Poverty, and following Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s arguments, they believed that the root cause of Black poverty was Black behavior, that is that it was a pathological issue. And therefore, the War on Black Poverty could be solved relatively cheaply, because of the kinds of programs that were needed. And this is in the words of Johnson’s Attorney General Ramsey Clark, but were programs that would, “help the disadvantaged help themselves.” So job training programs, remedial education programs, these were at the center of the War on Poverty.
And the Kerner Commission recognized that the War on Poverty sounded good, but it didn’t really create the structural transformation that was necessary. So they recommended to the Johnson administration essentially a Marshall Plan for American cities, that would invest hundreds of millions of dollars, if not more, in the long term, into job creation programs for low-income Americans of color, into improved housing facilities, health care, expanded educational opportunities, scholarship programs, basically said if we want to prevent violent protests in our cities, we have to invest in our cities.
Sen. Edward Brooke: As the vice chairman of that commission, we spent seven long months analyzing last summer’s riots, and drawing up solid proposals to stop them at the source. I’m severely disappointed by the failure of the federal government to implement the Commission’s bipartisan recommendations. We are not moving fast enough, or far enough. We are not convincing the people in the slums that our government truly wants to help them. We have not adopted an affirmative national policy of interest and concern.
EH: So basically, the recommendations of the commission that were adopted, were the ones that reinforce the police recommendations that the Crime Commission had put forth, and all of the kind of larger points that the Kerner Commission made about the kind of transformation that was necessary in American society were completely ignored. Johnson, when the report was released, refused to comment on it because he felt the Commission’s recommendations were far too radical. And, of course, the federal government never got behind supporting the kind of transformation that the Kerner commission knew. And, of course, this is a vision of community empowerment and public safety that really went beyond the police as the only and ultimate solution to combating the material consequences of poverty and inequality.
The Kerner Commission is flawed in many respects. It’s not a perfect report, it wasn’t a perfect commission, and it suffers from many of the same racist assumptions that other task forces and officials did within the Johnson administration. But we do have to ask ourselves: What would the United States look like today if policymakers had been willing to invest the kind of resources into low-income communities of color in the form of social welfare programs and vital community institutions that the Kerner Commission called for? Instead, the federal government did make those investments but in the form of police and surveillance and incarceration.
JD: Talk about how Miami is kind of a turning point in these rebellions, and their reaction to blatant exceptions of police violence — as was in Los Angeles in ’92, and Cincinnati in 2001.
EH: The omnipresent patrol and surveillance by law enforcement in targeted communities by 1980 had become bitterly accepted by many residents as just part of everyday life. And the rebellions during the peak era, during the crucible years, as I call it, that ’68 to ’72 period, most of them began in response to the policing of ordinary, everyday activities.
So, Miami in 1980 kind of signals this era that we’re still very much in, and that is that only kind of exceptional incidents of police violence or miscarriages of justice, lead to rebellions. Of course these incidents of brutality and injustices reflect the build up of a series of violences and arbitrary illegal enforcements over time. But the catalyzing events of the rebellions themselves really begin to change in this period. So in Miami in 1980, there had been a number of police killings and just the year before the killing of Black motorist Arthur McDuffie in the city. A group of police officers beat McDuffie to death and attempted to make it look like he had gotten into a car accident.
Reporter: What did he die from?
Dr. Ronald Wright: He died as a result of blunt head injuries with destruction of his underlying brain. He was beaten to death.
Reporter: How hard would someone have to hit someone to inflict such an injury?
EH: When the officers were tried and that trial was moved from Miami to Tampa, Florida, they were acquitted by an all-male, white jury. Hours after the acquittal was announced, Miami erupted in a particularly devastating and violent several days of rebellion. And it wasn’t the killing of McDuffie itself when justice failed to be realized. And when the jury acquitted them, despite one of the officers admitting that they had tried to cover up the murder, the city erupted.
Newscaster: What are you guilty of?
Mark Meier: I witnessed the incident. I helped cover it up. I lied to the internal review investigators investigating the incident.
Jury member: We the jury at Tampa, Hillsborough County, the 17th day of May 1980 find the defendant Alex Marrero, as to second-degree murder and charged the account one of the information, not guilty.
Newscaster: Good evening. With a curfew now in effect, the only persons on the streets of Miami’s riot-torn areas are police, National Guardsmen, and numerous snipers, looters, and torchmen setting dozens of fires that are now burning out of control. Some persons in the affected areas have had enough —
EH: Of course, we see a very similar dynamic unfolding in Los Angeles 12 years later. It wasn’t Rodney King’s videotaped beating itself, but it was the acquittal of the four officers who were charged with King’s beating.
And then, in Cincinnati in 2001, a 20-year-old Black man named Timothy Thomas was killed by the police. And Timothy Thomas was the 15th Black man who the Cincinnati police department had killed in a five-year period. And at that point, especially when the city officials refused to be transparent about the circumstances of his death, the community quickly erupted.
Newscaster: Mostly young crowds were on the streets for a second time in 12 hours today, protesting the latest shooting death of a Black man by police. [Sounds of people yelling and protesting.] The riots today and overnight erupted in the wake of the shooting on Saturday of 19-year-old Timothy Thomas. Thomas, who was unarmed, had 15 misdemeanor reports [trails off].
EH: We see this from Michael Brown to George Floyd — again, instead of the policing of the everyday, instead of just the kind of strategies of policing itself that inflicted violence in targeted communities of color, people tend to rise up now when there appears to be no other recourse to achieve justice in the face of really, really blatant examples or incidents of state-sanctioned violence inflicted on people of color.
JD: One thing I notice is just how increasingly asymmetrical the dynamic of violence has become between protesters and the police as police become more and more militarized. In the crucible period that you described, there’s armed resistance to the police, like actual shootouts with guns.
JD: If anything, it feels like protesting has become more peaceful, while policing has gotten increasingly violent. How do you explain this disparity?
EH: This is something that’s a really important distinction between what we’ve seen from Ferguson in 2014, following the killing of Michael Brown onward. In the rebellions that I describe, from Harlem in ’64 to Cincinnati in 2001, these all began with forms of violent protests, they all began with rock-throwing, or maybe Molotov cocktail igniting, they all began with community violence.
What we saw in Ferguson, and in Minneapolis last summer, the rebellions that did emerge, and let me just also make clear that the vast majority of the protests were entirely peaceful, but when they did involve violent tactics, this was only after the police disrupted nonviolent protests and peaceful vigils with tear gas and riot batons and arresting protesters who were exercising their first amendment rights. When the police came in violently — again this is part of the cycle I describe in the book — some protesters responded with violence.
I mean, certainly, the rebellions of the ’60s and ’70s have occurred far less frequently. It’s not an indication that the militarized police force is an effective deterrent. But that police — with bulletproof vests, and SWAT teams, and the helmets that they wear, and the military weapons, and the armored tanks — has become just part of American policing and accepted as part of the way policing is done. I wish that more people, especially those who are quick to continue to label violent political protests as riots, would heed that very important insight, which is that as protests have on the whole have gotten more peaceful, police have gotten more violent.
JD: So this week is the one-year anniversary of the murder of George Floyd. Democrats in the Senate were planning to hold a symbolic vote on the George Floyd Justice and Policing Act. But that’s been delayed. There was also an enormous amount of attention paid to the conviction of Floyd’s killer, Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, which itself brings up a lot of questions about justice and accountability. I think a lot of people put emotional weight and hope into these symbolic gestures, as well as our justice system, and I was wondering if you could talk about the paradigm of reform and its limits when it comes to policing.
EH: One of the things that I really hope people walk away with when they read “America on Fire” is that we have to move beyond reform. Reform is not enough.
These reforms are not going to solve the fundamental root problems of policing. We cannot train our way out of the circumstances that eventually led to George Floyd’s killing, we can’t continue to invest in technologies and body cams. We have to move beyond reform and, again, think back to ways that we can re-envision public safety or create new standards for public safety completely outside of the police.
We don’t need another commission to tell us what we needed to do, because the Kerner Commission told federal policymakers more than 50 years ago. We have to invest in a structural transformation and a redistribution of resources that will benefit, and that will lead to, vibrant and healthy communities. And we have to target those resources in under-resourced communities, in low-income communities of color.
