We here at the Blog dedicate ourselves each week to writing a post on a person (or set of people) that has been in some way marginalized, written out of mainstream historical narratives, or dismissed as unimportant for various reasons. We spend a lot of our time for each post researching the person/people in question, writing up a short but still informative post, and editing to make sure there aren’t too many glaring mistakes, inaccuracies, or problems with what we choose to present our readers with each week. Some posts come easier than others, not because of an assumed superficiality of the historical subject we are writing about but for various other reasons. Other posts – at least for myself – take on a fourth step in my “research-write-edit” (repeat) process. That fourth step often includes a self-critical (re)evaluation of the entire post and the Blog.
The responsibility that comes with running a blog named Historical Hotties weighs heavily when you are trying to both bring attention to oft-overlooked historical figures or their communities without simultaneously fetishizing or bringing unwanted bigotry to their descendants or present-day communities. Today’s post grapples more clearly with those issues than perhaps other posts, specifically because the subjects were a group of Black men and four Black children who were captured, enslaved, and brought across the Middle Passage to the Americas (Turtle Island). The present-day issues of how to commemorate and celebrate their resilience without romanticizing or fetishizing suffering and oppression are key questions that we must deal with here at the Blog, and that historians working both within and outside of the academy must be held accountable to. These issues are also layered with the larger questions of who has claims to what history. These questions present themselves differently to those of us who write about our own people’s histories versus those of us who write about the histories of peoples who we do not come from.
With these questions in mind, for today’s post we present to you the history of the Amistad Africans (as they are commonly and presently referred to). The story of the Amistad Africans is one that many historians of enslavement will be familiar with, or fans of Steven Spielberg films will be at least vaguely familiar with. The Amistad Africans were a group of forty-nine adult men and four children who were originally from interior Mende country in what is present-day southern Sierra Leone (Osagie, 4). These fifty-three people were kidnapped in 1836 and sold into enslavement to two Spanish slavers, Pedro Montes and José Ruiz, who then proceeded to force them across the Atlantic Ocean along the Middle Passage until they reached the Caribbean. Stopping in La Habana and switching ships to La Amistad, their ultimate destination was Puerto Príncipe.
On the third night en route from La Habana to Puerto Príncipe, the forty-nine Mende men revolted after the ship’s cook Celestino taunted them with cannibalism. Senbge Pieh (one of the Mende men) incited the other men to action: “We may as well die trying to be free, as to be killed and eaten” (as quoted in Osagie, 5). Senbge with the help of another man, Grabeau, broke out of his chains and once all of the men were freed from their iron collars, proceeded to grab cane knives and kill the captain and the cook. In the ensuing rebellion, two of the Mende men were killed and two Spanish seamen managed to escape by boat. Ruiz and Montes – the men who were to hold the Amistad Africans in enslavement – were captured and became prisoners on the ship. However, as none of the Mende men knew how to navigate La Amistad, they depended on their prisoners Ruiz and Montes to aid them back to Africa.
Ruiz and Montes by day travelled east, and by night steered La Amistad west and north, hoping to land in the United States. After two months, eight people dying of various illnesses, and a quickly depleting food supply, they eventually reached Long Island, New York. The Amistad Africans, after attempting to negotiate with local captains, were captured by the navy and taken prisoner where they would spend the next twenty-seven months in captivity. On August 27th, 1836, La Amistad was towed to New London, Connecticut and the story soon turned into an international incident as the enslaved people’s worth exceeded an estimated $70,000, leading the case to be taken up by the American court system. The case was presided over by pro-enslavement judges where the adult Amistad Africans were tried with murder and piracy.
While the case developed in Connecticut, abolitionists began to take notice, including Dwight Janes who went to the August 29th hearing and learned that the Mende men and four children had been brought to La Habana directly from Mende country despite the Atlantic Slave Trade being legally “over” (although, of course, in practice this was not the case). The editor of the Emancipator Rev. Joshua Leavitt and Simeon Jocelyn (a White minister in New Haven’s first Black church) along with the businessman and abolitionist Lewis Tappan soon rallied in support with Janes, hoping to meet the needs of the Amistad Africans in regards to their legal defense (Osagie, 7). The group of abolitionists who took it upon themselves to provide legal counsel eventually found John Ferry, a free Black Mende man living in New York, who served as the initial interpreter in the early stages of the case. Eventually another free Black Mende man, James Covey, took on the role of interpreter for the duration of the case.
The case proceeded to gain more attention not only within the United States but in Cuba, Spain, and Great Britain. However, it was not the attention of other imperial powers that swayed the former President John Quincy Adams to eventually take on the case in front of the Supreme Court. It was instead the words of two of the Amistad Africans, Kali and Kinna (sometimes spelled Kenna) who wrote to him, pleading for his legal aid. Adams took on the case, with the Supreme Court upholding the rulings of lower courts stating that the Amistad Africans (only thirty-five of whom were still alive at this point) were not enslaved but instead free men illegally kidnapped from Africa, pointing to the Atlantic Slave Trade’s illegal status in 1836 as proof of their freedom. The Amistad Africans and the Amistad Committee (comprising the many abolitionists who came to their aid) raised money to return to Mende country by various means including going on church speaking tours and making crafts (Osagie, 18). Eventually, the thirty-five remaining Amistad Africans made it back to their homeland by sailing with a group of White and Black American missionaries.
We here at the Blog tip our proverbial hats to the resistance the Amistad Africans enacted against their enslavement, both the violent aspects of their rebellion and the non-violent ones such as the letters Kali and Kinna wrote to John Quincy Adams. The histories of these fifty-three Mende people point us in various directions, including being cognizant of the history we are literally living on top of. As a student at Yale University, an institution built on stolen Indigenous land and with the funds of enslavement as its source of original wealth, in New Haven, it is important for me to engage with the history of the place I live in, and this includes situating myself in relation to this history that partly took place in New Haven, Connecticut (located on Quinnipiac Territory). Alongside the familiarity with the history of particular places that academic spaces are found in, the histories of the Amistad Africans also forces us to recon with questions regarding the limits of utilizing the (il)legality of settler colonial and imperial states in seeking justice; of how piracy was often depicted as a specifically racialized threat; and of how transnational histories of enslavement and resistance engage with one another across and along the Atlantic.
We hope our readers take it upon themselves to seek out histories of resistance such as those of the Amistad Africans, or at least in learning a little bit about the places we variously call “home.”
Osagie, Iyunolu Folayan. The Amistad Revolt: Memory, Slavery, and the Politics of Identity in the United States. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000.