Thursday, December 20, 2012

Book Review: "The Amistad Rebellion"

In his 2007 book The Slave Ship: A Human HistoryMarcus Rediker explored Atlantic slavery by focusing on the ships which carried enslaved Africans across the Atlantic and the slaves, sailors, and captains who populated those ships. In his new book, The Amistad Rebellion: An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom (Viking, 2012), Rediker focuses on the slaves who made the middle passage aboard just one ship, the Teçora, and even then on just a small subset of those: the slaves transferred to the Amistad for what was supposed to be a quick three-day voyage from Havana to another part of Cuba, but which turned into something much more.

As Rediker notes in his introduction, in the story that's come down to us about the Amistad revolt and its legal aftermath, "American actors—abolitionists, attorneys, judges, and politicians—have elbowed aside the African ones whose daring actions set the train of events in motion" (p. 5). So instead of telling the story from an abolitionist perspective, or even by focusing on the political-legal aspects of the case, Rediker has, with this book, provided us, at long last, with a history of the Amistad case "from below," with the Africans themselves as the main characters (as, of course, they were). This is possible because of the great number of articles, letters, illustrations and other sources which the case engendered (Rediker has identified more than 2,500 articles, many of them written by correspondents who personally met with the captives):

"No other makers of a modern slave revolt generated such a vast and deep body of evidence, which in turn makes it possible to know more about the Amistad Africans than perhaps any other group of once-enslaved rebels on record, and to get to know them, individually and collectively, in intimate, multidimensional ways, from their personalities and sense of humor to their specifically West African ways of thinking and acting during their ordeal" (p. 11).

Largely relying on the words of the Africans themselves, Rediker is able to trace their individual stories: how they were enslaved, what their lives were like prior to their enslavement, and their experiences of the Middle Passage aboard the Teçora and later of the harrowing days on the Amistad and following their re-capture and transfer to Connecticut jails. The reader gets a real sense of how they felt about what was happening to them once they arrived in the United States: their continued fear that they would be either killed outright or returned to slavery in Cuba for almost certain execution, their often-expressed desire to go home.

Beyond this, though, Rediker explores much of what was going on around the case, from the way it was portrayed in newspaper articles to the plays it inspired, and how the case was seen and used by the various abolitionist/colonizationist/evangelical activist communities. He explores the efforts made to educate the group, and he provides a really important account of the "tour" the group went on following the Supreme Court's decision in their case, partly to raise money for their return to Africa. Finally, the closing chapters tell us what happened in the end, when the group returned to Africa alongside some American missionaries.

Rediker also brings up an element of this story which I wasn't familiar with before at all: the Poro Society, "an all-male secret society and fundamental governing social institution" (p. 31). All the Amistad Africans would have been familiar, Rediker argues, with the governing codes and hierarchies of the Poro, and the shared experience of Poro culture would have served to help bond the group together, even though they were from different ethnic and language backgrounds. It's a fascinating part to the tale that certainly seems worthy of further study.

Another interesting aspect of the case that Rediker explores is the way funds were raised for the Amistad group (for their board, education, and eventually for their homeward voyage). He notes that the general assumption has been that Lewis Tappan basically paid for the whole shebang, but Rediker found through an examination of the account books of the Amistad Committee that there was instead quite an impressive popular outpouring of funds ($90 from the "Color'd Citizens of Cincinnati," $58.50 from textile mill workers in Lowell, Massachusetts, &c.).

The political and legal elements of the case aren't ignored, but they're not Rediker's main concern, so much of the very complex legal drama is pared down quite a bit. Since I'm also interested in that part of the case, and particularly in the Supreme Court arguments about the case, I would have not have been averse to some deeper discussion and analysis in those areas from Rediker's perspective, but that's just me, and what Rediker has done is to put the Amistad Africans, both as individuals and as a group, back at the center of the story, where they belong.

I'm pretty sure I praised Rediker's footnotes with his last book, and I'll do so again here: they're thorough and useful, as footnotes should be. They, along with Rediker's excellent discussion of how the Amistad case was viewed at the time and how it has been seen and interpreted in the intervening years, add even more to what this book has accomplished. Highly recommended.