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HIST/HUMAN 230: Amistad

Films in American Culture - Carmen Hoover

Background Information on Amistad


 http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/74 ("The Amistad Case in Fact and Fiction" by Eric Foner)

http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000229/bio (Director Biography)

http://sikhspectrum.com/2003/02/the-amistad-incident/ ("The Amistad Incident" by Jeremy Brecher)

The final reading for this week is temporarily reproduced here: "From history to Hollywood: the voyage of 'a Amistad'".

Publication: New Criterion

Publication Date: 01-MAR-98

Author: Paquette, Robert L.





COPYRIGHT 1998 Foundation for Cultural Review

In 1839, fifty-three enslaved Africans aboard the Cuban schooner La Amistad, coasting eastward from Havana toward a village port in north-central Cuba, took advantage of a summer night and a small, sleepy crew to rise in revolt. One of the young men, named Cinque, a Mende-speaker from a region near the Windward Coast of West Africa, led the uprising by killing the ship's cook and captain. Several crewmen met the same fate, although Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montes, the Cuban middlemen who had purchased the Africans in Havana, were spared to navigate the rebels back to their homeland. Instead, the clever Cubans tacked indifferently to the east by day and earnestly to the northwest by night, ending up weeks later, with the increasingly desperate mutineers dehydrated and diminished in number, off the coast of Long Island. There the U.S. Coast Guard spotted the wounded vessel and seized it and the rebels, including Cinque and a handful of others who had rowed ashore looking for water.

In tow, La Amistad arrived in New London, Connecticut, to await salvage proceedings. The authorities placed the Africans in custody, but their plight sparked a much more complicated legal wrangle as a network of Northern abolitionists rallied to their support. They hired lawyers knowing flail well that challenging in court the competing claims of the Coast Guard officers, the Spanish Crown, Ruiz and Montes, and the administration of President Martin Van Buren would gain considerable publicity for their antislavery cause. The whole affair heightened sectional tensions in the United States and unsettled diplomatic relations between Spain, the United States, and Great Britain. The case eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court where former president John Quincy Adams took the floor for the first time in thirty years to defend the Africans. The ruling in 1841 freed thirty-six survivors to return home.

Had Steven Spielberg and his Dream-Works lieutenants limited their claims about the movie Amistad to historical accuracy in the broad strokes only, they might have evoked a more generous response from professional historians. The movie falls far short of high cinematic art, but the producers, as creative artists, have the freedom to take history and reshape it into whatever fictional drama they see fit. Yet Spielberg and the DreamWorks crew, even before Amistad's December premiere, pronounced their film to be a kind of superior history. They distributed "Dear Educator" learning kits for classroom use in which the movie would serve, among other things, to stimulate "critical thinking about the value of history in light of the long-faded chapter [now] restored to American history in the film:' Students learn, for example, that the producers "took great care to make every detail of this historical drama authentic" and that both "historical drama and historical scholarship aim to portray the truth about the past."

Quotations from Spielberg and coproducer Debbie Allen stand out in this publication like epigraphs from Jefferson and Lincoln. After watching the movie, students are asked "to react" to Allen's gendered wisdom that "the real history has just been castrated--left out--and great historians have done it. It's beyond racism, I think. It's just one culture wanting to be dominant, and not really acknowledging the contributions of a culture that was far beyond and centuries ahead." Beyond and ahead of what, the learning kit does not say.

Allen's breezy indictment of previous studies and unnamed historians seems incredible given the scholars credited with advising the project: John Hope Franklin; Henry Louis Gates, Jr.; Arthur Abraham, a historian of Sierra Leone and Mende culture; Howard Jones, author of the best historical monograph on the Amistad affair; and Clifton Johnson, founder and executive director of the Amistad Research Center in New Orleans, and others. One wonders whether any of these gentlemen ventured from the sidelines to engage the DreamWorks producers in a serious conversation about the practice of history and the state of the profession, for, if the truth be known, probably no field of history in the United States during the last quarter-century has generated a more impressive body of scholarship than has the study of slavery.

