Compatible with His Cerebral Organization

Compatible with His Cerebral Organization

August is Summer Reading Month in Daily Nutmeg. Please enjoy this excerpt from historian Laura A. Macaluso’s Art of the Amistad and The Portrait of Cinqué (2016), about important visual representations of the famous Amistad slave rebellion and its leader, Joseph Cinqué.

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The practice of phrenology was to measure people’s skulls, and to find in these measurements correlations to intelligence, personality, and psychology. Further, the “practical application of phrenology… offered individuals at a time of rapid change and social instability a way to read others.” In the context of nineteenth-century American society, phrenology was utilized to support and sustain racist views that people of color were of lesser intelligence and problematic character, ideas put forth in print by such eighteenth-century thinkers—and slave holders—as Thomas Jefferson. While waiting in jail in New Haven from August 27, 1839, and through all of 1840, the Amistad Africans participated in several exercises in which they were studied and examined by artists, journalists, and “science” types. J. N. Fowler, the “celebrated practical phrenologist,” examined “most of them” before September 25, 1839. The Amistad Africans had been incarcerated in New Haven less than one month before the “examinations” began; examinations that could take the form of feeling the whole head and measuring different distances with a tape measure. As reprinted in the Auburn Journal and Advertiser, Fowler found that “he could not discover from the formation of their heads, that they possessed very destructive or malicious propensities; yet nearly all of them had most marked developments of self-esteem, firmness and love of home; which feelings, more than any other, he thought, occasioned the insurrection among them.” The practice of phrenology, then, could be fitted to whatever story—and whatever perspective—the phrenologist wanted to provide to his audience. In Fowler’s case… it was a sympathetic one.

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Fowler… made a plaster cast of Cinqué’s head which he used to illustrate his lectures in New York City, another form of performance and spectacle. According to Eleanor Alexander, Fowler “declared the African’s celebrated actions compatible with his cerebral organization.” Not surprisingly, due to the plethora of images about him, less than one month into incarceration in New Haven, Cinqué was… already a celebrity. While some made Cinqué into a romantic pirate, or a bloodthirsty savage with a long knife, [John Warner] Barber’s mini-biography of him provides the various incarnations of the names which we know today: Sing-gbe, which becomes Cingue, which becomes Cinquez. …

Cinqué’s celebrity was so immediate after his arrival on August 27, 1839, in New London that by August 31, an image of him, drawn by New Londoner Isaac Sheffield (sometimes erroneously labeled James), lithographed by Moses Yale Beach, and printed by Joseph A. Arnold of Boston, was deposited in the Library of Congress on the very same day. A handwritten statement across the top of the image reads, “Deposited in the Clerk’s office for the Southern District of N(ew) England, August 31, 1839, D. S. Received 9th Nov. 1839, No. 767.” This image, drawn by life right before Cinqué was removed from La Amistad and taken to jail in New Haven, was reprinted as a broadside intended to extend forward in time, as the inscription under the image of him reads, “Joseph Cinquez, the brave Congolese Chief, who prefers death to Slavery, and who now lies in Jail in Irons in New Haven Conn. awaiting his trial for daring for freedom.” An oration-style speech attributed to Cinqué appears next, reinforcing his role as an Ancient Roman, and his role on stage as the “Leader of the Gang of Negroes,” although here, instead, the Amistad Africans are called “his comrade slaves.”

This… image of Cinqué, titled Joseph Cinquez as in the other early New London-based prints, features a softly drawn lone man with heavy lidded eyes looking directly at the viewer. The presentation is informal and relaxed, but the direct gaze and pointed eyebrows suggest a philosophical attitude with the potential of evolving into action. This perceptive and wary look is familiar in the history of art: Michelangelo’s David has been beloved for more than five hundred years because of this very contradiction in presentation, which creates latent energy in the work: both men are shown in deceivingly relaxed attitudes, but like David, Cinqué is capable of overthrowing Goliath with planning and force.

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Art of the Amistad and The Portrait of Cinqué by Laura A. Macaluso
lauramacaluso@sbcglobal.net
Where to buy: Amazon

Image depicts Nathaniel Jocelyn’s portrait of Cinqué. Provided courtesy of the New Haven Museum, which houses and displays the painting itself.

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