In January 1839, 53 African natives were kidnapped from eastern Africa and sold into the Spanish slave trade. They were then placed aboard a Spanish slave ship bound for Havana, Cuba.
Once in Havana, the Africans were purchased at auction by two Spaniards, Don Jose Ruiz and Don Pedro Montez. The two planned to move the slaves to another part of Cuba. The slaves were shackled and loaded aboard the cargo schooner Amistad for the brief coastal voyage.
Three days into the journey, a 25-year-old slave named Sengbe Pieh (or “Cinque” to his Spanish captors) broke out of his shackles and released the other Africans. The slaves then revolted, killing most of the crew of the Amistad, including the captain. The Africans then forced Montez and Ruiz to return the ship to Africa.
During the day, the ship sailed due east, using the sun to navigate. However, at night Montez and Ruiz would change course, attempting to return to Cuba. The zigzag journey continued for 63 days.
The ship finally grounded near Montauk Point in New York state. The U.S. federal government seized the ship and its African occupants, who under U.S. law were “property” and therefore cargo of the ship. The Amistad was towed into New London, Connecticut.
The government charged the slaves with piracy and murder, and classified them as salvage property. The 53 Africans were sent to prison, pending hearing of their case before the U.S. Circuit Court in Hartford, Connecticut.
Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court freed the Africans and they returned home.
Little known is the role that artists played in support for the Amistad slaves. In his book The Amistad Rebellion: An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom, Marcus Rediker writes:
“The Amistad rebellion captured the public imagination. A mere six days after the vessel had been towed into port, a drama troupe at New York’s Bowery Theater performed a play about its story of mutiny and piracy. Commercial artists converged on the jail where the Amistad Africans were incarcerated, drew images of Cinque, the leader of the rebellion, reproduced them quickly and cheaply, and had them hawked by boys on the streets of eastern cities. Artist Amasa Hewins would paint a 135-foot panorama depicted the Amistad Africans as they surrounded and killed Captain Ferrer and seized their freedom by force of arms. Another artist, Sidney Moulthrop, would create 29 life-sized wax figures of the Africans and Amistad crew, cast and arranged to dramatize the shipboard insurrection. Both artists would tour with their creations, charging admission to those eager to see a visual enactment of the uprising. Meantime, thousands of people lined up daily to pay admission and walk through the jails of New Haven and Hartford to get a glimpse of the Amistad rebels, who were political prisoners before the phrase had been invented….Citizens jammed the courtroom to capacity and beyond….Ministers delivered thundering sermons, correspondents wrote hundreds of highly opinionated newspaper articles, poets penned romantic verses, and those for and against slavery debated furiously, all about the Amistad rebels, what they had done, its morality and meaning, and what their fate should be. Discussed in public as never before, slave resistance became not only a main political issue of the day, but a commercial entertainment—a commodity that circulated in the ever-growing marketplace, shaping public opinion and ultimately the outcome of the case.”
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As more and more Americans are becoming repulsed by the never-ending onslaught of police violence, it’s time to ask two questions. How can a cultural explosion on the scale of the one which surrounded the Amistad case be generated? How can the components of the growing tide of artistic expression for peace in the streets which does already exist be productively linked together?
Lee Ballinger, CounterPunch’s music columnist, is co-editor of Rock and Rap Confidential author of the forthcoming book Love and War: My First Thirty Years of Writing. He can be reached at: Rockrap@aol.com