History through Film: East Coast of the United States | MyPaperHub

The movie Amistad is one of the best examples of films that offer a clear understanding of the historical views on Slavery. It offers the story of slavery from an emotional, and legal point of view is shedding light on the events that took place before the happening f the civil war and also offers clarity on the ordeal and the struggles that slavery had on individuals. The Spielberg film tells a story of the slaves that overwhelmed their slave masters as they were being shipped to Spain and took over the Amistad ship killing two of their captors. In the film, “One of the black men (Cinque) on board the ship frees himself and then helps the others to unlock their chains. They fight and kill all the white sailors except two (Ruiz and Montez), who are supposed to sail them back to Africa (Chapter 1, 5:09)[1].” They try to return to Africa but all in vain and end up in Connecticut and are brought to trial for the murder of the two ship crews. It is indicated on the scene on Chapters 3 and 4 14:20 where, “The Amistad is taken over by the American Navy and the Africans are brought to New Haven (Connecticut), where they are imprisoned.”[2] The genre of the film is that of a courtroom drama and also articulates a social problem and is based on a real historical event of the fifty-three slaves captured in Sierra Leon and was being taken to Cuba aboard the La Amistad. They, however, led a mutiny against the captors and killing two of them and then taking over the ship attempting to navigate back to Africa though they ended up in America where they faced legal battles for their freedom. It is in America that the case attracts a lot of attention and had to go through the entire judicial process and was ultimately take to the Supreme Court through an appeal. The local abolitionists are the ones that take up the case. The film is therefore based on real events of the La Amistad mutiny.

The film has some inaccuracies and misleading information. A Columbian University professor Eric Foner criticized the Amistad film for inaccuracy and for containing some misleading information as they characterized the Amistad case a major turning point for the American perspective on slavery. [3]Foner states, “In fact, the Amistad case revolved around the Atlantic slave trade by 1840 outlawed by international treaty and had nothing whatsoever to do with slavery as a domestic institution. Incongruous as it may seem, it was entirely possible in the nineteenth century to condemn the importation of slaves from Africa while simultaneously defending slavery and the flourishing slave trade within the United States.” He further cites that the issues that problem of the Amistad was not as superficial as the film may make it seem. He states, “Amistad's problems go far deeper than such anachronisms as President Martin Van Buren campaigning for re-election.”[4] Furthermore, the film showed the president campaigning for reelection on a whistle-stop train tour and yet by the year 1840; the candidates were not allowed to campaign. Moreover, on Chapter 15 (3:30) the film goes ahead to mention or show on the impending Civil War, and yet it lay over 20 years after the happenings of the La Amistad.[5] The speech by Adams of the closing speech before the Supreme Court and its verdict on the case was entirely inaccurate in the film. The film’s version bared no resemblances on the much longer historical versions that existed and did not even offer a summary of the same. [6]

Since the start of the 16th century to the 19th century, there were approximately 12 million Africans that were forcefully captured into their homes and shipped across the Atlantic Ocean to the new world and life of slavery. Out of those shipped, there were over 1.5 million of the individuals that died while in transit to their new homes of captivity.[7] By the time of the Amistad mutiny, the United States among other Southern and Northern countries had already abolished the shipping of slaves from Africa or any other part of the world. However, there were a lot of illegal activities involving the importation of slaves that continued to thrive due to the availability of the market in other areas such as Spain among other states. Sierra Leon was one of the major countries in Africa where the slave trade continued to thrive since there lived a Spanish man named Pedro Blanco that lived partly as a European Aristocrat and as an African King that made the business thrive at the coast of the African country. He received the help from other influential leaders that rounded up the slaves and took them aboard vessels as human cargo.[8]

In 1839, the 53 Africans that were aboard the Amistad ship were among other over 500 slaves that were shipped to several destinations that period after their capture, kidnap while others took as slaves of war.[9] They initially boarded the Tecora ship to Tavana in Cuba that was a Spanish colony where potential buyers were waiting. Jose Ruiz was undeterred by the illegality of the trade as he packed the slaves into the Amistad hoped that they would offer labor in some of his sugar plantation in Puerto in Cuba. The Amistad ironically is a Spanish word that means friendship.[10] The ship left at night to avoid detection by the British antislavery patrols that took place at the time. As they were shipped, they continued to face the mistreatment aboard the ship and one night although their coming from nine different ethnicities decided to revolt against the captors and broke the locks of their chains. Joseph Cinque led them. They attacked the cook in his sleep and then managed to kill another crew member that had mortally wounded one of the Africans and killed another. The other crew members jumped off the ship, but the Cabin boys surrendered and were ordered to sail back to Sierra Leon.[11] Having little knowledge of how to navigate the ship, the Africans depended on Ruiz and Montes to take them home. They, therefore, tricked them and kept going off course until they ended up on the coast of the United States whereupon detection by the US Navy, the ship was captured and the African imprisoned as the Spaniards were released immediately. They were jailed in Connecticut that was still a slave trade unlike New or and other states at the time.[12]

Then news of their capture and jailing are what led to the attention of the abolitionists seeking to help the Africans secure a fair trial. The naval officers that seized the ship demanded the salvage rights to the vessel and the human cargo as was the case with Ruiz and Montes that demanded their cargo back. President Martin Van Buren was among those that wanted the African to be extradited to Cuba but were finally allowed a trail and the federal district judge ruled that they were not liable for their actions of killing the two ship crew. The abolitionists contacted the former president John Quincy Adams due to his strong opposition to slavery. In Chapter 19 (06:00) of the film as in recognition of the fact that Adams was capable of defending them, Cinque says, “A chief cannot become anything less than a chief, not even in death.”[13] He argued on behalf of the slaves when the appeal of the case was taken to the U.S Supreme Court that eventually determined that the Africans were free men. For the Africans, the judge ruled that “rather than being merchandise, the Africans were victims of kidnapping and had the right to escape their captors in any way they could.”[14] The British also led a surprise raid on the Blanco’s Lomboko slave depot that raised attention following the Amistad case and demolished it further denting the continual of the slave trade along the coast. 

Following the winning of the case, the 35 African survivors of the Amistad sailed back to Sierra Leon with them were accompanied by five American Missionaries. The missionaries and the survivors established a kind of a colony that encouraged political and educational reforms that ultimately set the stage for Sierra Leon’s struggle for their independence against the British colonialists.[15] He Amistad case also further brought a strong unity and bond among the abolitionist movement in America, and they now began using the judicial system to press their claims and argue out their points in the struggle against the slave trade that thrived in some parts of the country. They further sparked some vigorous and passionate political standpoints against slavery that ultimately led to the abolition of the slavery and also eventually resulted in the Civil War around 20 years after the ending of the Amistad case.[16]















[1] Amistad, DVD (DreamWorks SKG: Steven Spielberg, 1997).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Eric Foner, "The Amistad Case In Fact And Film", Historymatters.Gmu.Edu, last modified 1998, accessed April 29, 2016, http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/74/.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Howard Jones, Mutiny On The Amistad (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 43.

[7] Ibid, 44

[8] Ibid, 53

[9] Marcus Rediker, The Armistad Rebellion: An Atlantic Odyssey Of Slavery And Freedom. (New York: Viking, 2012), 100.

[10] Ibid, 103

[11] Ibid, 106-107.

[12] Ibid, 110.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid, 54

[15] Ibid, 59

[16] Marcus Rediker, The Armistad Rebellion: An Atlantic Odyssey Of Slavery And Freedom. (New York: Viking, 2012), 110. 

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