That’s what’s needed now. It’s a different set of investments. Because the decision to invest in police and in prisons at the expense of schools and jobs and housing for people has not effectively worked to keep people safe, especially in the most vulnerable communities. When we think about the outlays for incarcerating people in this country, the wars on crime and drugs have been arguably the most severe domestic policy failures in the history of the United States. And so now this is what the protests are really about. This is what defund is about. This is what conversations [about] abolish the police are about. We have to think about getting beyond the police and investing in a different set of policy responses to address the issues and the root causes of racial inequality in this country. And now is the time to do it.
JD: Elizabeth Hinton, thank you so much.
EH: Thank you so much for having me.
JD: Elizabeth Hinton is an associate professor of history in African American Studies at Yale University and professor of law at Yale Law School. She’s the author of “America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion Since the 1960s.”
JD: And that does it for this episode of Intercepted. You can follow us on Twitter @Intercepted and on Instagram @InterceptedPodcast. Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our lead producer is me, Jack D’Isidoro. Supervising producer is Laura Flynn. Betsy Reed is editor in chief of The Intercept. Rick Kwan mixed our show. Our theme music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky.
Causes and Consequences
The planning and execution of the rebellion – and no less the long, dangerous, even tortuous voyage afterward – were great achievements. Acting on shared common experiences and West African precepts of self-organization, the Amistad Africans had done what few of the millions before them had done: waged a successful uprising aboard a slave ship, then sailed the vessel to a place where they might secure the freedom they had fought for and won. Their armed self-defense forced abolitionists, in America and around the world, to make revolutionary arguments in defense of their resistance and against the institution of slavery itself.
As Attorney Roger Baldwin explained to the justices of the Supreme Court, the Amistad “had been taken by force out of the hands of Spanish subjects, was not sailing under Spanish colors, had lost its national character, and was in the full possession of the Africans”. John Quincy Adams made the same point before the same court: “The Africans were in possession, and had the presumptive right of ownership” of the Amistad “they were on a voyage to their own native homes […] the ship was theirs”. And of course the Amistad Africans themselves knew what they had achieved, even as posterity was beginning to paint them as hapless victims. Indeed, young Kale wrote to Adams, telling the great man exactly what he should say to the Supreme Court: “If court ask you who brought Mende people to America? We bring ourselves. Ceci hold rudder.” Footnote 42
The shock waves of the Amistad rebellion reverberated in many different directions – throughout the Caribbean and Brazil, where a successful revolt put the master class on the defensive back to Europe, where monarchs, middle-class reformers, and workers took great interest in the case to the Bahamas, where once-enslaved African Americans aboard the Creole would take their captured vessel to freedom in 1841 to Africa, where the Amistad rebels returned in January 1842, bringing missionary abolitionists and an international track of the Underground Railroad with them and throughout America, where the movement against slavery took a radical turn, especially among African-American abolitionists, leading in a direct line to John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry in 1859 and Civil War in 1861. The agency of fifty-three enslaved Africans on a small vessel in the northern Caribbean in 1839 rippled far and wide around the Atlantic.
How the Amistad Rebellion, and Its Extraordinary Trial, Unfolded - HISTORY
One hundred and seventy-five years ago today, La Amistad and its crew of former slaves was captured off the coast of Long Island and towed to New London, Connecticut, where the story of the slaves’ revolt and subsequent trial for piracy and murder immediately became the sensation of the popular press, and a cause célèbre for abolitionists and other sympathizers. In this excerpt adapted from Outlaws of the Atlantic, historian Marcus Rediker takes us back to the first days of the ship’s capture, when the idea of “black pirates” would ignite the imagination of early America and take these fifty-three Africans on a journey from the holds of a slave ship to the halls of the Supreme Court and beyond.
The story began with a sensational headline: “A Suspicious Sail—a Pirate.” The New York Morning Herald announced on August 24, 1839, that a pilot boat had spotted a mystery ship about twenty-five miles off the coast of New York. On deck were “a number of negroes, twenty five or thirty, . . . almost or quite naked some were wrapped in blankets, and one had on a white coat.” They were a “strange crew,” all the stranger for brandishing machetes, pistols, and muskets. One sailor “had a belt of dollars round his waist another called the captain, had a gold watch. They could speak no English, but appeared to talk in the negro language.” Black pirates, armed and flush with plunder, were cruising the coast of Long Island.
The vessel itself was in eerie disrepair: “Long grass was growing upon her bottom, and her sails were much torn, as if she had been driving about at the mercy of the gale, with her sails set and no one at the helm.” Here, declared the Morning Herald, was the “Flying Dutchman,” the ghost ship that wandered the seas endlessly as a portent of doom. Indeed, doom seemed already to have struck the vessel, which once upon a time had been a slave ship: “It was supposed that the prisoners had risen upon the captain and his assistants and captured her.” Having murdered the master and crew, those aboard could not navigate the vessel. They “are now drifting about bound for no particular port.”
Over the next few days, other newspapers offered new accounts of the vessel, many of them short on reliable information and long on overheated speculation. One reported that this “black, rakish, suspicious sail” was full of “black piratical wretches” who had “undoubtedly robbed several vessels, and perhaps committed murder.” Another had no doubt: the crew “had murdered all the white men.” They were, moreover, rife with riches: “there is money and jewels on board of the value of $40,000.” Another wrote, “Some accounts say, that there are two hundred thousand dollars in coin stowed away in her hold.” Yet another claimed they had “three tons of money on board.”
Thus began the story of the Amistad in America’s penny press, with lurid tales of gore and gold. These articles made “the long, low, black schooner” a popular sensation. The nation’s two leading penny newspapers, the Morning Herald and the New York Sun, known for their interest in crime stories, especially murder, and for their ability to convey the news cheaply to the “great masses of the community,” took an avid interest in the case of the “black pirates.” So did the older commercial newspapers, the New York Commercial Advertiser and the New York Journal of Commerce. Southern newspapers such as the Richmond Enquirer, the Charleston Courier, and the New Orleans Bee, republished articles from the Northern press, sometimes editing out inconvenient information about the slave rebellion and adding fearful rhetoric of their own, demanding the gallows for murderous “African pirates.”
A mere six days after the Amistad had been towed ashore in New London, Connecticut, a drama troupe performed a play about its story of mutiny and piracy at New York’s Bowery Theatre. Commercial artists drew images of the leader of the rebellion, a man called Cinqué, reproduced them quickly and cheaply, and had them hawked by boys about the streets of eastern cities. Artist Amasa Hewins painted a 135-foot panorama depicting the Amistad Africans as they surrounded and killed Captain Ramón Ferrer and seized their freedom by force of arms. Another artist, Sidney Moulthrop, created twenty-nine life-size wax figures of the Africans and the Amistad crew, which he cast and arranged to dramatize the shipboard insurrection. Both artists would tour with their creations, charging admission to see a visual reenactment of the uprising. The wax figures appeared in Peale’s Museum and Portrait Gallery in New York, Armory Hall in Boston, and finally in Phineas T. Barnum’s American Museum. Meantime, thousands of people lined up daily to pay admission and walk through the jails of New Haven and Hartford to get a glimpse of the Amistad prisoners. When legal proceedings began, citizens jammed the courtrooms to capacity and beyond, refusing to leave their seats during breaks for fear of losing them. Popular fascination with the case was unprecedented. Slave resistance became a commercial entertainment, a commodity to be consumed in the ever-growing American marketplace.
Within the excellent scholarship on the Amistad rebellion, most notably by Arthur Abraham, Howard Jones, and Iyunolu Folayan Osagie, remains a puzzle: how did this bloody slave revolt—in which forty-nine African men, armed with cane knives, rose up, killed the white captain of the vessel and another member of the crew, and seized their freedom by force—manage to become a popular cause in a slave society, where, in 1839, two and a half million people were held in bondage? The last time anything like this had happened in the United States was 1831, when Nat Turner’s Rebellion in Southampton, Virginia, convulsed the nation. Slave revolts had long caused panic throughout white American society, not least among white middle-class abolitionists, many of whom were frankly terrified of them. Why would the Amistad rebellion prove different? To make matters more curious, the Amistad rebels would achieve popularity while cooperating with abolitionists, themselves despised as extremists by many. Another odd twist is that abolitionists committed to nonviolent principles flocked to the campaign as something heaven sent to advance their cause.