Slavery citations alone, compiled from a global perspective, now fill voluminous specialized bibliographies to which the specialized journal Slavery & Abolition publishes annual supplements. The movie exaggerates the impact of the Amistad case on the ending of slavery in the United States and on the course of the South to secession, but historians can hardly be said to have ignored the event. The movie script itself derives from William Owens's popular history of the revolt, first published in 1953 and reprinted in 1968. Since Owens's work, more than a dozen scholarly essays, books, and reprints of published antebellum documents on the Amistad have appeared. At various times, state and local historical organizations in Connecticut have initiated educational programs to keep the memory alive. In 1970 black scholars retold the story in introducing a journal of history and culture called Amistad, featuring writings by such luminaries as C. L. R. James, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Toni Morrison. Most notably, the Amistad Research Center has grown since its founding in 1966 into a prominent archival repository on African-American history with millions of manuscript items and thousands of related books and reels of microfilm accessible to professional and amateur historians alike. The darkness in education to which Debbie Allen alludes has other causes and conceals far more weighty issues than the Amistad. If students remained blind to the revolt until the coming of DreamWorks, it was in spite of historians, not because of them.

Predictably, with the stakes raised by Spielberg's alleged restoration of a lost chapter of history, historians have pounced from all directions on the historical accuracy of the film. Nor have Spielberg's liberal bona fides spared him a pummeling from the Left. Eric Foner in an Op-Ed piece for The New York Times went so far as to declare the movie "not appropriate for use in the classroom." Jesse Lemisch, former apostle among the dissenting historians of the New Left, called Amistad "conservative trash" a "screed for white paternalism and black mysticism." Spielberg's conspicuously present-minded movie, it seems, failed to rise to Lemisch's standard of usable history in that the film glorified the agency of white lawyers at the expense of the black rebels.

The producers boast of their attention to every historical detail, yet several of the movie's key characters never existed in history, and those who did have only a faint ring of authenticity. The portrayals of ten-year-old Queen Isabella II and Spanish officials look as though they were drawn from childhood memories of the "Zorro" television series. African-American historians have joined Foner in complaining about the creation of a fictional Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman) when historical black abolitionists such as the Reverend James W. C. Pennington, educator and missionary, actually participated in the Amistad affair. According to the movie, President Van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne), realizing that the case at the lower court is turning against the interests of his Southern supporters whom he needs to win reelection, replaces Judge Andrew T. Judson, a principled old puffball, with a younger, more ambitious Democratic partisan, Judge Coglin (Jeremy Northam). Yet Coglin is an invention. In truth, Judge Judson, a Democratic party man and anti-abolitionist, relied on testimony from the famous Irish abolitionist Richard Robert Madden (not mentioned in the movie) to rule on the status of the Africans. Madden, a former British official in Cuba, offered crucial information on the operation of Cuba's massive contraband slave trade in blatant violation of an Anglo-Spanish treaty of 1817. Whatever his prejudices against blacks and abolitionists, Judson ruled on the evidence at the level of a Federal district court that the rebels were free Africans kidnapped and illegally sold as slaves in Cuba.

In Amistad, President Van Buren stands in sharp contrast to his historical counterpart whose political acumen earned him the nickname "the Little Magician." The movie portrays him as a rather dull, manipulable careerist. He rides campaign trains, kisses babies, and preens on the stump. His middle-aged, beefy jowls and full-arm gestures take on Nixonesque dimensions. John Calhoun (Arliss Howard) strides into a White House dinner, svelte and dapper, looking remarkably fresh for a man who was actually approaching sixty at the time. He explicates Southern distinctiveness and the intertwining of the master and slave in the antebellum South. Yet he leaves his table companions--and the audience--with the grossly misleading notion that the weight of the Amistad case was such that a decision unfavorable to the South risked civil war.

