Marcus Rediker’s new book, The Amistad Rebellion: An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom, revisits one of the most stirring episodes in American history: the revolt aboard the Cuban schooner Amistad in July 1839, during which a small group of enslaved Africans seized control of the vessel and tried to sail home. Tricked by one of their former captors, whom they had relied upon to steer the ship, they drifted northwards instead of eastwards – all the way to Long Island, where they were apprehended by the U.S. Navy at the end of August. The Africans were taken to a jail in Connecticut and spent the next year-and-a-half challenging the U.S. legal system to secure their freedom – and at last to win their passage home.
As Prof. Rediker notes in his introduction, the story of the Amistad Africans has ebbed and flowed in American popular culture. These days, most of us know about them through Steven Spielberg’s 1997 film which featured Anthony Hopkins as the former U.S. president John Quincy Adams, who argued for the Africans’ freedom before the Supreme Court, and Djimon Hounsou as Cinqué, the iconic leader of the revolt. But while the movie revived public interest in the Amistad revolt, it told us very little about the fifty or so Africans who were at the heart of the story.
This is where The Amistad Rebellion breaks new ground. Prof. Rediker does a tremendous job of explaining where the Amistad Africans grew up, how they lived their early lives in West Africa, and how they became ensnared by the Atlantic slave system – a system which continued to devour innocent people even after Britain and the United States banned the foreign slave trade in 1807 and 1808. Prof. Rediker argues that we can only really understand the Amistad rebellion if we recover the beliefs and experiences of the Africans at the heart of the story. We need to recognize that, despite the involvement of antislavery leaders and a former President of the United States, these Africans were always the story’s true protagonists.
The book makes a major contribution by restoring African history to the tale of the Amistad, but it also makes some big claims about the significance of the rebellion for the struggles against slavery within the United States. For Prof. Rediker, the initial uprising was a form of ‘direct action’; the wave of public interest in the rebels ‘detonated a bomb in American popular culture.’ The Amistad rebellion might even have been the pivot that made possible a more radical form of abolitionism in the years before the Civil War: quoting from the book again, Cinqué and the other rebels came ‘to symbolize a revolutionary future,’ helping Americans to see that the end of slavery was within reach.
If you’ve already read the book, I’m sure you’ll have plenty of questions for Marcus. If you haven’t, you might want to read my long-ish review from The Nation last November. I raised a few issues in this review that I’m hoping to ask Marcus about during the chat. But in the main I’ll try to hold off on my questions: I’m relying instead on you all to set the agenda and to quiz Marcus on his terrific book.
[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]