The outpouring of interest, most of it sympathetic, depended on the peculiar facts of the case. The Amistad affair centered on the slave trade, against which abolitionists on both sides of the Atlantic had already won major victories, establishing a limited but real popular consensus about its horrors. Moreover, it mattered that the slave owners, the villains of the story, were Spaniards, not Americans, and the self-emancipated heroes were Africans, who had never been American slaves. The Amistad rebellion did not, therefore, directly challenge American slavery as Nat Turner’s insurrection had done. The tactics, strategy, strength, and will of the abolitionist movement also helped to generate interest in, and favorable coverage of, the case. Indeed, victory in the Amistad case would be one of the movement’s greatest and most popular achievements.
Yet these facts cannot fully unravel the knot of contradiction: Nat Turner had become infamous, the very nightmare of many white people north and south, but Cinqué became a celebrity in the modern sense of the word. Indeed he was the first person of African descent to claim such status in the history of the United States. How can we explain this extraordinary difference in the popular images of the two best-known leaders of slave revolts in American history?
An unexplored part of the answer lies in how the Amistad rebellion originally appeared to the American public as a pirate story. Tales of “black pirates,” told in various ways in and through an increasingly commercialized mass culture, excited intense interest everywhere, rapidly making what happened on the Amistad a national issue of concern “among all classes of the community,” including, crucially, urban workers. Less than a week after the first report, the clamor had grown so loud that the Amistad was now called the “famous piratical vessel.” Drama, art, journalism, and law shaped the popular perception of the Amistad rebels and ultimately the outcome of the case.
Militant collective action taken by a small group of West African warriors on the deck of a small vessel off the north coast of Cuba would reverberate around the world, mobilizing an army of playwrights, actors, theater-goers, artists, correspondents, writers, readers, lawyers, judges, politicians, activists, and citizens, who would produce and consume images of the rebels and their actions. By representing the Amistad Africans as “black pirates,” the creators of popular culture shaped the popular perception of the case. The history of slavery and the history of piracy thus intersected in complex and ambiguous ways, with profound results, for the Amistad case and the struggle against Atlantic slavery. The international movement against bondage would take an unexpected popular form, which would in turn help to expand, strengthen, and radicalize the anti-slavery movement and its accompanying public.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Marcus Rediker is Distinguished Professor of Atlantic History at the University of Pittsburgh and the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including the 1988 George Washington Book Prize (2008), the Organization of American Historians’ Merle Cuti Award (1998 and 2008), and the Sol Stetin Labor History Award (2013). His books include The Many-Headed Hydra (Beacon Press, 2000 with Peter Linebaugh), Villains of All Nations (Beacon Press, 2004), The Slave Ship (Viking, 2007), and The Amistad Rebellion (Viking, 2012).
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In the acknowledgements of The Amistad Rebellion Rediker says that he wrote the book as a companion to his earlier book The Slave Ship. He says that after writing about the failed struggles of those enslaved and tortured within the machinery of Atlantic World commerce he wanted to write a story about successful rebellion. And this is what he has done excellently in this book. Just as in The Slave Ship, Rediker tells the story from the perspective of those on the bottom. This is especially challenging as most of the historical sources are written and created by those in more privileged positions. Indeed even when being told from the perspective of the abolitionists who are supporting the Amistad the author is careful to point out that their motives for helping them did not line up perfectly with the rebels themselves and that both used the other to get what they wanted. The reader get the impression that from the moment they broke their chains on board the ship the rebels played an active hand in their destiny overcoming a language barrier and the many racist assumptions about them. Rediker does and excellent job of describing how the rebels fashioned a new African identify in the new world that served their cause of getting back home. He also puts many of the actions and words of the rebels in the appropriate cultural lens so that they do not just come off as quaint tribal customs.
Despite his own self criticism, I felt that Rediker demonstrated that even in the most desperate and cruel conditions, enslaved Africans managed to show some agency in their passive and futile resistance to the slave trade. In Amistad he shows just how far this resistance could go. Despite the fact that most of the main characters of the story were African and did not even speak English ( at least in the beginning) their struggle for freedom is a very American one.
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The Trial of John Brown:
The arrest, trial, and execution of John Brown in the fall of 1859 came at a critical moment in United State history. According to historian David S. Reynolds in his recent biography, John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights (2005), Brown's actions and statements following his failed attempt to begin a slave insurrection near Harper's Ferry, Virginia so polarized northern and southern opinion on the slavery issue as to ensure Abraham Lincoln's election and cause the Civil War to occur perhaps two decades earlier than it might have otherwise. Reynolds is quick to point out that not only was Brown "right" on slavery and other racial issues of his day, but that his conduct--in causing the Civil War to begin in 1861 rather than, say, 1881--potentially saved hundreds of thousands of lives that could have been lost in a war fought in a time of much greater population and more deadly weaponry and, at the same time, might well have spared an entire generation of African-Americans the humiliating experience of human bondage.
John Brown was born into a family of slavery-hating devout Calvinists on May 9, 1800 in Torrington, Connecticut. At age five, Brown moved with his parents and three siblings to a log house in a frontier township in Ohio's Western Reserve, a region where native Americans vastly outnumbered the small population of whites. Unlike most other settlers, the Browns showed no indication of feelings of racial superiority, and young John Brown soon had native friends and took to wearing buckskin, a material generally worn only by the Indians.
While on a long cattle drive into Michigan in 1812, Brown became friends with a slave boy at house where he lodged. There Brown witnessed his friend suffer beatings with household tools and being made to sleep, wearing only rags, in the cold. Brown later described this experience as transforming him into "a most determined Abolitionist."
By age sixteen, the second driving force in Brown's life would be in place: He announced his acceptance of Christ in a small schoolhouse and declared his goal of committing the Bible's "entire contents" to memory. The next year, Brown would offer his first direct aid to a fugitive slave, hiding him in the family cabin. Soon Brown and his father, Owen Brown, became active participants in the Underground Railroad.
Brown became the patriarch of a family that was large, familiar with tragedy, committed to abolitionism, and almost unique in its willingness to "live with black people and to die for them." Over two decades, Brown fathered twenty children with two wives. His first wife died while giving birth to one of the twenty in 1832. Nine of the children succumbed to childhood diseases or accidents. Three sons died in Brown's private fight against slavery. Only eight (four by his first wife, and four by the steady and stoical Mary Day, who he married in 1833) outlived their father. Brown's parenting included tough discipline (his ledger, for example, specified eight lashes with a beech switch "for telling a lie"--but Brown sometimes asked his sons to administer most of the punishment on himself), and promotion of self-reliance and Christian values including, especially, compassion for the elderly, the unfortunate, and animals.
Brown's efforts to secure racial justice were numerous and diverse. He promoted a school for blacks. He insisted that his two hired black employees be allowed to sit in his pew at his Congregational Church--an unprecedented demand that led to his expulsion from the church. He became a stationmaster in the Underground Railroad, constructing a hiding place in his barn and taking fugitive slaves on nocturnal rides north to the next station.
While he endured a series of financial failures in Ohio and Massachusetts, and dealt with his family tragedies, Brown's thoughts increasingly turned to developing new strategies to combat slavery. He took inspiration from two African-Americans who played key roles in the fight for racial justice. He admired Nat Turner, the Virginia slave who, in 1831, led a bloody armed rebellion against plantation owners that left 55 white southerners dead. He also held in high esteem Cinque, the leader of a successful 1837 revolt on the Spanish slave schooner The Amistad -- a ship that eventually found its way to the United States and became the focus of an intense legal battle that culminated in a Supreme Court decision granting the would-be slaves their freedom. Most abolitionists tended to be pacifists, but Brown accepted--and later, embraced--violence as necessary.
In November 1837 a proslavery mob destroyed the presses of an antislavery newspaper near St. Louis and murdered its editor, Elijah P. Lovejoy. Brown expressed outrage. At an antislavery meeting in Ohio called to protest the murder, Brown suddenly stood up, raised his right hand, and announced, "Here, before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery!"
