La Amistad


October 25 through November 5

Read Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Monday, Oct. 25: The Centrality of Race
Wednesday, Oct. 27: The Defense of Slavery
Friday, Oct. 29: Slavery and Abolition

Monday, Nov. 1: Slavery and Feminism
Wednesday, Nov. 3 Discuss Jacobs, Incidents
Friday, Nov. 5: No Class meeting: Work on second paper

In late summer of 1839 a mysterious ship appeared off the coast of Long Island. The ship appeared to be wandering and in bad repair. Observers on shore noticed armed, fierce looking black men and women on board.The US Coast Guard boarded the ship and found a group of 53 Africans and two Spanish men. The Africans, it turns out, were slaves. They had been captured and taken to Cuba, where they had been sold to the Spanish men, who had locked them in chains and set off on a voyage to sell them.

The Africans, led by a Mende native named Cinque (sometimes spelled as Cingue or Cinquez or in other ways) had managed to free themselves and, using machete-like sugar cane knives, had killed two of their captors. The Africans told the Spanish sailors to sail them back to Africa, and by day the ship sailed east, using the sun as a reference. But at night the Spanish sailors turned the boat to the north, so that that it took a course along the US coast.

The incident sparked a media frenzy. Newspapers published lurid accoutns of the event, The Africans and the two Spanish were taken to new Haven, CT, where the Africans were jailed. Though president Martin VanBuren and other urged thta the Africans should be sent to Cuba to be re-enslaved, abolitionists siezed on the case as a chance to publicize their cause. They argued that the Africans should be tried for murder. They reasoned that the Africans would be regarded as freedom-loving heroes. The Spanish sued for the return of their property.

The trial began, as much to discover the facts of the case as to render a verdict . Keep in mind, Americans knew very little about Africa in 1839. Plaster casts were made of the rebels heads; a phrenologist was called in to read their skulls, and wax figures of the rebels toured the East Coast. The trial attracted national media attention. The trial eventually reached the US Supreme Court, where John Quincy Adams played a major role in the case.

The Africans were ruled to have been illegally enslaved, and the Court directed that they be returned to Africa. The case publicized the anti-salvery cause, but in the end the Africans were freed on a legal technicality, not because the Court found anything wrong with slavery.

The case happened at a time when Americans were increasingly conscious of the idea of "race." In the US, human anthropologists tended to focus on physcial measurement and classification. The Amistad case took place at the same time as the sudden popularity of the minstrel show--a fasctintating and awful phenomenon that most of us might like to forget.