Amistad Book Review

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.

Respect and history

Towards the end of my time in Ghana, I went to visit the Elmina slave castle with my CIEE group. It was an extremely moving experience and one that I will remember for a long time. Part of the reason it was so moving was the knowledge that my family had been taken as part of the Atlantic slave trade but judging by the expressions of the other students who had joined for the CIEE excursion, it was a poignant experience regardless of heritage. Nonetheless, it was an experience marred by my interactions with some of the locals. Before I could even enter the museum, I came across a Ghanaian man named Isaac Boston. Like most Ghanaians living in Cape Coast, he had an extremely Anglo name and had no trouble communicating with me in English. Before I even had the chance to say a few words to him, he had offered me a seashell with a note urging me to “have a good trip at Elmina Castle.”

I found it off-putting to say the least but that wasn’t even the worst of it. Isaac then had the temerity to ask me if I would be willing to give him a few cedi. He was quick to explain the seashell was completely free but added that tossing a few cedi his way would be a nice way of showing my appreciation for the seashell. His smile was so warm and his request so earnest that it was difficult to be angry with him, but the experience left a bad taste in my mouth all the same. Unfortunately, things did not get better once we entered the castle.

The tour guide seemed to have little to no respect for the trauma associated with the Elmina slave castle and saw nothing at all wrong about taking us to a gift shop immediately after taking us to the Female Slave Dungeon where women would be abused and tortured for being disobedient. Perhaps it could have made sense if the gift shop was a place we visited after finishing the tour of Elmina, or at least had the knowledge that our money would go to some NGO like End Slavery Now, but it was a stop planned for the middle of the tour and absolutely no explanation was provided as to where our money would go.

From what I have read online, the Ghanaian man who led us around Elmina was not especially callous in his attitude toward the trauma of the Atlantic slave trade. If anything, his attitude was pretty typical. As far as many of the locals are concerned, the slave trade didn’t effect them. After all, they still live in Ghana so their lineage was “uninterrupted” so to speak.

What’s great about historical fiction is it can help coax the callous out of their comfort zones but, ultimately, the door swings both ways. Sometimes historical fiction can take the sharp edges off a tragedy, whether it’s using war and colonialism as the backdrop for an erotica series like Jennings did with his Aztec series or intentionally promoting a very distorted version of history like Mitchell did with Gone With the Wind. Historical novelists have a duty to be respectful of history and I think the same holds true for individuals that visit historic sites.

Chances are we have all been that “disrespectful tourist” at some point, either because we lacked for a basic understanding of the history behind a place or because we just really wanted a nice souvenir to take home. Nonetheless, I hope we can all realize that certain places are not meant for smiling selfies and some stories aren’t supposed to be light-hearted. Now that summer is pretty much in full swing, I think this is important for all of us to remember the importance of respect for history since many of us will use this time to write, to vacation, or to read. No matter how one chooses to spend this summer, I hope we can all learn a lesson from Isaac Boston. Otherwise, we run the risk of being an irreverent seashell and not understanding why nobody seems to like what that represents.

Review of Pride of Carthage

As far as I know, there aren’t a lot of studies concerning the subject matter of historical novels published in English. If I had to guess, I would say the majority of historical novels deal with either the Roman Empire or WWII. Considering how many books are written on these subjects and how much I read historical fiction, some might assume that I have read a great many novels featuring characters with Latin names or events that took place somewhere between 1933 and 1945. Such an assumption, however, would be wrong. Partially because so much has already been written about these epochs and partially because we learn a great deal about both in school, I used to avoid historical novels dedicated to these topics. I decided to break that rule when I read David Anthony Durham’s Pride of Carthage and I am glad that I did.

While a great many novels have been written about the Second Punic War, Pride of Carthage is one of the few novels I know that is told almost entirely from the perspective of Carthaginian characters. This does offer some advantages in terms of brand differentiation but there is one big downside to telling the story from this point of view: the Carthaginians were the invaders. Generally speaking, the people who initiate wars of aggression are not very sympathetic characters. Whether the story takes place in Winterfell or pre-Columbian North America, creating sympathetic characters is key to capturing reader interest so telling the story from the Carthaginian perspective poses some obvious difficulties.

Durham confronts the challenge with impressive grace and portrays Hannibal Barca in a way that helps readers understand his intelligence and his motivations. Considering Hannibal’s reputation as a genius military strategist, a great many writers probably would have been tempted to use the first chapter to showcase his knowledge of battle tactics. Durham, however, chooses a different tack and uses the first chapter to showcase Hannibal’s genius as a military commander. The scene is not very long but does a great job of showing how Hannibal was able to win the loyalty of common soldiers and why so many soldiers were willing to follow him into such perilous straits.

When it comes to understanding the motivations of this long-dead general, no scene does this better than Imilce’s private conversation with Hannibal. Imilce, his first wife and his ardent supporter, pushes him to explain why he is so keen on war with Rome. His initial answers are rather milquetoast—glory, justice, freedom, and vengeance—and could have come from the likes of Hirohito or Bolivar. The scene gets truly interesting when Imilce presses Hannibal and he confesses he is motivated more by marital pride than martial pride. He promises his wife that “in two years you will be able to look from the balcony of this [room] or any other place you choose and know that all the Mediterranean world is yours to shape. How many men can say that to their wives and mean it?”