Brown first revealed his plans to incite a slave insurrection in the South to Frederick Douglass when the famous African-American abolitionist visited his Springfield, Massachusetts home in November 1847. Pointing to the Appalachian Mountains in Virginia on a large map on his table, Brown told Douglass that God placed them there "to aid in the emancipation of your race" and they were "full of good hiding places, where a large number of men could be concealed and baffle and elude pursuit for a long time." He confided that he hoped to invade with "twenty-five picked men" who would sneak on to plantations, liberate slaves, and then retreat with them to the protection of the mountains, eventually forming a black colony there. These invasions, he said, would also have the effect of energizing additional abolitionist activity in the North.
A few years later, after Brown moved to a farm in North Elba, New York (near Lake Placid) to live in the largely black community established at that scenic location, he began to focus his thoughts on the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry. His daughter, Sarah, recalled Brown drawing sketches of forts that he hoped to build for protection in hills surrounding the Virginia town. By 1854, Brown was actively recruiting men to participate in his planned attack on Harper's Ferry.
It would be five more years, however, before Brown could put his plan into action. In the meantime, he became drawn into the drama that was unfolding in the Kansas Territory . In 1854, the infamous Kansas-Nebraska Act opened the western territories to slavery. The next year, Brown followed three of his sons to Kansas, hoping to do whatever he could to prevent the state from falling into the slavery column. Both sides dug in for a titanic struggle on the slavery question. Southerners, including many slave owners in neighboring Missouri, believed that if Kansas went for slavery, other western territories--in a sort of domino effect--would do likewise. They pledged to drive antislavery settlers out of Kansas. Northerners saw the battle as equally important. Antislavery activists headed west and began establishing camps in the territory.
They found anarchic conditions. Violence, primarily directed at antislavery settlers by border ruffians from Missouri, meant more than law--and the law was hard to determine, what with two competing territorial legislatures enacting contradictory legislation. Vote fraud was rampant. Missourian General B. F. Stringfellow urged his fellow proslavery supporters, "To those who have qualms about violating laws, I say the time has come when such impositions must be disregarded. I advise you, one and all, to enter every election district in Kansas. and vote at the point of the bowie-knife and revolver." The ruffians, having organized a bogus legislature, pushed through legislation imposing years in prison for publishing or even possessing an abolitionist publication and promising the death penalty for anyone urging slaves to revolt. Killings occurred with distressing frequency. A visiting woman from Boston wrote from Kansas that to the proslavery men "to shoot a man is not much more than to shoot a buck."
Events of the first half of 1856 radicalized Brown and pointed him toward the incident that changed the terms of the national debate over slavery and remains controversial to this day: the slaughter of proslavery settlers near Pottawatomie, Kansas on May 24, 1856. The first disturbing news of the year came from Washington, when President Franklin Pierce announced his support for the corrupt proslavery legislature in Kansas and proclaimed opposition to it treasonable. (Pierce's action led to the formation of the antislavery Republican Party the following month.) In April, Brown's outspoken attacks on the proslavery legislature led a proslavery judge to issue warrants for the arrest of him and his sons. On May 21, 751 border ruffians and southerners, waving banners proclaiming the supremacy of the white race, swept down on the antislavery town of Lawrence, ransacking the presses of two antislavery presses and burning and looting homes and businesses. Following news of the fall of Lawrence, a friend described Brown as "wild and frenzied." The next day, May 22, South Carolina Senator Preston Brooks took his gold-topped cane and, on the floor of the U. S. Senate, clubbed senseless Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner after he delivered a abolitionist speech, "The Crime Against Kansas." When Brown received word of the caning in Washington, according to his son Jason, "it seemed to be the finishing, decisive touch." Brown told his supporters, "I am entirely tired of hearing that word 'caution.' It is nothing but the word of cowardice."
The details of the murders by Brown's band at Pottawatomie are well known. Brown and six others set out from Ottawa Creek on May 23 with rifles, revolvers, and swords heading toward proslavery territory. Around ten o'clock the following night Brown's men, announcing they were from the Northern Army, broke into the home of proslavery activist James Doyle. Doyle and his two older sons were led into the woods near the cabin and hacked to death. The group then headed to the cabin of Allen Wilkinson, a proslavery district attorney. Wilkinson met the same end as the Doyles. A short time later, the fifth and final victim, William Sherman, was taken and killed. Brown directed the killings he did not, it seems, participate in them. Afterward, he remained unapologetic. "God is my judge," he said. "It was absolutely necessary as a measure of self-defense, and for the defense of others." Pottawatomie changed the way southerners viewed northern abolitionists. No longer did they see them all as toothless pushovers--they began to see them as radical and potentially dangerous.
Over the next two years, Brown--now a nationally known figure--would divide his time between the efforts to secure free state status for Kansas and planning for his invasion at Harper's Ferry. Part of that period was spent in the Northeast, meeting abolitionists to raise money for his antislavery ventures. His most important financial backers, including a group of men who would become known as " The Secret Six ," were connected in varying degrees to the Transcendentalist Movement (centered in Concord, Massachusetts and often associated with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau) that viewed slavery as an unmixed evil and placed duty to conscience above obedience to the positive law. For another part of those two years, Brown was back near the frontier engaging in a frontal attack on slavery and seeking recruits for his future attack on Harper's Ferry. By the end of 1857, ten key members of the group that would mount the attack had joined Brown.
Together with his supporters, Brown drafted his utopian " Provisional Constitution and Ordinances for the People of the United States ," a document intended to reform the existing flawed proslavery Constitution in what Brown hoped would be a better society built on the concept of racial equality. Brown presented his constitution to an antislavery convention of African-Americans in Chatham, Ontario in May 1858. The convention approved the constitution and elected several blacks to official positions in the provisional government. The convention itself was extraordinary. As historian David Reynolds noted, "It was organized by a white man, attended largely by blacks, and designed to raise a black army to trigger an African American revolution that would wipe out slavery."
In June 1858, with rumors swirling of his plans to raise an army to end slavery (based primarily on leaks by Hugh Forbes, a British native that Brown had tried to recruit), Brown again headed west. He found the situation in Kansas much improved, with antislavery settlers now vastly outnumbering the proslavery settlers, and the territory (despite the best efforts of the federal government, which offered fast-track statehood and more territory if settlers approved a proslavery constitution) headed in the direction of free state status. The national political climate was also changing, as that month Abraham Lincoln declared in a speech in Illinois, "A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free."
On the night of December 20, 1858, Brown engaged in a memorable raid that panicked slave-owners and transformed him, in the minds of many influential northern supporters, into the practical man of action needed to bring a swift end to the evil institution of slavery. Brown rode with twenty of his men into Verona County, Missouri, where they forcibly liberated twelve slaves from two farms and begin leading them on a successful 82-day, one thousand mile winter journey to freedom in Canada. The slave liberation prompted Gerrit Smith, one member of the Secret Six, to say, "I was once doubtful in my own mind as to Captain Brown's course. I now approve of it heartily."
Brown began focusing on final preparations for the Harper's Ferry assault, raising additional men and money, and securing necessary weapons. Brown was getting anxious. "Talk! talk! talk!" he complained at a meeting in Boston. "That will never free the slaves. What is needed is action-action."
John Brown finally put his grand plan into action on July 3, 1859, when he and three other men scouted the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry , a town nestled on a peninsula amid the high banks that surrounded the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers. The town manufactured more weapons than any other place in the South, and almost 200,000 weapons were stored in the United States Armory located there. Brown's plan was to take the arsenal, arm freed slaves in the vicinity, and then retreat to the mountains where they could mount additional raids to free more slaves.
The next day, Brown headed across the Potomac to Maryland, where he began looking for an off-the-beaten-track place to house and train his soldiers for the raid on Harper's Ferry. He eventually found a farm ("the Kennedy Farm ") five miles from Harper's Ferry, set well back from any road, which he rented for $35. Over the next two months Brown's additional recruits, both whites and blacks, arrived at the Kennedy Farm. The men at the farm prepared rifles, studied military strategies, and relaxed in song or games of checkers and cards.
