Africa, America & the Amistad

The slaves imprisoned aboard the Amistad rebelled on this day in 1839. The fifty-three Mende captives, most of them recent arrivals from Sierra Leone, overpowered those who were transporting them to a sugar plantation east of Havana. Unable to set course back to Africa on their own, the rebels were forced to rely on the Amistad‘s navigator for help; he deceptively sailed up the Atlantic coast, and the slaves were eventually taken into U.S. custody off Long Island.

Marcus Rediker’s The Amistad Rebellion (a companion study to his influential 2007 volume, The Slave Ship) is subtitled An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom in order to convey that it is a story of two continents. The rebellion was immediately famous in America, sometimes for three-ring-circus reasons — the first play about the events was performed only six days after the rebels’ recapture; murals and waxwork reproductions of the events were soon on display; and thousands paid money to see the rebels in their jail cells. The attention intensified with the controversial U.S. Supreme Court case of 1841, deciding whether the men were to be punished as North American slaves, guilty of mutiny and murder, or liberated as free Africans. Whether for theatrical, political, or philosophical reasons, the net effect, argues Rediker, was to effectively appropriate the rebellion for North American purposes:

The Amistad rebels’ struggle for voice led them to learn English, to study American political culture and to use it for their own ends…. Even so, it was no easy matter for them to be heard, in their own times, above or even alongside the voices of evangelical Christians; lawyers, politicians, and diplomats; middle-class antislavery reformers; and proslavery ideologues. And it has proved no easy matter to hear them today.

“A history of the Amistad rebellion from below,” Rediker’s book is an attempt to put the Africans “back at the center of their own story, and the larger history they helped make.” His last chapter follows the liberated slaves back to Sierra Leone, where many of them immediately abandoned the American missionaries who had sponsored their repatriation, and who had hoped to use them to advantage in spreading the Gospel.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at