This 1997 film was based on the true story of the slave ship Amistad that was captured off the cost of Cuba in 1839 after a rebellion by the Africans, who attempted to sail it back home. Instead, they were tricked by the surviving Spanish crew members and the ship ended up being captured off the coast of New York. After a lengthy legal battle that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, the fifty-four slaves were freed and returned to Africa in 1842. Since the U.S. had banned the slave trade in 1808, even though it continued covertly, there was no legal basis to hold the native Africans as slaves. Joseph Cinque (Sengbae Pieh) was also a real historical person, as was the Democratic president Martin van Buren and the abolitionist ex-president John Quincy Adams, who argued on behalf of the slaves before the Supreme Court.
The film Amistad (1997) was based on actual events that occurred in 1839 when African slaves seized a ship off the coast of Cuba and attempted to sail it back to Africa. Tricked by their two white owners, their ship ended up off the coast of Long Island, where it was seized by the U.S. navy. Cinque and the thirty-six survivors were held in prison for two years until the Supreme Court ruled on natural law grounds that they were free and could be returned to Africa. This was done by the abolitionists who had paid for their legal defense in the case, and also arranged for the former President John Quincy Adams to argue the matter before the Supreme Court. In both the film and the real life case, the central theme was that these slaves had a natural right to be free, and if the American founding documents like the Declaration of Independence had any meaning at all, then slavery and the slave trade were morally evil and a violation of fundamental human rights. Overall, the tone of the movie is very matter-of-fact with much great emotional melodrama, although perhaps the most moving scene of all was when Cinque and the other slaves began chanting “Give us free” in the federal courtroom.
Amistad is one of the most historically accurate films about slavery ever to have been produced in Hollywood, and came quite close to being a documentary or docudrama. This film does not show the living and working conditions of slaves on plantations or even very much of the master-slave relationship since its entire emphasis is on the political, economic and legal issues of slavery in antebellum America. For most of the movie, the slaves are confined in jail as the U.S. courts ponder their fate, but visually the movie is an accurate depiction of the scenery, buildings and costumes of the period, right down to one of the early trains being ridden by Martin Van Buren. It was substantially correct in all the main points and even many of the details, such as showing how Joseph Cinque was first seized by Africans and then sold to Portuguese slave traders on the coast. Historians have long since known this was a common occurrence but even today “many readers are shocked to learn that virtually all of the enslavement of Africans was carried out by other Africans”, who did not regard themselves as a unified ‘race’ any more than did Europeans (Davis, 2006, p. 13). Along with 500 others, he was shipped to Cuba on the slave ship Tecora under conditions so appalling that over a third of the Africans died. Cinque and fifty-three others were sold in Havana for $450 each to Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montez, who were them taking them to another port in Cuba when the slaves rebelled. Cuba was one of the largest sugar producers in the world at this time, and even though the slave trade had been illegal there since 1820, the Spanish government looked the other way even while Britain was attempting to suppress it. One important aspect of the story is that Great Britain had abolished the African slave trade in 1808 and freed the slaves in its own colonies in 1834, and as the film shows at the end, the British eventually destroyed the fort on the African coast where slaves like Cinque were being shipped to the Americas.
Almost all the action in the movie takes place in the United Sates, however, where the slaves are held in a dark dungeon in New Haven, Connecticut as the U.S. government decides their fate. Although the film did not mention it, slavery was still legal in Connecticut until 1848, although it does note that the naval officers who seized the Amistad off Long Island were attempted to claim salvage right for the vessel and ‘cargo’ (Davis, p. 15). Abolitionists in the U.S. had not been as successful as their counterparts at Britain, not even in limiting the spread of slavery to the western frontier, and as the film shows the famous New York abolitionists Lewis and Arthur Tappan financed the defense in the Amistad case. Their main antagonist in the film (and in real life) was President Martin Van Buren, an unpopular politician facing reelection the next ears and leading a Democratic Party whose existence depended on “appeasing an increasingly volatile and aggressive South” (Davis, p. 17). Senator John Caldwell Calhoun of South Carolina warns him in the White House that if the courts free the slaves on the grounds that slavery is a violation of natural law, the slave states will have to secede from the Union. At the same time, the Senate also passed a resolution demanding that the slaves be returned to Spain, which planned to try them in Cuba for piracy and murder. This was also the position of the van Buren administration for the next two years as the case wound through the federal courts.
Van Buren and the Southerners were surprised when the federal judge Andrew Judson actually agreed with the abolitionists that the slaves were justified in rebellion because there was no positive law in effect by which they could legitimately be held in bondage. Although the movie does not bring out these details, Judson was a Jacksonian Democrat with a “notorious background of anti-black racism”, but even he had to grant Cinque and the others their freedom on natural rights grounds (Davis, p. 16). Immediately afterward, however, the van Buren administration appealed the case, and it eventually made its way to the Supreme Court, when the former president John Quincy Adams successfully argued their case. One of the most dramatic and emotional moments in the film comes when Adams tells the Court that if slavery can only be abolished through civil war, then let it come, for this would be the last battle of the American Revolution. As he actually wrote in real life, if they had been white the slaves would have been considered heroes like the American revolutionaries, for rising up against a pirate murderer, their tyrant and oppressor” (Davis, p.21). Even the Southerners on the Court like Chief Justice Roger B., Taney were forced to agree with him that since the slaves had been illegally kidnapped from Africa, in violation of Spanish and U.S. law, they had a natural right to be free.
I truly did like this movie because it was portrayed in such a realistic and accurate way, and explained the politics of the 1840s on the issue of slavery. All of these characters seemed very true to life, including the young professor Josiah Willard Gibbs, who finally learns to communicate with them in their native Mende language. One of the most emotional and dramatic scenes in the movie occurred in the federal courtroom in Connecticut, where Cinque and the others started crying out in English “Give us free! Give us free!” Of course was the entire theme of the film, and at least in this case, the moral principle was established as a matter of law despite all the political and economic pressures to simply return the slaves to Cuba for trial and execution. They do eventually return to Africa, thanks to the financial assistance of missionaries and abolitionists, so the movie has a very satisfying ending, although naturally it did require a civil war in the U.S. to finally abolish slavery, just as Adams predicted.
Davis, D.B. (2006). Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World. Oxford University Press.