Mutiny on the Amistad: The Saga of a Slave Revolt and Its Impact on American Abolition, Law, and Diplomacy by Howard Jones. Not recommended.
In July 1839, a group of Africans that had been illegally imported into Cuba used violence to take over the Amistad while it was transporting them from Havana to Puerto Príncipe. In August, the Amistad and the Africans were seized off Long Island. These events set off a judicial, legislative, and diplomatic battle that would not be completely resolved until the Civil War ended slavery in the United States. Mutiny on the Amistad looks at the laws, issues, and people involved in this landmark case.
The key questions are: Who has jurisdiction over the case? Are the Africans legally slaves? If so, who has the rights to them? Are they “salvage,” like the Amistad? Will the case worsen the relations with Spain and strengthen Great Britain’s claims in Cuba? Will it become the catalyst the abolitionists need to give them and their cause credibility with the northern public? And how will Martin Van Buren’s administration deal with such a controversial case in a re-election year?
While the case attracted the attention of abolitionists like Arthur and Lewis Tappan and John Quincy Adams; the administration of Martin Van Buren and even those of some of his successors; and several governments, including those of Spain and Great Britain, Jones’s repetitive treatment of the story robs it of much of its drama. For example, he makes the declarative statement that the Van Buren administration’s focus was solely on re-election and ensuring the Amistad case did not interfere with that objective more than a dozen times. Some of the primary source quotes do not seem well selected to expand upon the contemporary view; in too many cases, quotes consist of one or two words, such as “gross injustice,” that are too out of context or are such common expressions that they become meaningless. The best quotes come, not from the case or the participants, but from the various southern, northern, and abolitionist publications; these headlines reveal contemporary perceptions, beliefs, and biases. As for the participants, the only voice that seems to express any passion is that of John Quincy Adams, who is clearly emotional about the abolitionist cause.
In the meantime, the voices of Joseph Cinqué and the rest of the Africans — the subjects of the entire controversy — are heard only rarely, primarily through letters to the abolitionists complaining about the poor conditions they are subjected to in prison. It is not clear if this is because their testimony was generally deemed irrelevant (they seldom speak for themselves) or if their feelings and thoughts are poorly documented because of the language and literacy barriers they initially face. Jones does try to interject them periodically, but during the long passages in which they are missing the reader feels as though the case has become an exercise in legal argument without victims.
Ultimately, it is not clear what the Amistad case accomplished. For many in the north, Cinqué and the other Africans are objects of both curiosity and sympathy, but it is not apparent that the Amistad case significantly advanced the cause of abolition — in itself an irony since Cinqué and company were never legally slaves (one point that the courts and even the district attorney agree upon). Jones asserts that the case raised public awareness of the conflict between natural law (such as man’s right to freedom and to kill to obtain it) and positive law (such as that enabling slavery and preventing slaves from rebelling). The scope of Jones’s research and quotations, save those from newspapers, does not support this; there is little presented to show that the case was discussed every day in ballrooms, parlors, and bars or that the general public’s perception was permanently altered. What is clear, however, is the racism that is prevalent throughout. Even some of the abolitionists, most of whom are spiritual leaders who find slavery an abomination against God, do not consider Africans their equals.
The facts of the case are all here, along with much of the background. Some of the conclusions seem incomplete. Throughout, one gets the impression this could have been a shorter, more succinct, and, more importantly, a more dramatic and tightly argued book had Jones or his editor cut the repetitions, redundancies, and minutiae and focused on a more cohesive discussion of the relevant specifics of the case and its effects on the public, the U.S. government, and policy. As it is, in Jones’s hands this case appears less interesting and less important historically than it probably was, and even the source of all this, Cinqué and his comrades, lose their three-dimensionality — their humanity, as it were. If you are interested in the Amistad case and in the story of the abolitionist movement, this is probably a must-read — but don’t stop here.
16 February 2004
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf