Writing the Ship

A couple years back, Connecticut Congressman Joe Courtney caught a big blunder in Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s big film biography of Abraham Lincoln. One scene shows states voting to ratify the amendment abolishing slavery, with Courtney’s 19th-century Connecticut congressional counterparts heard voting against the 13th amendment, when in fact all four of Connecticut’s congressmen at the time voted in favor of it.

The error seems especially odd to Connecticut audiences, since Spielberg also directed the only major film made about the Amistad. The adventures of the ship’s captives present a story that can, and has, been told myriad ways: as a poignant awakening in the Civil Rights struggle for Africans and African-Americans. As a riveting sea adventure. As a precedent-setting legal drama unfolding right here in New Haven. As a tale of communities united in the cause of justice.

The varying forms the Amistad story takes can be as fascinating as the story itself. Depending on which book or website you consult, you could be hearing about The Amistad Revolt, The Amistad Rebellion or The Amistad Mutiny. Once the chronicle hits dry land, in the courthouses and churches along New Haven Green, it becomes The Amistad Case, the Amistad Trial, The Amistad Affair. Then there are the tamer, more benign monikers such as The Amistad Story, The Amistad Incident or The Amistad Event.

A famous sequence of paintings by mid-20th-century painter Hale Woodruff (examples of which anchor the Amistad gallery at New Haven Museum) distills the Amistad story to a bloody sea battle, a civilized courtroom vignette and a heroic return of the prisoners to Africa. Woodruff uses bold colors and paints the principle figures of the adventure in noble, defiant postures.

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One of the most concise and evenhanded accounts, one which neatly suits a modern sense of the Amistad and its importance, is etched into the base of the Amistad Memorial (pictured above) which stands a few yards from the entrance to New Haven City Hall:

This monument is a memorial to the 1839 Amistad Revolt and its leader, Sengbe Pieh, also known as Joseph Cinque. Sengbe Pieh was one of the millions of Africans kidnapped from their homes and transported in bondage to the Americas. Sold into slavery in Cuba, he, forty-eight other men and four children were bound aboard the schooner La Amistad. During a storm, Sengbe Pieh successfully freed himself and his fellows. The Africans seized the ship, but their orders to steer La Amistad homeward were thwarted. After futile weeks at sea, they were captured off Long Island by the U.S.S. Washington.

On this site, the Amistad Africans were jailed awaiting trial for piracy and murder. To aid their struggle for freedom, the Amistad Committee formed, counting in its number ministers Simeon Joycelyn, Joshua Leavitt and James Pennington; merchant Lewis Tappan; professor Josiah Gibbs; and lawyer Roger Baldwin. The Africans were tried twice prior to their ultimate triumph before the United States Supreme Court, where former President John Quincy Adams courageously defended them. Sengbe Pieh and his fellows were declared Free Persons.

The Africans sought to return home. To raise funds for their voyage and to further the anti-slavery cause, they engaged in a series of speaking tours. In 1841, after a sojourn that profoundly influenced the abolitionist movement, they set sail, free at last. To commemorate the heroism of the Amistad Africans and those who shared in their quest for freedom, the 1989 Amistad Committee commissioned this sculpture by Ed Hamilton and dedicated it on September 26, 1992.

Published scholarship about the Amistad proliferated throughout the mid- to late 1900s, but seemed to increase a hundredfold following the 1997 release of the Spielberg movie Amistad, which stars Djimon Hounsou as Cinque, Morgan Freeman (as a character invented for the purposes of the film, a former slave named Theodore Joadson who runs a New Haven printing shop) and Matthew McConaughey as Roger Sherman Baldwin, the lawyer who argued the Amistad case and who was later Governor and Senator, his name adorning buildings and streets throughout the state.

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When Spielberg’s Amistad film was released, as with Lincoln, historians questioned some of its historical representations and curious emphases. It was argued that Amistad hinged overmuch on the participation of John Quincy Adams (played by Anthony Hopkins), and that the picture glossed over some meaningful contradictions in how slavery was dealt with in the early 19th century. Spielberg’s film paints the Amistad struggle as a portent of eventual abolition of slavery in the United States, while historians such as Columbia professor Eric Foner were keen to point out that “the Amistad case revolved around the Atlantic slave trade—by 1840 outlawed by international treaty—and had nothing whatever to do with slavery as a domestic institution. Incongruous as it may seem, it was perfectly possible in the nineteenth century to condemn the importation of slaves from Africa while simultaneously defending slavery and the flourishing slave trade within the United States.”

Such a distressing disconnect in social attitudes would admittedly be harder to dramatize, but some of those who’ve turned the Amistad story into novels or non-fiction narratives have embraced these same gray areas. The extraordinary volume Ardency—A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels, Being an Epic Account of the Capture of the Spanish Schooner Amistad by the Africans on Board: Their Voyage and Capture Near Long Island, New York; With Phrenological Studies of Several of the Surviving Africans is a cycle of poems of Kevin Lowell Young, written in the 21st century yet purporting to be in the voices and tones of the times in which the Amistad slaves were fighting for their freedom. Young’s poems evoke the captives’ wishes not just to be free but also to be understood. It assumes the voices of the slaves and of those who served as translators for the Africans, as well as those who defended them and who tried to convert them to Christianity and American customs of the time. The final section of Ardency follows the freed Amistad prisoners back to their native Africa; the language of the verses shows how they have changed not just in their expressions but in their expectations.

Late in the collection, Young creates a “Gospel Invitation”:

Checkdst, wrongst, chuckldst, entombs, warpst, whelmdst, harpst, curvdst, albs, bulbs, helvd, belchd, turfst, engulfdst, imprisondst, returndst.

The Amistad journey requires its own vocabulary, and we continue to learn from it.

Amistad Memorial
Outside City Hall – 165 Church St, New Haven (map)

Written and photographed by Christopher Arnott. This story originally published on February 22, 2013.

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Christopher Arnott has written about arts and culture in Connecticut for over 25 years. His journalism has won local, regional and national awards, and he has been honored with an Arts Award from the Arts Council of Greater New Haven. He posts daily at his own sites www.scribblers.us and New Haven Theater Jerk (www.scribblers.us/nhtj).

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