This is a revisiting of a post from my old blog, on the topic of the Amistad rebellion. This is a story of a successful rebellion where captured slaves fought for their freedom and were able to return home. I thought it fit with the theme of this year’s Black History Month, Black Migrations.
The 53 enslaved Africans of the Amistad rebellion were brought to Lomboko (a coastal slave factory owned by the infamous Spanish slave trader Pedro Blanco), after being taken from the interior of Sierra Leone in March 1839. After several weeks of inspections, they were put aboard the Tecora to be sent to Havana, Cuba. Sold to two different owners, they were loaded onto the Amistad to be sent to the sugar plantations in Puerto Principe, now Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
Although they were from at least nine different tribes, the enslaved Africans became brothers in their plan for escape. In the early morning on July 2, they broke free of their shackles and headed for the main deck. They were led by Sengbe Pieh, also known as Joseph Cinqué, who had been a farmer in Sierra Leone. On the Amistad he became a rebellion leader.
The slaves headed for the cook, who had been particularly cruel to them and killed him right away. The other crew members didn’t have time to react, and either were slain or managed to escape via a lifeboat. This was something that surprised me when reading this story; by my count, there were only 9 slavers aboard the ship, including the two who had bought the slaves in Cuba; Ruiz and Montes. The idea that enslaved Africans had been completely demoralized was ingrained in the minds of their owners, and the idea that they would fight back was unheard of.
The slaves were all from the interior of Sierra Leone and therefore didn’t have experience with navigating, so they tied up Ruiz and Montes and ordered them to sail back to Sierra Leone. Although these two sailed eastwards under the gaze of the Africans, they sailed northwest during the night, hoping to be rescued. As they moved up the coast of the United States, rumors started circling about the ship filled with a black crew, but they weren’t stopped until they got to New York, where a navy brig boarded them. Ruiz and Montes were freed and the members of the rebellion were thrown in jail in Connecticut.
Abolitionists worked ceaselessly to get them a trial. Multiple parties apart from Ruiz and Montes (including the navy and Spanish governments) claimed them and the ship as property. Sengbe proved himself a powerful orator, as he recounted the capture and demonstrated on himself how the captives had been tied by sitting on the floor with hands and feet together.
After all the arguments the Hartford Court determined that the Africans had been taken unlawfully from Sierra Leone and brought to Cuba, meaning that they were not legally enslaved. This was because their recent abduction from Africa was against Spain’s 1817 law against the slave trade. If they had lived in Cuba for a long time, they would have been legal property. Van Buren’s administration took Judge Judson’s decision to the Supreme Court, where former president John Quincy Adams gave an eight-hour speech on behalf of the Africans. The Supreme Court ruled in their favor, and ordered that they be allowed to return home.
However, the federal government refused to pay for their passage to Africa, so abolitionists had to raise money from private donations in order to get funds for the voyage. On November 25, 1841, the remaining 35 Amistad captives started the long journey home. Once they reached the shores of Sierra Leone, many of them returned back to their families and stepped away from the historical record.
While I was looking for sources on the rebellion, I found another artist who is discussing displacement and marginality in the historical record. Elizabeth Alexander has written 24 poems about the Amistad, from different angles and perspectives. I thought I’d share a few of them here. Feel free to read the others either on At Length Magazine’s page (http://atlengthmag.com/poetry/amistad/).
After the tunnel of no return
After the roiling Atlantic, the black Atlantic, black and mucalaginous
After skin to skin in the hold and the picked handcuff locks
After the mutiny
After the fight to death on the ship
After picked handcuff locks and the jump overboard
After the sight of no land and the zigzag course
After the Babel which settles like silt into silence
and silence and silence, and the whack
Of lashes and waves on the side of the boat
After the half cup of rice, the half cup of sea-water
the dry swallow and silence
After the sight of no land
After two daughters sold to pay off a father’s debt
After Cinque himself a settled debt
After, white gulf between stanzas
the space at the end
the last quatrain
the motherless child
rests his hand on a dead man’s
forehead ‘til it cools.
With shore in sight, the wind dies and we slow.
Up from the water bobs a sleek black head
with enormous dark eyes that question us:
who and what are you? Why? Then another
and another and another of those
faces, ‘til our boat is all surrounded
The dark creatures are seen to be
seals, New England gray seals, we later learn.
They stare. We stare. Not all are blackest black:
Some piebald, some the dull gray of the guns
our captors used to steal and corral us,
some the brown-black of our brothers, mothers,
and two milky blue-eyed albino pups.
Albino: the congenital absence
of normal pigmentation. Something gone
amiss. Anomaly, aberration.
Teacher (Josiah Willard Gibbs)
I learn to count in Mende one to ten,
then hasten to the New York docks to see
if one of these black seamen is their kind.
I run to one and then another, count.
Most look at me as though I am quite mad.
I’ve learned to count in Mende one to ten!
I shout, exhausted as the long day ends
and still no hope to know the captive’s tale.
Is any of these black seamen their kind?
I’d asked an old Congo sailor to come
to the jail, but his tongue was the wrong one,
I learned. To count to Mende one to ten
Begin eta, fili, kian-wa, naeni.
I spy a robust fellow loading crates.
Is this the black seaman who is their kind?
He stares at me as though I am in need,
but tilts his head and opens up his ear
and counts to me in Mende one to ten,
this one at last, this black seaman, their kind.
Translator (James Covey)
I was stolen from Mendeland as a child
then rescued by the British ship Buzzard
and brought to Freetown, Sierra Leone.
I love ships and the sea, joined this crew
of my own accord, set sail as a teen,
now re-supplying in New York Harbor.
When the white professor first came to me
babbling sounds, I thought he needed help
until weta, my mother’s six, hooked my ear
and I knew what he was saying, and I knew
what he wanted in an instant, for we had heard
wild tales of black pirates off New London,
the captives, the low black schooner like
so many ships, an infinity of ships fatted
with Africans, men, women, children
as I was. Now it is my turn to rescue.
I have not spoken Mende in some years,
yet every night I dream it, or silence.
To New Haven, to the jail. To my people.
Who am I now? This them, not them. We burst
With joy to speak and settle to the tale:
We killed the cook, who said he would cook us.
They rubbed gunpowder and vinegar in our wounds.
We were taken away in broad daylight.
And in a loud voice loud as a thousand waves
I sing my father’s song. It shakes the jail.
I sing from my entire black body.
Waiting for Cinque to Speak
having tried, having failed,
having raised rice
that shimmered green, green,
having planted and threshed.
Having been a man, having sired children,
having raised my rice, having amassed a bit of debt,
having done nothing remarkable.
Years later it would be said
the Africans were snatched into slavery, then,
that we were sold by our own into slavery, then,
that those of our own who sold us
never imagined chattel slavery,
the other side of the Atlantic.
Having amassed debt, I was taken to settle that debt.
(Not enough rice in the shimmering green.)
Better me than my daughter or son. (I was strong.)
And on the ship I met my day
as a man must meet his day.
Out of the Babel of Wolof and Kissee
we were made of the same flour and water, it happened.
On the ship, I met my day.