On October 15, Brown announced to his twenty-one recruits that the revolution would begin the next night. In the morning, following a religious service, Brown read his proposed provisional constitution and assigned tasks for his men. Eighteen men would directly participate in the raid on the arsenal, including the cutting of telegraph wires, securing of bridges, and taking of hostages. Three other men would serve as sentinels and carry stolen weapons to a schoolhouse near Harper's Ferry for distribution to the freed slaves. Brown told his men to use violence only as a last resort: "Consider that the lives of others are as dear to them as yours are to you." At eight o'clock, Brown told his forces, "Men, get your arms we will proceed to the Ferry."
The early stages of Brown's plan went well. Wires were cut and bridges taken without bloodshed. Brown, announcing his intention "to free all the negroes in this state," seized the night watchman at the federal armory. Brown's men took the arsenal and captured hostages. Brown began waiting for news of his raid to reach local slaves, who he expected would then rebel against their white masters. Six men sent to the countryside by Brown to get the liberation process going and to give each freed slave a pike, either for defensive purposes or to guard white slave owners so as to prevent their escape.
Unfortunately for Brown, the freed slaves did not respond as he had hoped. The surprising events left some confused, thinking they were about to be sold South rather than expected to become troops in a liberating army. Others refused to take pikes and hid. Most seemed unable to comprehend the notion that a white man would come to aid them in a fight against their own white masters.
Brown ignored warnings from his other officers to escape while the escaping was still good. He still held out hope that "the bees would begin to swarm" and his revolution succeed. Meanwhile, local townspeople had begun taking up arms to fight the invaders. Worse yet, an eastbound train, temporarily halted by Brown's men (after the unfortunate shooting of a black baggage handler), was allowed to proceed. The conductor stopped the train at the next station to the east and wired the master of transportation in Baltimore that "150 Abolitionists" had taken Harper's Ferry intent on freeing slaves. A short time later, the president of the Baltimore & Ohio Rail Road telegraphed President Buchanan and Governor Wise of Virginia to inform them of the crisis at the Ferry.
After noon or so on October 17, escape from Harper's Ferry became impossible. Citizen soldiers and two militia companies from nearby Charles Town moved toward the federal arsenal. They retook bridges and swept into town. The first of Brown's men to die was Dangerfield Newby, a black recruit guarding a bridge who had hoped to free his enslaved wife thirty miles south of the Ferry. After Newby fell to gunfire, angry citizens desecrated his body and shoved it into a gutter, where it was eaten by roving hogs. Other deaths soon followed as Brown remained holed up with his more than thirty hostages in the armory.
As the situation continued to deteriorate, Brown and his men moved with eleven of their key hostages to the fire-engine house, a brick building that became known as John Brown's Fort, the site of his last stand. Hundreds of hostile townspeople--enraged over the killing of their mayor and another prominent citizen--and twelve militia companies soon surrounded the engine-house. Brown's men fired out through lashed-open double doors, but kept taking bullets. One fatally wounded Brown's son, Oliver, as he aimed his rifle out the cracked doors. At 11 p.m., a company of marines commanded by Colonel Robert E. Lee arrived at Harper's Ferry.
At dawn on October 18, a lieutenant chosen by Lee approached the engine-house and delivered to Brown Lee's formal demand for surrender. When Brown rejected the offer, marines stormed the engine-house, battering it with sledge hammers. In the battle that ensued, Brown was stabbed, but not fatally. Many of his men, however, died by either gunfire or bayonets. The eleven hostages were liberated, and Brown and four of his surviving men taken prisoner. Brown was carried to the armory, where a group of reporters and politicians, including Virginia's Governor Henry Wise and two U. S. senators, questioned him . He told his interviewers that he came to Virginia at the prompting of "my Maker" and his only objective was "to free the slaves." Asked how he felt about the failure of freed slaves to enthusiastically embrace his liberation, Brown said, "Yes. I have been disappointed." After the interview, Governor Wise, while abhorring Brown's views, pronounced him "the gamest man I ever saw."
The greatest effects of John Brown's life come from how he acted and what he said after his arrest. A person who might have been a footnote in history became, for many northerners, a saintly martyr who helped persuade millions that eradication of slavery throughout the land was the only answer to the divisions in America.
Brown and his fellow prisoners were transported eight miles to Charles Town, were they arraigned on three state charges: treason against Virginia, inciting slaves to rebellion, and murder. After hearing the charges, Brown rose to say, "If you want my blood, you can have it any moment, without this mockery of a trial." The presiding judge, unmoved, set October 26 as the day for the trial to open--with Brown to be tried before his compatriots.
In the North, only--at first--did the Transcendalists rally to Brown's defense. Henry David Thoreau delivered to a Concord audience his " A Plea for Captain John Brown " in which he praised Brown as "a man of ideas and principles." Thoreau boldy described Brown and Christ as "two ends of a chain which I rejoice to know is without links."
On the morning of October 26, as armed guards and cannons surrounded the courthouse in Charles Town, Brown's trial began with the return of the Grand Jury's indictment. The injured Brown, except when forced to rise, lay on a cot. He asked for a delay in his trial. His motion was denied. To the charges against him, he pled "not guilty."
Northern reporters covering Brown's trial noted its farcical aspects. The nearly 600 spectators who crowded the courtroom continuously opened peanuts and chestnuts, then tossed the shells on the floor so that crunched noisily when anyone walked on them. Other onlookers spat tobacco juice, smoked cigars, or hurled occasional insults in the direction of the defendant. A long-haired militiaman assigned to security marched around shouting at unruly spectators. Charles Harding, the prosecutor, relaxed with his feet on a table. He would doze off from time to time, awakening in one instance to call out for tobacco. When he showed up up the second day of trial with a bruised face, he told curious reporters that the injuries resulted from a fight the night before with a "blind nigger." Eventually, Harding's obvious alcohol impairment convinced Judge Andrew Parker to replace him with a new prosecutor, the more dignified Andrew Hunter. Brown,meanwhile, spent most of the trial lying on his back.
There was considerable speculation that Brown would plead insanity. His defense attorneys had begun marshalling evidence to support such a theory. Ohio abolitionists pushed the idea, hoping that evidence of insanity would lighten his sentence, even if it failed to gain an outright acquittal. Brown, however, would have no part of it. He called the insanity plea a "pretext" and said, "If I am insane, of course, I should I know more than all the rest of the world. But I do not think so." He rejected "any attempt to interfere in my behalf on that score." (In fact, the best evidence is that Brown did not suffer from insanity, as he showed none of its classic symptoms--swings of mood, delusions, disengagement, inability to sleep or concentrate.)
Testimony began with the prosecution presenting witnesses that laid out for the jurors the events of October 16 to 18. Conductor Phelps, for example, described how Brown's men stopped his train and, with rifles pointing at him, ordered to back the train away from the bridge. He also told the jurors how his black baggage handler came running to him yelling, "Captain, I am shot" as blood flowed from under his left nipple. He recalled being approached by Brown (described by his men as "Captain Smith") who assured him his life was not in danger: "My head for it, you will not be hurt." Phelps, who later returned to Harper's Ferry for the interview with Brown that included Governor Wise and others, also described Brown's planned slave revolution, as Brown had outlined them immediately after his capture in the engine-house.
Prosecution witness--and hostage--Colonel Lewis W. Washington, who also recounted Brown's post-arrest interview, told jurors in his cross-examination by defense attorney Lawson Botts that Brown had treated hostages respectfully. Washington testified that prisoners "were allowed to go out and assure their families of their safety" and that Brown told him that he would be treated well. He also stated that Brown "gave frequent orders not to fire on unarmed citizens." Washington said that Brown complained of the "bad faith" shown to his men who had walked with a flag of truce, but that he had not "uttered any vindictiveness against the people." Bott's cross revealed the basic defense strategy: faced with obvious criminality, prove that Brown's intentions through it all were never malicious--and hope that the sentence would not be the ultimate punishment that everyone in Virginia seemed to predicting that it would be.
