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A fictional account of the 1839 revolt of Africans, led by Cinque, against their Spanish captors aboard the slave ship Amistad, and their subsequent arrival ...
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A fictional account of the 1839 revolt of Africans, led by Cinque, against their Spanish captors aboard the slave ship Amistad, and their subsequent arrival in the United States, where they were tried for piracy.
"WE WILL have our coffee under the trees if that pleases you, señores." The Governor of the Island of Cuba rose from dinner and led his four guests into the soft night. The dinner had lasted for two hours. It was good to stand up and move about again.
When they reached the door leading to the patio the governor stood aside for his guests to go ahead of him. First, Nicholas Trist, the American consul, then the two planters from the south end of the island: Pedro Montez and young Pepé Ruiz. Finally, the stranger, a Yankee sea captain, Ezra Stone.
The governor was a good host and the evening had gone well on the whole, though the stranger, the Yankee seaman, had made conversation a little difficult. The other American, Mr. Trist, was almost like a Cuban. He had lived for years in the island and spoke excellent Spanish. His ideas, too, and his tastes were like those of the governor and of Montez and Ruiz, the sugar planters.
Señor Montez and the gay young Pepé were strangers to the governor only because they lived several days journey down the island, at Puerto Principe. After the first half-hour at his table he did not hesitate to think of them as his friends. It was the sea captain from the States who had kept his host on edge during the dinner. Trist had warned that Captain Stone had peculiar ideas about slavery.
Armed with this knowledge the governor had succeeded in keeping the conversation away from this subject. But it had not been easy, since Montez and Ruiz had come up to Havana for the express purpose of buying newly arrived Africans.
By the time dessert had been served, the governor was glad of a change of scene, so he had suggested having coffee in the garden. The view of the harbor and the distant lights of the city always served to start a pleasant flow of conversation. He busied himself directing the servants, who brought easy chairs and lanterns to the patio and moved about serving the coffee with practiced skill.
But Captain Stone did not seat himself in the chair provided for his comfort. He wandered about restlessly, looking out at the night.
"You'll get a better view of our harbor from this side, señor," the governor said.
"Truly," agreed Ruiz. "The walls of the barracoon hide the waterfront on the east."
"Barracoon?" The Yankee captain was puzzled. It was not a word familiar to him in his small knowledge of Spanish.
"The slave-pen, where they keep the slaves and ready them for market," Ruiz explained politely. He turned to his host. "The placing of the barracoon so near your country palace surprised me," he said. "But I suppose it was necessary to have a safe spot for unloading the ships from Africa.... What is a harbor for, if not to receive useful imports from over the world!"
Señor Montez giggled. He was amused because he knew the real reason the governor kept the unsightly walls of the slave-pens under his eye. The head of the Cuban government collected a certain amount of money for every slave brought into Havana. Now that importing Africans was no longer lawful, it was whispered that the governor's collections had doubled. In the years since the agreement with England was signed, forbidding the slave trade, the governor must have made a pretty penny.
Such things amused the planter. His small eyes were set close together like a pig's eyes. But they had wrinkles around them from laughter. He laughed often but not pleasantly.
It amused him now to think of the governor sitting in his wonderful palace garden and watching the dark, forbidding walls of the slave-pen. The walls cut off the view; but the business of buying and selling within the barracoon provided the governor with the money to pay for all this beauty.
Ezra Stone did not share Montez' knowledge. If he had, he would have seen nothing to laugh at. He saw no good in slavery. In his own country the bringing of kidnaped Africans had, for twenty years, been forbidden under the Constitution. Now England had made a treaty with Spain and other European governments that their ships would no longer carry on the slave trade.
Captain Stone looked forward to the day when labor in the islands of the West Indies and on the plantations in the Southern states of the United States would be carried on by free men, as it was in his own Connecticut.
"You'll soon have the harbor view free and clear, I reckon," he said cheerfully. "With the slave trade stopped by the treaty, buying and selling of human beings will die out."
"My dear sir." The coffee cup shook in Nicholas Trist's hand as his anger rose. "My dear Captain Stone," he sputtered, "you are forgetting freedom of the seas! You can't take away a man's right to trade as he pleases by signing names on a treaty! You, sir, make your profits bringing clocks and silver pitchers from Connecticut. You take back sugar. The slave ships make their profits by bringing in Africans. A treaty will never stop them."
"You deal in sugar?" Ruiz asked, without giving the American seaman a chance to reply. "You make your living out of it? The sugar cane does not plant and cut itself, señor. My uncle, for instance, and my friend, Pedro Montez, are owners of great plantations. Less than half their money is in the land, the rest is spent in buying slaves to work the land. I am here to buy slaves for my uncle. Why? So that you may buy sugar!"
Ruiz turned to the governor. "I think I am informed correctly that a shipload of Africans arrived less than two weeks ago?"
