Saturday, November 02, 2013

Marcus Rediker - The Amistad Rebellion: An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery & Freedom

Marcus Rediker has been at the forefront of historians writing social histories of the Atlantic. In recent years he has turned his attention to the history of the slave trade. His previous book The Slave Ship is an excellent examination of that appalling period, and its links with the emergence of capitalism. Rediker's new book looks at one particular aspect of slavery's history, the inspiring rebellion on board the slave ship Amistad.

It is the fascinating story of how one group of slaves rose up, killed their captors and attempted to make it back to their homes in Africa. The story of the Amistad uprising is fairly well known. But there must have been countless other attempts at rebellion, few of which were successful. So the story that Rediker tells is important because it allows us to learn from the slaves in their own words, but also understand the attitudes towards them. In particular the growing abolitionist movement in North America.

During their rebellion, the slaves didn't indiscriminately kill their former captors. They killed those who had brutalised them, taunted and tortured them. The other traders feared for their lives, but were treated with surprising humanity:
The rebels... locked Ruiz and Montes in irons, many unused sets of which they suddenly had a their disposal. When the slaveholders complained of their chains, Cinque howled in righteous fury: "You say irons good enough for nigger slave; and if they good enough for slave, they are good enough for Spaniards, too." Ruiz and Montes were likewise allowed little to drink, likely the same half teacupful of water twice a day that not long ago had been the portion of the Africans. Again they complained of their treatment and again Cinque pointed out the contradictions: "You say water enough for nigger slave; so water enough for Spaniards." The object lesson continued for two days, in order to give Ruiz and Montes "a taste of their own cruelty toward the slaves,"... thereafter the chains were removed and they were given food and water in same proportions as everyone else.

The Amistad eventually arrived in North America, where a long period of imprisonment and trial began for the Africans. The trial raised all sorts of questions - of property, slavery and freedoms. The struggle of the Africans now meshed with that of the Abolitionist movement who saw an opportunity to strengthen the struggle against slavery. Firstly that meant finding those who could speak to the Africans in their own language. This meant trawling the docks to find freed Africans who could interpret. But the abolitionists who built the campaign to free the slaves, also tought them English and religion in their prison cells. Tantalising, Rediker while quoting the slaves' letters and discussions, suggests that their liberal quoting from the Bible may have been more a tactical maneuver on their part than any real conversion: "All that can be said with certainty is that the Amistad Africans understood the importance of Christianity within the worldview of the abolitionists and acted to accommodate it, within the larger context of their main objective: to go home."

Rediker also traces the cultural and social impact of the struggle to free the Amistad Africans. Poetry, plays, pamphlets and paintings were produced in great numbers. Many of these artworks were designed to progress the struggle, and after they were freed by the US courts the Africans toured the United States to raise money for their trip home. But this art often caused a dilemma for the abolitionist movement. The high point of the struggle was the uprising against the Amistad's crew - a bloody violent moment. Yet the abolitionists were describing the Africans as "hapless victims... cast upon our shores". The narrative didn't fit the abolitionist views, who hated slavery, but still saw African people as victims, unable to struggle for themselves.

Rediker points out that the "movement in support of the Amistad Africans and the abolitionist movement were never identical". Indeed, the movement to support the struggle, and the return home raised money from many different sources. Most frequently tiny donations from ordinary working people. It is notable that the Africans visited factories and workplaces to raise money, as well as theatres and churches. The desire for freedom expressed by the uprising by the slaves, clearly chimed with large sections of the American population.

Ultimately many of the Amistad Africans made it back. Some had died during the passage across the Atlantic. Some had been sold into slavery in Cuba, others died in the rebellion or in jail in the United States. Those that made it home did so because they were prepared to risk their lives for their own freedom and that of their comrades. Their successful struggle inspired many and Rediker finishes the tale of another slave, Madison Washington, who had escaped to Canada but returned to the South to try and rescue his wife.

Captured and sold back into slavery he remembered seeing a painting of Cinque, the leader of the Amistad Africans, who had lead the revolt. Together with 18 others Washinton led his own uprising on a domestic slave ship and forced it to slave to the Bahamas were slavery had been abolished.

There "they met black boatmen and soldiers, who sympathized with the emancipation from below and took charge of the Creole, supporting the rebels and ensuring their victory." So Washington and his comrades too escaped. Thus the struggle of the Amistad rebels inspired others to fight for their freedom, but it also helped shape and generate the anti-slavery movement still further. And this book is a fitting tribute to those rebels, putting them back in their place as people who shaped their own destiny, not simply helpless figures in the abolitionist campaign.

Related Reviews

Rediker - Villains of all Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age
Rediker - Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
Rediker - The Slave Ship
Rediker & Linebaugh - The Many Headed Hydra

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