Mende spirituality soars with New Age appeal in the movie; evangelical Protestantism, however, a vital transatlantic source of the antislavery movement, inhabits a dour and sanctimonious brood. During one scene, Lewis Tappan (Stellan Skarsgard) lapses in front of Joadson (the embodiment of a progressive conscience) into thinking about how the antislavery crusade could reap greater rewards from the Africans' martyrdom than from their successful defense in court. Tappan then condescends to the black abolitionist after receiving his stinging rebuke. Dead Africans, however, could not have accomplished the expressed goal of the historical Tappan to return them to Africa as free Christian converts to spread the gospel. The historical Tappan cared for, educated, and defended them at a staggering cost to his business and family life, even sacrificing bedside time with a dying daughter to carry on the struggle. Without Tappan, the Amistad Africans could not have returned to Africa in 1841 and might not have returned at all.

Roger Sherman Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey) and John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins) seem scripted to resonate with campus crowds. In the film, Adams dodders about, lecturing high-mindedly as he goes, like some Ivy League eccentric. Baldwin, a kind of brashly intelligent yet untidy graduate student, recruits Adams to help him defend the noble Africans before the Supreme Court. Cinque (Djimon Hourisou), in a face-to-face meeting with Adams for which there is no historical evidence, inspires the direction of the defense by getting Adams to think like a Mende about his own father and the other ancestors of the founding. Like Aphra Behn (in Oroonoko) and Victor Hugo (in Bug-Jargal) long before him, Spielberg, a stand-in European, directs his audience to a noble African.

The historical Baldwin was actually forty-six years old and an established lawyer with antislavery credentials when he became the Africans' principal attorney. A graduate of Yale College at the age of eighteen and the grandson of one of the framers of the Constitution, Baldwin ranked in 1839 as one of the outstanding legal minds in Connecticut. Contemporaries describe him as tall and fastidious, noted, in particular, for wearing tailored black suits. John Quincy Adams was in his seventies during the Amistad case, but it is doubtful whether the movie version had the stamina to match the historical Adams who performed before the court to a packed house for about eight hours over two days. Adams did stop at one point to turn eyes to two copies of the Declaration of Independence hanging on the wall and declared that its principles of inalienable human rights were incompatible with slavery. In the movie, the Adams character essentially repeats these lines.

But the real Adams knew better than to base his defense to a predominantly Southern Supreme Court on the abstract phrases of the Declaration. His sprawling argument, which legal scholars regard as inferior to that of Baldwin, labored through the history of the case, the actions taken by the Van Buren administration, and the fine points of international treaties. Justice Joseph Story rendered a narrow decision that made no sweeping assertions about the inalienable rights of man. Indeed, had the evidence proved that the Amistad rebels were Cuban-born slaves, the Court would almost certainly have ordered their return to the island where the adult males would have faced sure execution.

Perhaps the most riveting scenes in the movie depict the slave trade. In the beginning, Cinque, caked with dirt and sweating profusely in the stinking, blackened hold of the Amistad applies bleeding fingers to extricate himself from his shackles. He and his liberated mates crack into a box of sugarcane knives, then hack their way to victory. In a fierce struggle with the captain, Cinque explodes into a primal rage that allows him to overcome the captain by running him through the chest with his own sword. The camera lingers on a triumphant Cinque, of formidable physique and stature, towering over the body. For the sake of historical accuracy, Spielberg might have dwelled on the prime target of Cinque's rage, the Amistad's mulatto cook, but his death might have thrown a disturbing nuance into a simpler conversation about race relations.

More than midway through the movie, Cinque tells more of his story, how he arrived on the Amistad in the first place. ("Whoever tells the best story wins" says Adams.) Kidnapped by Africans, Cinque is sold with other men, women, and children at the Lomboko slave fortress to a Portuguese trader. Chained and naked, slaves embark on the "notorious" slave ship Tecora in a frenzy of fear, panic, and brutality. One white crewman pops up to shoot a slave indiscriminately. Others beat and lash their human cargo until blood streams down the decks, all before the ship weighs anchor. Chains and black bodies pack the hold of the ship. Starving mouths lap up a starchy paste ladled into their hands. During the middle passage, one enslaved woman hugging her child to her breast flips herself overboard to escape her white tormenters. A provision crisis forces dozens of slaves to be thrown overboard. The survivors, once in Havana, are rudely rubbed down with palm oil in preparation for sale. A mixed crowd of prosperous Cuban ladies and gentlemen assembles to observe the spectacle of the auction block.

