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This Day in History 3/9: The Supreme Court frees the Amistad Africans

I’m preparing a response to a statement by Sean Penn in yesterday’s Real Time with Bill Maher on HBO, in which he stated that certain reported should be jailed for criticizing Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez.

In the meantime, today we celebrate a moment in American history where people sacrificed for the very freedom that Penn exploits with his anti-democratic venom.

In 1839, a group of enslaved Africans rebelled against the crew of the schooner Amistad, which had left the port of Havana.  They were later captured near Long Island by a naval officer that immediately sent the prisoners to Connecticut.  His intentions were as bold as they were barbaric: Connecticut had not yet officially abolished slavery, and the captain hoped to make a profit from the rebellious Africans.

The ensuing case of the Amistad Africans caused a sensation.  It energized the abolitionist movement in America, and reinforced opposition to the slave trade in other countries.  The main argument was that the initial passage of the Africans across the Atlantic (which did not involve the Amistad) had been illegal, because the international slave trade had been abolished, first in the British Empire in 1807, then in the US in 1808, and internationally in 1840.  Therefore, they were obtained illegally, thus never legally enslaved to begin with. Furthermore, given they were illegally confined, the Africans were entitled to take what legal measures necessary to secure their freedom, including the use of force.

The case eventually came before the Supreme Court, and it rendered its ruling on March 9, 1841.  The Court, in a 7-1 decision, upheld the lower court’s findings that the Africans were captured illegally and were entitled to fight for their freedom, since they could not be enslaved.  The Amistad Africans returned to their place of origin, the Mende region in present-day Sierra Leone, in 1842.

The Amistad rebellion was one of only two successful slave ship uprisings in American history, and one of only three successful slave rebellions in North America–the others being the Haitian Revolution of 1794-1804 and the rebellion abord the slaver Creole in 1841. 

Attached are clips from the 1997 film Amistad, directed by Stephen Spielberg.  It has its problems with historical accuracy, but it shows the time period and the spirit of the events very well.  The first clip is tough to watch, as it depicts the “Middle Passage” of the Africans from their kidnapping in Africa to their voyage onboard the slave ship Tecora towards Cuba.  The second is John Quincy Adams’ speech before the Supreme Court.  It isn’t the exact speech given by Adams, but Anthony Hopkins does a great job conveying the spirit and ethos of the case.

Anything to say about that, Sean?

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The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database – Website Review


Slave_Auction_AdThis is a first for the Neighborhood, but not the last.  In the past, I’ve been pretty cavalier about my website recommendations, especially when it comes to the details.

In this case, the details tell the story.

Few educators in America go a year without at least touching upon the great tragedy that is the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade, the nearly 400-year old program of kidnapping Africans and selling them into servitude in the Americas.  Though estimates are all over the place, a conservative estimate is that between 11 and 15 million people were transported from Africa to the Western Hemisphere, from the shores of New England to the coasts of Brazil.

The effect of this trade extends beyond the mere color line that exists in many places on these continents.  In short, the contributions of these enslaved Africans to our society, our culture and our way of life vastly outweigh our repayment for their labor.

One of the most remarkable websites I’ve encountered about the slave trade itself was sent to me by my old friend Deven Black.  Deven’s library of educational websites for social studies can rival the Library of Congress in its complexity, and he shared this gem with myself and some other colleagues.  The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database is an initiative of the National Endowment for the Humanities that is, by far, one of the best sources of data on the slave trade that I could ever find.

The database, which is growing amid ongoing research, has catalogued approximately 35,000 voyages of slave ships across the Atlantic.  It details each ship, their country of origin, their destinations, their cargo, and how much cargo was actually sold, since deaths on slavers were fairly common.  Maps are also provided to show the course of each of these voyages.

If the database itself were not enough, there is also essays that detail the history of the slave trade in the Atlantic, along with primary accounts, vignettes and notes for research.  An even more useful tool is the “Estimates” page, where graphs, charts, and maps detail the impact of the slave trade country by country, destination by destination. 

Furthermore, the African names database catalogs the names of thousands of Africans on various ships.  The collection of images includes ship manifests, journals, logs, and pictures of the slave trade.  Finally, the education section carries some nice lesson plans and web resources for further study.

I’m simply amazed that so much of the slave trade was able to be recovered and documented.  So much primary source material from the time period is lost through different eras, yet much of the records of the slave voyages have been preserved.  This probably has much to do with the importance of the slave trade in its day.  It was a lucrative enterprise, and many merchants, investors, and ship captains made their fortunes in the sale of human beings.

Take the time to explore the database for yourself.  There is lots to uncover, and all of it within easy reach for student research, for presentations, or for lessons on slavery and the slave trade.

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