The governor nodded. It was unfortunate that the subject had come up. But there was no need to deny the facts.
"Freedom of the seas!" Ezra Stone answered. "What about freedom of the people who are kidnaped from their homes? This is not the Dark Ages. This is the year 1839."
The American consul, Nicholas Trist, sighed. He had heard such wild talk from some of his countrymen before. He had often silenced them with the simple reminder that the Africans were really fortunate to find a home in civilized countries. But tonight he did not want to continue the conversation longer than needful.
"I am a sincere friend of the Negroes," he said. "The only objection I can see to the slave trade is in the crowding of the ships which bring them across the water. The Tecora, the slaver that came in a few days ago, is an example of waste. Of the hundred taken on board, in Africa, I am told that scarcely half lived to complete the journey. If the trade were more open and free there would be no need to pack the cargo so tightly. Then the Negroes would not die."
Pedro Montez had scarcely listened to this idle talk. He had a question of his own. "Do you never have trouble—with the slave-pens so close?"
The governor shook his head. "Never fear! The walls are high and strong and the slaves are chained." Then he remembered his duties as host. He turned to Captain Stone.
"I am afraid, señor, your coffee is cold."
The captain set down his cup. He must, he said, be going. His ship was sailing at dawn....
"It was a mistake, my bringing the man to meet you," Nicholas Trist exclaimed when the Yankee was out of earshot. "But I thought, having a ship about to sail, he might be useful. I didn't know he'd been reading abolitionist stuff." Trist stirred his coffee angrily. "There's been too much of that. The abolitionists don't know what they are talking about! It is only in the places up North where they know nothing of slavery that they rail against it."
Trist continued to talk, idly, in order to smooth over the memory of his countryman's rude remarks. "If it were not for the English law court and the English ships," he said, "the slave traffic could be carried on in perfect safety. Even so, I have been able to send many thousands of Africans to the States this year. I simply apply for shipping papers in the name of Ladinos, the name you give slaves who were in Cuba before the treaty. No one asks if they are Bozals, as you Cubans call the slaves lately out of Africa."
"Ladinos, of course." Ruiz stored the word in his mind, in case he had to ask for passports for the Bozals he intended buying on the morrow.
It was time to take leave of the governor. The evening had been pleasant after all, and not without profit. The planters had received some useful information. Their host clapped his hands. When a servant appeared, he ordered his carriage. "It is entirely safe to walk past the slave-pens," he said. "But driving back to town will be pleasanter."
"Quicker, too," agreed Montez gratefully. He was anxious to get a good night's sleep. Tomorrow would be a busy day.
* * *
Ka-le woke. When he opened his eyes, he saw that dawn had not yet come. The light in the sky was still a smoky gray. The sun had not risen. But the boy had the feeling that his mother had wakened him, that she had called his name.
This in itself was strange because of all the family, Ka-le was always the first to wake up in the morning. The first ray of the rising sun that entered the doorway of the sleeping house was always the signal for him to leave his pallet.
Young boys were by habit and tradition the first to wake up in the village. As soon as the round ball of the sun was visible, Ka-le and his friends would leave the silent sleeping houses and go tumbling, prancing, running, down to the river bank. They would throw off their loincloths and bathe in the river. They prided themselves on getting up before the grownups.
Yet now, in the gray half-light before dawn, Ka-le was sure he had heard his mother calling. He must be mistaken, for his mother and sisters always slept until the sun was over the treetops.
He was about to close his eyes, turn over, and finish his sleep out, when he heard the voice again—not close by, but at a distance: "Ka-le, my son, my son!" It was a cry of distress. The boy, still half asleep, leaped up to run toward the mournful voice. But at the first step, he stumbled and fell. Chains, bound to ankles, were not meant for running!
Wide awake now, bitterly awake, the boy pulled himself to his knees. How, even in his sleep, could he have forgotten? He was not safe in his village home but a world away, across the dreadful ocean, and in chains!
He stared around the slave-pen. The earth within the enclosure was brown and bare of trees. Along the high wall, overhanging roofs made a kind of lean-to. The lean-tos were like the sheds for cattle in the corral in the center of his village at home. But this was a corral for men, not for cattle.
For men? Women and girls, too, lay huddled on the ground within the high prison walls. His mother's voice had not been heard in a dream. She was here, in the slavepen, across the bare space under the shed with the other women and girls—his mother!
Ka-le pulled himself upright and started across the yard. He walked slowly, measuring his step by the length of the heavy chain fastened to iron bands on his ankles. He made his way past the sleeping forms and thought again how the slave-pen resembled a corral for cattle.
But the cattle in his village were not chained. They wandered free in the meadows all day and were driven into the shelter of the corral only at night. The corral kept them safe from leopards and tigers who might stray down from the forests under cover of dark.
When he came up from his morning swim, Ka-le had always helped his father and the other men from the village lead the cattle to the grazing grounds.