Perhaps the most damaging prosecution witness was slave owner and hostage John Allstadt, who described being awakened in his Virginia farmhouse by armed men telling him, "Get up quick, or we will burn you up." The men told Allstadt that they intended to "free the country of slavery" and, to help get that process going, would take him and his seven slaves (who had been armed with pikes) to Harper's Ferry. Allstadt told jurors that the antislavery men drove him in a wagon to the federal Armory, where he met John Brown. He described Brown's activities in the engine-house after he was surrounded by Lee's marines. Brown, Allstadt said, carried a cocked rifle and squatted near the front door, firing at the marines. "My opinion is," he said of the fatal wounding of one soldier, "that he killed that marine." On cross-examination, however, Allstadt conceded that he could not say for certain whose shot it was that killed the marine and that there was much confusion and excitement at the time. He also admitted that Brown expressed deep regret upon hearing the news that one of his men had shot the unarmed and popular mayor of Harper's Ferry.
The defense chose to open its case with another of Brown's hostages, Joseph A. Brewer. Brewer painted Brown as a principled and considerate captor. He testified that Brown allowed hostages to "shelter themselves as they could." Remarkably, Brewer, after being allowed by Brown to leave so that he might carry a wounded citizen into the town hotel for treatment, returned --as he promised--to his hostage status in the engine-house. Brewer confirmed earlier testimony concerning Brown's displeasure at the wounding of one of his men carrying the flag of truce. The shooting prompted Brown to warn that he had the power to destroy the place "in half an hour"--but then he quickly reassured his hostages that he had no intention of doing so.
Lead prosecutor Andrew Hunter, a dominating presence in the Charles Town courtroom, interrupted defense attorney Thomas Green's examination of yet another witness descr i bing Brown's pleas not to shoot citizens unless in self-defense. Hunter objected that testimony had "no more to do with this case than the dead languages." Judge Parker, probably sensing that the defense would prove unavailing anyway, allowed the defense to continue to present evidence of Brown's forbearance.
The most dramatic moment in the trial came during the testimony of militiaman Henry Hunter, who led the capture, shooting, and desecration of William Thompson, one of Brown's closest friends. Hunter told jurors that as they cornered Thompson in a hotel, the hotelkeeper's daughter pleaded with him to spare his life and let justice take its course. Hunter replied, "Mr. Beckham's life is worth ten thousand of these vile abolitionists." Thompson answered, "You may take my life, but 80,000 will arise up to avenge me, and carry out my purpose of giving liberty to the slaves." Unmoved, Hunter dragged Thompson to a railroad bridge to serve as a rifle target. Hunter insisted "I have no regrets" about the brutal killing, having just witnessed his uncle and "the best friend I ever had" shot by one of Brown's men.
Angered by the callousness of Hunter, Brown rose to his feet. "May it please the Court," he said, "I discover that, notwithstanding all the assurances I have received of a fair trial, nothing like a fair trial is given me." Brown complained that subpoenas had not been delivered to persons he had hoped would testify in his behalf. He demanded that the trial be deferred until the arrival of counsel "in whom I feel I can rely." The sixty gold dollars in his pocket at the time of his arrest had been stolen, he said, and "I have not a dime" to fund the defense. After registering his objections, Brown laid down "drew a blanket over him and closed his eyes."
Following Brown's interruption and the immediate withdrawl from the case of defense attorneys Botts and Green, twenty-one year old George Hoyt, a young Boston lawyer actually sent to scout out escape possibilities (he concluded that escape was hopeless) rather than materially aid in the defense, stood to announce it would be "ridiculous" for him to carry on the defense of Brown without a continuation of the case, as he had not read the indictment, had not discussed defense strategy with his client or other lawyers, and had "no knowledge of the criminal code of Virginia." Parker granted a one day adjournment, allowing time for two more defense attorneys, Samuel Chilton and Hiram Griswold, to arrive in Charles Town.
The defense continued to draw its witnesses from unlikely sources, such as a Maryland volunteer company commanded by Captain Simms. Simms joined the parade of defense witnesses who described Brown's generous treatment of prisoners even in the face of provocation. Like many witnesses, Simms was quick to insist he had no sympathy Brown's goals, even while he admired his bravery and integrity. Simms claimed he appeared as a defense witness "with pleasure" because he did not want it said by "northern men" that "southern men were unwilling to appear as witnessses in behalf of one whose principles they abhorred."
Closing arguments began on Monday, October 30 in a packed courtroom. Hiram Griswold spoke for the defense. Griswold argued that "no man is guilty of treason unless he be a citizen of the state against which the treason so alleged has been committed"--and that Brown, a citizen of New York, could not therefore commit treason against Virginia. As for the charge of inciting a slave revolt, Griswold insisted "there is a manifest distinction" between trying to free slaves, which Brown admittedly did, and inciting them "to rebellion and insurrection," which includes "riot, robbery, murder, and arson." Brown's goal, Griswold told the jury, was to liberate slaves, not kill slaveowners or inflict mayhem. Finally, Griswold conceded, as he must, that citizens were shot during the Harper's Ferry incident. To call these shootings "murders," however, as the state sought to do, was to confuse common criminal conduct with the unfortunate but sometime necessary consequences of a military battle. The deaths, Griswold contended, were not "murders" within the meaning of Virginia law.
Andrew Hunter, in his closing argument for the prosecution, said the Brown had "come into the bosom of the Commonwealth with the deadly purpose of applying the torch to our buildings and shedding the blood of our citizens." Hunter argued that no matter whether Brown's conduct was seen as "tragical or farcical," it was "not alone for the purpose of carrying off slaves." Brown's "Provisional Constitution" showed that he had grander plans--and that his plans made him "clearly guilty of treason." There was, Hunter argued, "too much method in Brown's madness" for him to avoid the full legal consequences of his actions. "When you put pikes in the hands of slaves and have their masters captive," you cannot then claim to be merely liberating negroes and not inciting a slave rebellion. Finally, Hunter told the jury, it is irrelevant under the law whether Brown himself intended to take life. When one perpetrates a felony and deaths result, that is murder under the law whether the defendant wished those deaths to occur or not. If Brown had his way, Hunter contended, Virginia would have become another Haiti (the site of a bloody slave insurrection). "You have nothing to do" with the question of mercy, Hunter told the jury in closing. "If justice requires you by your verdict to take his life. send him before the Maker who will settle the question for ever and ever." Brown listened to Hunter's crescendoing voice lying on his back with his eyes closed.
Just forty-five minutes after being sent out to deliberate, the jury returned with their verdict. Spectators, filling nearly every square foot of the courtroom, silently and anxiously craned their necks to observe the closing scene. According to a reporter, "the only calm and unruffled countenance" was "Old John Brown." The Clerk of Court asked, "Gentlemen of the jury, what say you, is the prisoner at the bar, John Brown, guilty or not guilty?" The foreman replied with a single word: "Guilty."
Sentencing took place on November 2, 1859. After overruling defense objections to the verdict, Judge Parker asked Brown if he had anything he wished to say before being sentenced. Brown immediately rose and in a clear, distinct voice delivered one of the most memorable courtroom speeches ever by a defendant in a criminal case. Ralph Waldo Emerson would later call it, along with the Gettysburg Address, one of the two greatest American speeches. Brown said:
[T]he New Testament teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. I have endeavored to act on that instruction. I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered, as I have done. in behalf of His despised poor, is no wrong, but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood farther with the blood of my children and the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I say let it be done."
Brown's remarkable performance in prison and in the courtroom changed perceptions of Harper's Ferry in both the North and the South. Abolitionists came to see Brown as an heroic--but, for most, still flawed--figure. Southerners, on the other hand, while recognizing Brown's bravery, increasingly saw him as a dangerous and black-hearted villain. Many in the South began to link Brown to what they called the "Black Republican" Party of the North--and for these proslavery voices, the consequences of a possible Republican victory the next year became so unimaginably bad that talk of secession began to be heard. On the floor of the U. S. Senate, Senator Jefferson Davis, later President of the Confederacy, said that William Seward, one of the leading contenders for the 1860 Republican presidential nomination, should have been hanged along with John Brown: "We have been invaded, and that invasion, and the facts connected with it, show Mr. Seward to be a traitor, and deserving of the gallows."
Efforts by Southerners to tar William Seward to Harper's Ferry made him, too, a casualty of Brown's attempted insurrection. As Seward's political fortunes sank, those of another Republican would rise. John Brown's actions in 1859 secured for Abraham Lincoln the party's nomination for President in 1860.
