3.3 Amistad:  The True Story & the Film
HUM 211 Course Pack - Fall 2007
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[Unfortunately most of the links below are now broken. ~C. Agatucci, 29 Dec. 2009]

Try this site: Linder, Douglas. Famous American Trials: Amistrad Trials, 1839-1840

"In 1839, in waters off the coast of Cuba, a group of forty-nine Africans ensnared in the Atlantic slave trade struck out for freedom. They had been captured, sold into slavery, carried across the ocean, sold again, and they were being transported on what was, for millions of Africans, the last leg of the slave trade when they found the chance to seize the initiative. One of them, a man the world would come to know as "Cinque," worked free of his chains and led a shipboard revolt.

"The vessel they won was a schooner that had been named, in a grim bit of irony, the Amistad ("Friendship"). The Africans tried to force two Cuban survivors to sail them back to Africa, but the Amistad wound up instead in U.S. waters, just past Long Island Sound, where the Africans were again taken into custody. Spain promptly demanded their extradition to face trial in Cuba for piracy and murder, but their plight caught the attention of American abolitionists, who mounted a legal defense on the Africans' behalf. The case went through the American judicial system all the way up to the Supreme Court, where former president John Quincy Adams joined the abolitionists' legal team. Finally, in March 1841, the Supreme Court upheld the freedom the Africans had claimed for themselves. Ten months later, in January 1842, the thirty-five Amistad Africans who had survived the ordeal returned to their homelands."

From: http://amistad.mysticseaport.org/discovery/story/welcome.html
Exploring Amistad at Mystic Seaport: The Museum of America and the Sea
(located in Mystic, Connecticut)

From the "Discovery" section of this website you can learn the history of the real Amistad Revolt of 1839-1842 (on which Steven Spielberg's 1997 feature film Amistad  was based), "a shipboard uprising off the coast of Cuba that carried itself, inadvertently but fatefully, to the United States--where the Amistad Captives set off an intense legal, political, and popular debate over the slave trade, slavery, race, Africa, and ultimately America itself." 

The true "Story" of the Amistad experience offers links that detail "the Africans' enslavement, revolt, legal struggle, and eventual return to Africa":

Parts 1 - 5 of the Amistad "Story" provide good historical background for understanding the African Holocaust and the African Diaspora.  The entire Amistad story also parallels the experiences of Olaudah Equiano, author of one of the first slave narratives,  and of "long memoried" women as dramatically depicted in the film I Is a Long Memoried Woman:

  1. "Enslavement: in the interior of Africa, they are kidnapped, or stolen, or condemned by trial to slavery ..."
     --including Sengbe Pieh, known as "Cinque":
  2. "The Baracoons of Gallinas: they are sold to European slavers set up on the coast, on the Gallinas River ..."
  3. "The Middle Passage: they are loaded onto a slave ship and carried across the ocean ..."  http://amistad.mysticseaport.org/discovery/story/middle.passage.html
  4. "The Cuban Slave Market: [in the New World] they are landed in Havana and sold to sugar planters ..."
  5. "Revolt: they take control of the schooner Amistad ..."

Parts 6 - 9 tell the rest of the Amistad story:
6. The Black Schooner; 7. Africans in America; 8. Trials; and 9. Return to Africa
Scroll down this page and follow the links: http://amistad.mysticseaport.org/discovery/story/welcome.html 

"THEMES: Contexts & Currents" presents articles on the "historical contexts and currents that shaped the directions the [Amistad] story took":

"PEOPLE: The Cast of Characters" introduces the major players in the Amistad story, with profiles/biographies and document links:
...Cinque (Sengbe Pieh), the Mende captive and leader of the Amistad revolt, who became "a powerful and complex icon of American popular culture":

"PLACES: Atlantic Histories" that the Amistad story moved through:

...[West] Africa: Gallinas,
where peoples & policies tried to cope "with the dislocations of the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade":
...Cuba, "
in 1839 a Spanish colony, one of the world's largest producers of sugar, and the last major slave society in the West Indies":
...United States, "in 1839 a growing nation, on the threshold of becoming a world power, but also becoming a divided nation, half-slave, half-free":

"TIMELINE" Section provides additional settings for the Amistad story with historical events listed chronologically:

Bibliography of publications used to create the Discovery web site is given in the "Teaching Bibliography Section" for your reference:

Amistad:  The Film

Amistad.  Dir. Steven Spielberg.  Perf. Djimon Hounsou, Morgan Freeman, Matthew McConaughey, Anthony Hopkins.  [Videotape.]  DreamWorks SKG-Home Box Office, USA, 1997. 

Language: English / Mende; Runtime: USA:152 min.  MPAA Rated R: some scenes of strong brutal violence and some related nudity.

“Freedom is not given. It is our right at birth.
But there are some moments when it must be taken.”

Director:  Steven Spielberg
Producers:  Debbie Allen and Robert M. Cooper

Starring Djimon Hounsou (as Cinque; b. Benin, West Africa), Morgan Freeman (as Theodore Joadson), Nigel Hawthorne (as Martin Van Buren), Anthony Hopkins (as John Quincy Adams); and Matthew McConaughey (as Baldwin).
Screenplay:  William Owens (based on his book Black Mutiny: see synopsis below), David H. Franzoni, and Steven Zaillian (uncredited)
Cinematographer:  Janusz Kaminski
Film Editor: Michael Kahn
Original music: John Williams (II)

SOURCE:  The Internet Movie Database Ltd: "Amistad (1997)": http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0118607/
External Reviews for Amistad: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0118607/externalreviews

Read more about it [from amazon.com]:

1. Mutiny on the Amistad by Howard Jones (Oxford Univ. Press). Reissued to coincide with Steven Spielberg's motion picture Amistad, this true saga of a slave revolt and its impact on American abolition, law, and diplomacy is based on thorough research and provides excellent and detailed coverage of its subject. 
"A rousing and satisfying tale".
--American Heritage.

2. Black Mutiny : The Revolt on the Schooner Amistad, by William A. Owens (Plume). Set in 1839, this is the true story of a revolt on the Spanish slave ship "Amistad", whose cargo of 53 Africans rebelled against their captors. Captured off the coast of Connecticut when their desperate attempt to sail home failed, the Africans are forced to stand trial for the murder of the crew that had held them prisoner. To win their freedom, they find themselves taking on not just the Spanish, but the entire American justice system. They are joined in their fight by a young attorney, former U.S. President John Quincy Adams, and a fiery abolitionist.

3.  Amistad, by David Pesci  (Shooting Star Press). “Pesci's first novel is a well-researched fictionalization of the Amistad rebellion and trials. In 1839, the Spanish schooner Amistad (which means friendship) was carrying slaves illegally captured in Africa, up the east coast of the United States. The captives were able to overcome the crew and then attempted to take the ship back to Africa. The vessel was eventually caught and towed to Connecticut, where the rebels were put on trial to determine whether they were escaping slaves or freemen fighting for their rights. With tensions already running high over the slavery issue, the affair threatened to be the catalyst for igniting civil war. President Van Buren, who supported slavery, secretly attempted to have the Africans kidnapped and returned to their Spanish captors, while ex-president John Quincy Adams supplied legal advice to the defendants. After a protracted series of trials, ending up in the U.S. Supreme Court, the prisoners won their freedom and returned to Africa. A thought-provoking look at a fascinating episode of American history.” 
--Eric Robbins, Booklist: American Library Assn., 1997.

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Of related interest: African Films

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URL of this page: http://web.cocc.edu/cagatucci/classes/hum211/CoursePack/Amistad.htm
Last Updated: 30 December 2009

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Humanities Department, Central Oregon Community College
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