Coming back from the fields, they would look for a sign, an omen, of what the day would bring. Sometimes they'd see a bright lizard or a bird with watchful eyes on its nest, or a misshapen twig, or a cloud that had a curious shape. Each thing had its own meaning. If the boys and men could not guess for themselves what the omen foretold, they would stop at the "palaver" tree.
Here, seated on the platform of canework, under the great tree at the gate of the village, they'd find the old men. The elders would have come from their homes and would be found sitting under the tree, ready to greet strangers or settle arguments. The old men always had an answer. Long years had given the elders experience in every kind of sign or omen.
Ka-le looked down at his chains. He would never believe in omens again—not since the day when he had been seized with his mother and sold to the white men as slaves.
That day had been declared one of good omen. It had been the day of his sister's marriage. After the ceremonies, the whole family had gone beyond the village along the riverbank. They had gone to see the young couple start on their journey to the husband's home, in a neighboring village.
Ka-le's younger sisters had stopped on the riverbank to bathe with their friends in the sunbrightened water. His father had hurried home to see to his new cattle—the three new cows and a bull that had been the "bride's present," from the family of the groom. But Kale and his mother had climbed a little hill to catch a last glimpse of the voyagers' canoe.
The slave-catchers must have been prowling in the underbrush, to snatch anyone who strayed too far from the safety of the village. The invaders had reached from the bushes and bound them with ropes and stuffed their mouths.
Ka-le's slow progress across the yard of the barracoon brought him close enough to the women's shelter to see his mother's garment of blue grasscloth. What was left of the tattered robe was pulled close about her body and over her face. The boy saw that she was still asleep. She must have called out his name in her sleep, as she had so many times on the slave ship.
They had not been chained to the same bench in the hold of the ship. Only by calling out to each other could they know that each still lived, where so many had died.
The boy bent down and smoothed the torn dress. He remembered how carefully his mother had woven the cloth to wear to the wedding, and dyed the robe in the pot of indigo leaves. Now the garment was stained and torn, torn in the struggle with the kidnapers. It was stained with blood from wounds made by the leather thongs bound around her neck when she was captured. And this kidnaping had taken place on a day of good omen!
"No," Ka-le said aloud, as he turned back toward the place where the men and boys slept, "I will never believe in omens again!"
A man's voice answered quietly, "Our omens concern ourselves and our land. They were not meant to foretell the deeds of invaders."
Ka-le had been walking with his eyes to the ground. He had not seen the tall figure standing erect in the center of the yard. Cinque, the speaker's name was, a farmer, ten years older than Ka-le. He had been captured on his way to his new planting field, thrown to the ground, and bound by Arab traders.
Ka-le and Cinque had been chained next to each other on the bench in the slave ship. For the whole time they had sat or crouched side by side. But all that Ka-le knew about Cinque was how he had been taken. It was almost all that any of the captives knew about each other. In the two months spent in the slave ship, there had been little talk of anything except the terrible moment of capture.
The hundred men and women, the boys and young girls had told and retold their tales in the darkness of the ship. Those who had lived to be brought on land again to this slavepen now spent their days recalling their capture. They sank my canoe. They beat me, overpowered me. They came into my house while I was sleeping.
I pawned myself for debt to my neighbor, not to strangers, not to the unspeakable white man. I worked in the fields until my parents paid my debt. They paid ten pieces of cloth and a goat. Ah, but they love me, my parents. On the way home I was beset by Arabs.
On the ship, Cinque had added his own lament to those of his companions: "I was going to my rice fields. If they had not caught my right arm and bound it above my shoulder, if not that—I would not have been made helpless."
But Ka-le had noticed that, in the barracoon, Cinque had ceased to speak of the past. He spent much time in whispered talk with the man who brought them bowls of food.
"The man is of the Mandi tribe, he speaks our language," Cinque had reported one day.
Another time he had said: "We are on an island that has the name of Cuba. The man who holds us captive is a slave dealer. He feeds us well to fatten us. When we have recovered from the voyage he will sell us."
These facts seemed important to the farmer, but Ka-le and the others received the reports in hopeless silence. Nevertheless, when Cinque spoke, there was not one among the captives who did not listen. Cinque was a man one listened to.
"Do not put the blame of our misfortunes on the omens of our gods," Cinque said now, and touched Ka-le's shoulder gently. "Come over here, to the wall. I will show you something."
The wall of the barracoon was built of wooden boards, not of bricks as walls at home would have been. In one board there was a knothole.
"Rise on tiptoe," whispered Cinque. "Put your eye to the hole. Tell me what you see."
"I see the water, waves of endless water," Ka-le answered after a moment.
"What else?" Cinque persisted.
"Only the sun coming up where sky and water meet." Ka-le was disappointed.
Excerpted from The Story of the Amistad by EMMA GELDERS STERNE, JANET BAINE KOPITO. Copyright © 2001 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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