Brown might have ended up as but a footnote in history but for the efforts of Transcendalists, especially Ralph Waldo Emerson, to turn him into a larger-than-life figure. In 1859, few people in America had as much cultural clout as the eloquent abolitionist lecturer of Boston. Emerson's lecture, "Courage," delivered in the Music Hall in Boston on November 8, six days after Brown's sentence of death, began to turn the tide of northern public opinion in Brown's favor. Emerson said of Brown: "That new saint, than whom none purer or more brave was ever led by love of men into conflict and death,--the new saint awaiting his martyrdom, and who, if he shall suffer, will make the gallows glorious like the cross." Emerson's "glorious gallows" speech polarized opinion, inspiring Brown's admirers and outraging his opponents.
As interest in his fate continued to swell, John Brown awaited execution in a Charles Town jail. He discouraged rescue efforts, and focused instead on furthering his abolitionist crusade through interviews with reporters and writing letters . As a Calvinist, Brown calmly accepted his fate as predetermined by God.
On December 1, the day before his scheduled execution, Brown met with his wife, Mary Day Brown, who had made the long and risky trek south from the family farm in North Elba, New York. They hugged for several minutes without saying a word. When words came, he told Mary, "We must all bear it in the best manner we can. I believe it is for the best."
The next day dawned fair and mild. Charles Town readied itself for Brown's execution. Workers finished a six-foot-high, twelve by sixteen foot scaffold, with a trapdoor on hinges to open as the rope was cut, on a field at the southeast edge of town. Thomas (later "Stonewall") Jackson, from VMI, was in town to command cadets to guard the site. Major General Robert E. Lee posted soldiers at bridges and along area rivers. Cannons were aimed at the prison and soldiers lined up to surround the scaffold. Outsiders, except for a small number of reporters, were denied entry to the town.
Around 11 o'clock Brown, with his arms tied behind his back with rope and wearing a black coat and trousers, white socks, and red slippers, was led from his prison cell to a furniture wagon . As two white horses pulled the wagon to the execution site, Brown observed to the jailer who guarded him, "This is beautiful country." Once on the scaffold, a white hood was pulled over his head. Brown told the captain heading the execution team, "Do not keep me needlessly waiting." It would be, however, ten minutes more before the sheriff finally cut the rope holding the trapdoor with his hatchet and Brown fell, snapping his spinal column. For five minutes his "body jerked and quivered," according to a reporter at the scene. Colonel John Preston of the Virginia Military Institute announced, as the body at last hung relaxed, "So perish all such enemies of Virginia!" A young volunteer in the Virginia Greys watched the scene with what he later said was "unlimited, undeniable contempt" for the "traitor and terrorizer." The young volunteer's name was John Wilkes Booth.
The coffin carrying Brown arrived back in North Elba five days later. The following day, December 8, 1859, as family friend Lyman Epps (part African American, part Native American) sang "Blow Ye Trumpet, Blow!," John Brown's body was lowered into a grave about fifty feet from his family house . It still lies mouldering there today. His soul marched on, however, inspiring Union troops in the Civil War that finally would bring an end to the evil he fought to his death.
The Whiskey Rebellion
As insurrections go, the Whiskey Rebellion was mild in spite of the importance accorded it by history and a rather grand turnout at the end. There were lives lost, but only a few, and by the time the whole thing was over, everybody involved walked away with a pardon.
The first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, looked to whiskey as a source of revenue for paying off the national debt accumulated during the Revolution. Whiskey was an obvious candidate for generating tax dollars because of the high volume of production. Home distilling in newly settled areas was common enough that it was said of western Pennsylvania that one couldn’t stand anywhere in the settled country and look around without seeing the smoke of a distiller’s chimney. Distilled spirits were used for dad’s scythe cut, junior’s cough and mom’s fatigue, not to mention making guests welcome. ‘Internal, external and eternal’ was a popular sentiment.
On March 3, 1791 an excise tax on distilled spirits was passed into law. Distillers could choose to pay an annual levy on their still’s capacity or a gallonage tax ranging from nine to eleven cents on actual production. The farmers in southwestern Pennsylvania were particularly indignant. They saw no reason for paying taxes on their corn if they drank it when no taxes were required if they ate it. Lying closer to the heart of the matter was the fact that most of their whiskey wasn’t distilled to be sold, but to be consumed by the distiller and his family or bartered for other goods. It was family provisions, so to speak, for every family kept a jug of whiskey and used it for many things, including a form of currency. What couldn’t be grown or killed was bartered for, a practice that held on for decades so that in 1816, public record shows that Abraham Lincoln’s father sold his Knob Creek, Kentucky, farm for twenty dollars and ten barrels of whiskey. Knob Creek, a small batch bourbon made by Jim Beam Distilleries, is named for the same Lincoln homestead where young Abe is reported to have almost drowned after falling into the creek.
There was so little currency circulating among these southwestern Pennsylvania settlers because the Allegheny Mountains isolated them from the commerce of the eastern cities, making transportation of goods to be sold difficult. This meant that most farmer/distillers had no money with which to pay the tax. And they were unconvinced that their representatives in Philadelphia understood how hard life was in the settlements, where they lived in log cabins and slept on dirt floors. In truth, the men passing laws in Philadelphia were more concerned with establishing primacy of the new federal government and keeping it solvent. The farmers and the lawmakers were at loggerheads.
In 1792, legislators sought to appease the angry distillers by amending the excise tax law, but the farmers of southwestern Pennsylvania wanted nothing short of repeal and continued their protest rallies and attacks. After three years of minor skirmishes, the insurrection picked up considerably in May of 1794, when sixty farmers who had publicly refused to register their stills were summoned to a district court appearance in Philadelphia and a United States marshal was sent to deliver the writs. An unpopular local tax inspector named John Neville offered to accompany the marshal on his delivery rounds and on the fifteenth of July as they were serving one of the writs, a band of insurgents fired on them, missing everyone and hurting no one.
Neville returned to his home to find it surrounded, and a fire fight followed that left four whiskey rebels wounded and one dead. The following day another was killed and the inspector’s home was burned to the ground.
In the meantime, a United States Post rider delivering the circuit between Washington and Pittsburgh was robbed of the mail he carried. The robbing committee read the contents of the mail pouch and reported that the contents were hostile to their interests. It was time for action.
Between five and seven thousand whiskey rebels responded to the call and on the first day of August they began gathering outside Pittsburgh, which they claimed was harboring inspectors and collectors. David Bradford was the primary leader and reportedly had ambitions of his own, namely to establish an independent territory with himself as head of state. The mob elected him Major General and Bradford bandied about on his horse, flashing his sword and whipping the troops into a frenzy. They marched toward Pittsburgh, strung out over two and a half miles, with occupation in mind. Intentions within the ranks were apparently mixed, however, for one rebel was reported to have predicted as he marched along twirling his raggedy hat on the end of his rifle that he expected to have a better hat by tomorrow.
The troops marched into Pittsburgh to find a nervous but resourceful reception committee waiting for them with a spread of bear meat, ham, venison and four barrels of Monongahela rye whiskey. The citizens agreed to banish certain residents and damage was limited to the burning of only one building. The rebels marched on and Pittsburgh was spared in what surely must be one of the stranger scenarios recorded in the annals of battle strategy: flank ’em with a picnic, get ’em drunk, and get ’em out of town.
In Philadelphia, an angry President Washington considered the march on Pittsburgh a crisis point and initiated plans to round up the rebel leaders. According to Gerald Carson in The Social History of Bourbon the President requisitioned 15,000 militia from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia and Maryland, and 13,000 actually showed up. The critical question at hand was whether citizens of one state would take up arms against citizens of another in defense of federal law. The federal troops set out marching toward Harrisburg.
Carson writes: “The troops moved in two columns under the command of General Henry (Light Horse Harry) Lee, Governor of Virginia. Old Dan Morgan was there and young Meriwether Lewis, five nephews of President Washington, the governors of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, too, and many a veteran blooded in Revolutionary fighting, including the extraordinary German, Captain John Fries of the Bucks County militia and his remarkable dog to which the Captain gave the name of a beverage he occasionally enjoyed—Whiskey.”