No honest scholar can deny the brutality and horror of the Atlantic slave trade. Slaves were horribly beaten and lashed during the middle passage. They suffered disease and malnutrition. Some committed suicide. Slaving captains, for various reasons, dispatched some to watery graves. Amistad's producers, however, strayed beyond the bounds of the historical evidence on the voyages of the Tecora and Amistad to confront the audience with a carefully selected medley of the horrific.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., must have neglected to mention to the producers that at the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University a distinguished group of specialists have been working for years to compile a database on the Atlantic slave trade. At present, this team has gathered quantitative information on an estimated two-thirds of all known slaving voyages across the Atlantic. Their preliminary findings, along with previous scholarship, provide standards by which to judge the movie's depiction of the slave trade.

The notorious Tecora does not yet show up in the slave-trade database, and it may be that the word itself is a corruption by the African witnesses of another Portuguese name. By Lomboko, depicted in the movie as a masonry fortress, the Africans meant Dombokoro or Lombokoro, a stockaded compound built on mainland Sierra Leone by an infamous Spanish trader named Pedro Blanco. His stronghold contained several large holding depots or barracoons for slaves brought from the interior. Disease and British antislaving cruisers had prompted men such as Blanco to become more efficient in loading illegal slave ships quickly from one spot with full cargoes. The uplifting scene near the end of the movie when Captain Fitzgerald (Peter Firth) broadsides the fortress into oblivion seems taken from Commander Joseph Denman's destruction of Blanco's emporia in 1840, thus well before the Amistad case had reached the Supreme Court.

For one of their most gruesome scenes, the scriptwriters may have borrowed from the atypical result of the 1781 voyage of the British slave ship Zong, when depleting water stocks caused more than a hundred sick and dying slaves to be bound and tossed overboard. Had these and similar atrocities become the norm, the Atlantic slave trade might not have lasted a generation, much less four centuries. At the time of the Amistad, the average return on investment for individual traders involved in the contraband Cuban trade had risen to almost 20 percent. Because of the risks associated with British suppression policies, however, many big traders were going bankrupt. In making economic sense of the Tecora atrocities, District Attorney Holabird (Pete Postlethwaite) was heading in the right direction.

In reality, only a small proportion of enslaved Africans entered the Americas from the Windward Coast region either during the nineteenth century or during the entire history of the Atlantic slave trade. Of the 425,000 slaves imported from West Africa to the Americas from 1836 to 1840, little more than 1 percent came from the Windward Coast. Enslaved men formed a minority of those cargoes; almost 70 percent were women and children.

At less than 10 percent, the shipboard mortality rate for slaves imported from Sierra Leone from 1821 to 1867 ranks as one of the lowest in the history of the Atlantic slave trade. White crews who parked in the mosquito-infested waterways of those lands suffered higher casualties. Data show that adult slaves imported into Cuba from 1855 to 1859 averaged five feet two inches in height. Observers thought that the Amistad men averaged about five foot six with Cinque a bit taller. The rebels of Spielberg's movie, even at the end of their debilitating voyages, look ready for the NFL draft. Their pallid white allies, by contrast, obviously needed a better diet and more exercise.

The movie's anachronisms mount to dizzying heights if focus is diverted to architecture, mannerisms, and language. But Amistad has less to do with historical reconstruction than future direction. Spielberg designed his movie to speak to the feelings and sensibilities of a multicultural Nineties audience. In what was intended to be a powerful scene, Cinque and Adams, black and white, begin to find a common ground of understanding in Adams's greenhouse when Cinque recognizes under a glass protector Adams's treasured African violet. With Adam's permission, Cinque bends down and gently extends his hands with uplifted palms to inhale its scent. Like much else in this movie, the intended metaphor loses force when grounded in the history it purports to represent. The African violet originated in East not West Africa; no European harvested one for transplantation until the last decade of the nineteenth century; the flowers give off no scent.

Robert L. Paquette is a professor of American history at Hamilton College.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Foundation for Cultural Review