I first learned about Amistad in middle school when we took time out of class to watch Spielberg’s Amistad. If I remember correctly, we only saw part of the movie but I struggle to remember exactly how much. In any case, I cannot say I found the movie particularly moving. I really enjoyed Spielberg’s historical films like Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s list but Amistad just did not click with me. I did, however, find the case interesting and was glad I learned more about the case in some of my American history classes in college. It was not until I read David Pesci’s Amistad, however, that I felt like I gained a truly rich understanding of this unique historical incident.
Told primarily from the perspective of Singbe, a Mende tribesman abducted and sold into slavery, the story starts with the Amistad ship en route to the Caribbean. In terms of establishing proper context, it is important to note that the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade was technically illegal at this time so the slavers must take great pains to avoid detection. The upside for the smugglers, however, is that demand for slaves remains skyhigh on the plantations which all but ensures a great profit, as long as they can make it to a Western seaport alive. Singbe and the other enslaved Africans have only a vague notion of what awaits them on the other side of the Atlantic, but they are not about to trust their well-being to slavers. They are at first powerless to improve their situation but Singbe comes into possession a small item which could change everything: a loose nail. He quickly takes possession of this invaluable treasure and uses it to unlock his manacles, as well as the manacles of those locked below with him. The slavers are woefully unprepared for a revolt and the abducted Africans quickly gain control of the ship.
As it turns out, they have not departed the metaphorical woods just yet. Only the slavers know how to operate the ship which begs a terrible question: can the leaders of the slave revolt trust the men who tried to sell them into slavery? They are contemptible men to be sure but Singbe, unofficial leader of the slave revolt, reasons that everyone on board hopes to make landfall so he grudgingly allows the surviving slavers to assist with navigation. It ends up being a costly mistake and the smugglers secretly navigate the ship towards a nearby slave country which just so happens to be the United States. Singbe and the other Africans are arrested by American forces and thereafter put on trial for murder. The subsequent trial comprises the bulk of the novel and features cameos from major historical figures like John Quincy Adams as well as many lesser-known historical figures.
I love a good courtroom drama as much as the next person, but it’s the final few chapters of the book I remember most. At this point in the story, the trial is concluded but the abducted Africans are totally destitute and lack the means to return to West Africa. Fortunately, an anti-slavery society has agreed to help raise funds for their return and the “Amistads” tour New England to solicit funds. The Amistads prove to be a major draw with the abolitionist crowd and as they inch closer to their explicit goal, the partnership between the anti-slavery society and the Amistads begin to fray. The former is dedicated to the abolition of slavery nationwide and believe the Amistads should play a key role in that struggle on account of their unique popularity with audiences. The Amistads, however, are concerned first and foremost with returning home and have little interest in serving as spokesmen for the abolitionist cause if it will delay their ability to return home.
Ultimately, the anti-slavery society makes good on their promise but the conflict raises interesting questions. Are the Amistads selfish for not doing more to help the abolitionist cause? Are the abolitionists selfish for asking so much of the Amistads? I don’t think there is a simple yes or no for either question and that’s what makes the ending of Amistad powerful for me. The book is available on Amazon and can be requested at most libraries and I recommend it to anyone interested in West African history, legal history, or American history.