Making Their Own Freedom

Against the Current, No. 168, January/February 2014

Robert Caldwell

The Amistad Rebellion
An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom
By Marcus Rediker
New York: Viking/Penguin, 2012, 288 pages,
$27.95 hardback, $17 paper.

MARCUS REDIKER’S THE Amistad Rebellion embarks from Stephen Spielberg’s 1997 film “The Amistad,” a subject with which most readers will be familiar. But Rediker’s Amistad is not centered on the 1841 Supreme Court case, or the white elites on either side of the courtroom barrage.

Retelling the story from a bottom-up perspective, and re-centering it on the actions of the African protagonists at both sea and land on both sides of the Atlantic, Rediker draws readers into a closer look at the passengers’ African origins, their shipboard rebellion and ultimate resolve to chart their own course for freedom.

This follows Rediker’s many excellent books on the role of the dispossessed in the making of the modern world, including The Many Headed Hydra (with Peter Linebagh) and more recently Villains of All Nations and The Slave Ship: A Human History.

The Amistad Rebellion broadens the context from an 1839 watery rebellion and the U.S. courtroom to the broader Atlantic World system and its hinterlands, and offers insight into the personal history of the rebellion’s leaders, African cultures at the time, and the neglected importance of the “motley” multinational working-class workforces on both ships and the waterfront.

Readers are immediately drawn into the actions of these defiant men who refused to be human cargo. The introduction, titled “Voices,” makes agency of the historical actors manifest, but the book does an excellent job balancing individual agency with both historical contingency and the broader political situation. Each chapter focuses on a major theme, which broadly aligns with a phase in the struggle for liberation.

After a captivating 12-page introduction, the book turns to the individual histories of the Africans and broad context in which they lived. “Origins” uncovers snippets of African social and cultural history and examines the African slave trade in detail, starting in Africa. Rediker first introduces the cross-class, cross-cultural, all-male secret Poro warrior societies and the importance of the society’s discussion and consultation process, called a palaver.

The chapter also provides ample context of enslavement. The author vividly explains the African coastal slave-trading factories, the middle passage onboard a Brazilian slaver, and offers a detailed description of slave enclosures, called barracoons,in both Africa and Cuba.

While oppressive institutions abound, the defiant Africans’ fight back was part of a broader “Atlantic geography of resistance.” (21)

Victorious and Righteous Revolt

Chapter Two discusses the details of the rebellion itself. Here, Rediker focuses not only on Cinqué and the other leaders but also on rank-and-file individuals involved in the freedom struggle.

The crew that emerged from the cramped hull of the ship was far from culturally homogenous although all had been transported from Lomboko on the Gallinas Coast between Freetown and Monrovia. The Africans initially struggled to communicate with each other. They disagreed on strategy, including the level and depth of violence to exact against their maritime oppressors. But they were united in their desire for freedom and to return to Africa.

The fighters’ success was due to their own self-organization, but also to the context of a post-1809 Atlantic. Small ship, small crew slave smuggling of the Amistad type wouldn’t have happened prior to the United States’ passage of the Slave Trade Act and the ascendency of the British Atlantic abolition movement.

The third chapter examines popular perceptions of the Amistad Rebellion. Rediker spends most of this chapter deconstructing newspaper accounts, literature, theater and artistic depictions. Through a detailed examination of these sources, he successfully proves that the rebellion “detonated a bomb of American popular culture” and sympathy even before the mainstream abolitionists organized a campaign.

The chapter is also valuable for its inclusion of slave rebels, free people of color and working-class whites, as well as waterfront workers (and their detractors) within its concise overview of the abolitionist movement of the time. The revolutionary reverberations of the incident ultimately shifted the balance of public opinion and broadened the movement for abolition.

If the rebellion’s victory at sea represented a revolution in miniature, and popular culture created a Black hero in Cinqué and a revolution of public opinion, time the group spent in jail as political prisoners led to a kind of nation-building in miniature. Through this process of ethnogenesis, the polyglot and multiethnic group comes to self-identify as the “Mendi People.” (179).

In jail, the Mendi People fostered an uneasy alliance and “working misunderstanding” with elite Protestant and Reform abolitionists. African seamen proved more effective in creating a linguistic middle ground than scientific educators.

After five court appearances the Mendi People were released from jail but still couldn’t return home. The Amistad Committee organized a “victory tour” to raise funds for their lodging and education.

In this phase, African-American churches played an important political role. While white audiences focused on the Amistad Africans as entertainment, Black preachers embraced the “revolutionary implications” of Black people fighting for their own liberation and thereafter became active in the Underground Railroad.

When the Amistad Africans finally returned to Africa, they did so in the “country fashion,” shedding their western clothing and displaying their traditional “country marks.” (218-219)

Incomplete Evidence

The Amistad Rebellion is not without fault. The book makes a strong case for the importance of a prior mode of African self-organization. To Rediker, organization matters so much as to be the linchpin of his thesis. But this confidence reveals a weakness, as the author is unable to show conclusive evidence of the crew’s experience with Poro Societies. Instead he depends on inference, relying primarily on later anthropological sources.

On the important question of the specific relationship of capitalism to slavery, the author demurs. Rather than taking a definitive stance on the relationship, his reprise “Sugar is made with blood” (18) and his argument that an Atlantic world system linked disparate people in a “larger Atlantic economic transformation that combined bondage and industrialism” (19) suggest that these phenomena were for a time mutually reinforcing.

In any case most historians would agree with Rediker that slavery was a vital component of this epoch, and perhaps for the purposes of this book this is sufficient.
Despite any weaknesses, The Amistad Rebellion is invaluable. It’s immediately useful for providing a new examination of the historical dynamics of the shipboard rebellion itself, but also makes important interventions into the historiography of the 19th-century Atlantic World, U.S. Slavery, and Transatlantic Abolition.

In illuminating an alternate framework of self-emancipation of slaves seeking freedom, the book connects to recent studies of legitimate armed struggle and self-defense in the long Civil Rights, Black Power and decolonization movements. In pushing beyond an elite or middle-class, pacifist and white-centered accounts of transatlantic abolition, the book dispels the tired mythology of passive slaves and religiously-inspired white saviors.

The book fills a gap in Atlantic Basin historiography between the “Red Atlantic” and formative “Black Atlantic” Middle Passage explored in Rediker and Linebagh’s earlier work, and the Atlantic Crossings of the 19th century. The Amistad Rebellion opens a channel for further studies of African contributions to the abolitionist movement as well as a deeper examination of subsequent movements inspired by the rebellion.

Ultimately, the book places the Amistad on a collision course with the entire system of plantation slavery, connecting the earlier Atlantic history of slavery to John Brown and the U.S. Civil War.

January/February 2014, ATC 168