President Washington and Secretary Hamilton joined the militia in Bedford, Pennsylvania, on October 19, and from that point the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 neatly unfolded to its end. Washington returned to Philadelphia, leaving Light Horse Harry in command. George Washington is still the only United States president ever to physically lead troops into the field as Commander-in-Chief while in office.
On the night of November 13, federal troops arrested 200 citizens whom they called “the whiskey pole gentry.” Most were pardoned by General Lee after a few days, but 20 were set for trial in Philadelphia. A volunteer force was left to stay the winter in Pennsylvania while the rest of the army marched the prisoners across the mountains, arriving in Philadelphia on Christmas Day. Of these, only two went to trial, one for robbing the U.S. Mail and the other for arson, and both were sentenced to hang. But in July 1795, and before the sentences could be carried out, President Washington issued a proclamation pardoning all except ringleader David Bradford, who had fled to Spanish Louisiana but was later pardoned by President Adams.
Thomas Jefferson repealed the hated tax during his first administration and distillers remained mostly free of a government whiskey bill until Congress needed money to pay for another war, this one a war between the states.
Alexander Hamilton and the Whiskey Boys began a debate between distillers and government that continues today as the two argue for opposing ideas about what constitutes fair taxation. Distilled spirits are taxed at a higher rate than wine and beer and distillers think this is unfair while the government thinks otherwise.
“The Whiskey Rebellion,” writes Carson, “established the reality of a federal union whose law was not a suggestion but a command.” The principle of federalism was fundamental to the United States and its structure provided a way to deal with the diversity that was Colonial America. Indians remained the only ones who had not come here from somewhere else. The new states wanted local independence but they also wanted and needed a strong union — e pluribus unum.
The union triumphed for the common good in that first test of primacy, a test that rose from whiskey and taxation and then bound the two together forever, for the common good is in constant need of revenue.
The federal troops that remained in southwestern Pennsylvania that winter survived in apparent good spirits, for Meriwether Lewis wrote to his mother about “mountains of beef and oceans of whiskey.” In a simple twist of fate, the hard currency that had been so scarce to the region was suddenly abundant, for the army turned out to be the largest consumer of whiskey in the west. Daily military rations included one gill of whiskey, or about a quarter of a pint a day for every soldier, a custom that remained in place until 1830.
FILM REVIEW Pain of Captivity Made Starkly Real
Midway through Steven Spielberg's 'ɺmistad'' and its long-overlooked story of a slave-ship mutiny and subsequent trial, the film finally presents the experience of captivity from the viewpoint of its main African character. He is the leader of this rebellion, the fierce figure who became known as Cinque. (His African name was Sengbe Pieh.)
This somber-hued film erupts into lush color for a glimpse of Cinque's wife and child in their peaceful village, and sees him gaze warmly at their backs as they walk away from him forever. Then, with no warning, Cinque is ambushed and captured, destined to be sent halfway around the world. Viewers wishing to avoid waterworks can only be grateful that Mr. Spielberg denies the wife and child a backward glance.
Power in Hollywood: a tired subject if ever there was one, but 'ɺmistad'' demonstrates what it really means. It's the ability to use images like this flashback, and like the stark, agonizing depiction of the captives' Atlantic crossing right afterward, to create the full empathy and immediacy this subject matter deserves. It's the creative means to bring any experience home to an audience, whether it comes from a faraway planet or from our underexplored past. It's the ability to make a $75 million holiday movie about a shameful chapter in American history simply because one thinks that's the right thing to do.
Thus the worthiness of 'ɺmistad'' is irrefutable, as are its credentials despite the current legal uproar over source material. After all, this is a film featuring a cameo appearance by a former Justice of the Supreme Court (Harry A. Blackmun, seen briefly as the Justice rendering an 1841 decision). It has excellent cinematography (by Janusz Kaminski) with an avowed debt to Goya. It had Dr. Clifton Johnson, creator of the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University in New Orleans, to advise the filmmakers on African tribal life and translate portions of dialogue into the Mende dialect. It has two Academy Award nominees (one a winner) cast as American Presidents. Its authenticity is so earnest that it has real African actors shackled in real chains.
But what the estimable 'ɺmistad'' does not have is an Oskar Schindler. It has no three-dimensional major character through whose flawed human nature an unimaginable atrocity can be understood. Dwarfed by the enormity of what it means to illustrate, the diffuse 'ɺmistad'' divides its energies among many concerns: the pain and strangeness of the captives' experience, the Presidential election in which they become a factor, the stirrings of civil war, and the great many bewhiskered abolitionists and legal representatives who argue about their fate. The specific, as in Cinque's being torn from his family, is overwhelmed by generality. And this is a film in which John Quincy Adams, played by Anthony Hopkins as a wise old curmudgeon faithfully devoted to his houseplants, is the zestiest character by far.
'ɺmistad'' dares to begin on a mythic note, starting with furious images of shipboard mutiny. Lurid as this is, it soon gives way to the more straightforward storytelling that Mr. Spielberg handles with greater ease. En route, the captives rebel and take control of the Spanish ship that is outrageously named La Amistad (Friendship), hoping to return home to Africa.
Instead, they are tricked into unfriendly waters. Mr. Spielberg illustrates this handily with a passing vessel carrying genteel partygoers and musicians, to the Africans' astonishment. When the Amistad approaches what is supposed to be African coastline, a man riding a bicycle comes into view.
Jailed in New England and put on trial, the Africans remain a mostly undifferentiated group except for Cinque. A language barrier also separates them from much of the film's main action, although the Steven Spielberg of 'ɾ.T.'' knows winsome ways of showing what it means to be a stranger.
The Africans are baffled by the hymn singing of grim abolitionists, whom they mistake for bad entertainers. They are also horrified by Matthew McConaughey, as a lawyer whom they call Dung Scraper, and the audience may not react much more kindly. Amiable matinee idol that he is, Mr. McConaughey should cease and desist from affecting mannerisms from previous centuries or playing any more smart lawyers.
With Stellan Skarsgard and the seriously underused Morgan Freeman as top-hatted abolitionists, Anna Paquin as the giddy 11-year-old Spanish Queen who claims the Africans as her property, David Paymer as a Secretary of State, Pete Postlethwaite as the Government prosecutor making a case against the Africans and Nigel Hawthorne as President Martin Van Buren, 'ɺmistad'' has many an occasion for speeches and bons mots. But none of the rhetoric, not even the oratorical heights reached when John Quincy Adams takes on the Supreme Court, can compare with the Africans' story. And the best parts of 'ɺmistad'' are those that simply bring their pride, fear and outrage to life.
As Cinque, the former model (and performer in Madonna and Janet Jackson videos) Djimon Hounsou gives the film a strong visual focus as he radiates extraordinary presence and fury. If all that he, Mr. Spielberg and 'ɺmistad'' accomplish is to secure for this story its place in history classrooms, that would suffice. Mr. Hounsou also acts his role quite movingly within the narrow confines of the screenplay credited to David Franzoni, a script whose fine points are now a matter of dispute.
At least one point of contention, the helpful rapport that develops between Cinque and Adams, seems entirely organic to the movie. It doesn't take Barbara Chase-Riboud, the historical novelist who has accused the filmmakers of plagiarism, to see the storytelling value of letting these two opposites attract.
'ɺmistad'' is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It includes necessary violence and brief nudity in its tough, sobering depictions of the captives' ordeal.
Directed by Steven Spielberg written by David Franzoni director of photography, Janusz Kaminski edited by Michael Kahn music by John Williams production designer, Rick Carter produced by Mr. Spielberg, Debbie Allen and Colin Wilson released by Dreamworks SKG. Running time: 150 minutes. This film is rated R.
WITH: Morgan Freeman (Joadson), Nigel Hawthorne (President Martin Van Buren), Anthony Hopkins (John Quincy Adams), Djimon Hounsou (Cinque), Matthew McConaughey (Baldwin), David Paymer (Secretary of State John Forsyth), Pete Postlethwaite (Holabird), Stellan Skarsgard (Tappan), Razaaq Adoti (Yamba), Abu Bakaar Fofanah (Fala) and Anna Paquin (Queen Isabella).