This explanation differs markedly from his more public proclamations—at one point in the book, he explains that Carthage needs to take the offense against Rome because Rome will become the undisputed hegemon of the Mediterranean otherwise, a rather prescient observation undoubtedly informed by Durham’s knowledge of the Punic wars—but this private admission is the one that truly stands out. To think that something so simple and pure as striving to give a significant other something no one else has can lead to something so ugly as war is both fascinating and horrifying.

Considering the book is about Hannibal Barca, no reader should be surprised that large-scale battles play a large role in the story. Personally, I like the descriptions of the Fabian campaign, the Battle of Cannae, and the Battle of Zama best but the answer will probably differ from reader to reader. To be fair, there are probably some readers who won’t enjoy these scenes at all but the political intrigue and the narrative arcs are more than enough to carry the story along. I recommend this book to anyone interested in Mediterranean history, albeit mainly from the African perspective as opposed to the European perspective, or to anyone interested in military fiction.

The novel is available on Amazon and in most libraries.

Review of The Moor’s Account

Historical fiction is a relatively small genre. Most bookstores in the US do not have a historical fiction section and the genre is not nearly as popular as fantasy or science fiction. Owing to authors like Laila Lalami, that could soon change. The Moor’s Account serves as her first foray into historical fiction and represents a towering accomplishment for the genre.

Set during the early days of Spanish colonization of the Americas, the novel follows the travels of a Moorish slave referred to in primary sources as Estebanico. Her decision to focus on Estebanico, referred to in the novel as Mustafa al-Zamori, is just as laudable as it is noteworthy. Had she written the novel from the perspective of Vacas or Navarez, she would have had far more resources at her disposal in terms of research tools. Despite the difficulties involved, Lalami chose to make Mustafa the protagonist of the novel and gives readers a character who provides some fascinating perspective on matters regarding race, war, and religion.

The story begins with the Navarez expedition having just landed in “La Florida” and the protagonist remarks in the opening sentence that “it was the year 934 of the Hegira, the thirtieth year of my life, the fifth year of my bondage—and I was at the edge of the known world.” The opening line is not particularly complex in terms of structure or diction, but it does a great job of setting the tone for the story.

Most Americans are not familiar with the Hegira–after all, Muslims make up less than 2 percent of the US population and the Gregorian calendar is used throughout most of the world these days. By invoking the Hegira, Lalami lets us know upfront the protagonist does not come from a traditional Western background and gives us information that savvy readers can use to better understand the setting. Moreover, by referencing the specific number of years that the character has spent as a slave, we learn the character was not born into slavery but forced into it, an important distinction that hints at a backstory which Lalami explores in subsequent chapters with enviable grace. Nonetheless, it is probably the final clause of the opening sentence which merits the most attention from readers.

A number of authors have remarked that almost every story can be boiled down to two basic plots: a stranger comes to town or a character goes on a journey. With the final clause, we know we have the latter but, importantly, we also know the character is journeying into the unknown. As a result, we know early on that the protagonist will probably be exposed to a great many unfamiliar sights and some of the most memorable scenes of the novel include these unfamiliar sights, such as when Mustafa comes face-to-face with an alligator for the first time. Considering that Mustafa and his captors have never seen an alligator before, it is all too easy to understand the terror that Mustafa experiences as he watches the animal attack a fellow slave.

To think the Moor’s Account is a simple travelogue of pre-colonial North America would be a mistake though. Where The Moor’s Account really shines is how it encourages readers to think about history. Almost anyone who has learned about the Navarez expedition knows that it was an absolute disaster and that the vast majority of the crew perished. Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca was fortunate enough to survive and historians have long turned to his writings on the Navarez expedition to understand the event. Whereas many authors would have felt bound by the official account, the Moor’s Account subverts Vacas’ retelling on multiple occasions to give Mustafa more agency and to give the Amerindians more voice.

In doing so, the author encourages readers to take a more critical view of this primary source and its purported veracity. If events unfolded as they did in the novel, would Vacas have included that kind of information in the official account? The account that Vacas provided to notaries strongly suggests that Navarez bore sole responsibility for the failure of the expedition and that the surviving crew members, the Moor included, were selfless missionaries for Christ during their time with the “Indians.”

The portrayal offered by Lalami in The Moor’s Account is decidedly more complicated. Not only does Vacas share some of the responsibility for the failure of the expedition in Lalami’s retelling, she also strongly suggests that the survivors were much more keen on assimilating into Amerindian society than proselytizing, a concept that would have been truly shocking in 16th century Europe. Furthermore, the Moor never truly converted to Christianity in Lalami’s retelling and helped save the expedition on numerous occasions, something Vacas would have elided for numerous reasons. Lalami’s account is fictional of course but it raises many interesting questions about how we engage with history and the importance of critically examining the established orthodoxy. I would highly recommend this novel to fans of historical fiction, or those keen on literary fiction, and will be sure to keep an eye out for more of Lalami’s work in the future.

The book is available on Amazon and can be requested at most libraries.