Amistad is a recreation of the true story about an 1839 slave revolt on a small Spanish schooner, La Amistad, ironically the Spanish word for “friendship.” Spielberg does a great job in recreating the Amistad revolt that spurred a series of trials beginning in the lower courts of Connecticut and ultimately ending in the Supreme Court. Events following the revolt raise controversial questions about slavery and freedom. This case not only marks a milestone for Abolitionists in their fight against slavery but it also questioned the natural laws of our Constitution.
Leading up to the trial of the Africans, Spielberg illustrates the horrors the slaves endured as they were captured and taken from their homes. It is very distressing to see the cruelty that was imposed on the slaves as they were captured. The slaves were shackled and chained, then packed in an unsanitary, overcrowded slave ship, and exposed to inhuman treatment, on the Portuguese slaver Tecora as it makes its way through the Middle Passage towards Cuba. Although a third of the slaves died aboard the Tecora before it reached its destination, those that survived the trip were eventually auctioned into slavery in Havanna, Cuba..
The revolt on the slave ship Amistad resulted in the deaths of the captain and cook of the ship. The Africans did spare the lives of two Spaniards who were needed to help navigate the ship back to Africa. The Africans had control of the Amistad for only a short time before it was seized by the U.S. Army, capturing the Africans and forcing them to face a trial, on charges of murder and mutiny. This trial marked the beginning of a court case that dramatically challenged our judicial system. The Abolitionists play a big part in the outcome of this trial. Abolitionists to enhance strong public emotion against slavery, begin publicizing the horror stories and brutalities of slavery. They felt sorry for the slaves and with the help of Edward Tappin, an abolitionist leader, they secured the services of an attorney Roger S. Baldwin of Connecticut to defend the Africans. Even with odds against the Africans, as the judge in the trial, Andrew T. Judson was an opponent of slavery and he was also under pressure by President Van Buren to send the Africans back to Cuba, justice prevailed for the Africans. At least for a short time when Judson ruled that the Africans had been kidnapped and ordered their return to Africa. The Abolitionists and Africans felt that justice had been served, until President Van Buren requested an appeal to the Supreme Court, in which five of the justices had been slave owners.
The Abolitionists and Roger S. Baldwin the African’s attorney felt the only way they could win this trial is by seeking help from an influential person of status. They appealed to former President, John Quincy Adams for help. Adams accepted the case and in the Supreme Court trial, Adams delivered an emotional argument challenging the Court to grant the Africans liberty on the basis of the natural rights as outlined in the Declaration of Independence. Anthony Hopkins shines in his role as John Quincy Adams, with his argument to the Supreme Court. He expresses so much emotion, while pointing to a copy of the Declaration of Independence on the wall in the courtroom he states “I know of no other law that reaches the case of my clients, but the law of Nature and Nature’s God on which our fathers placed our own national existence. The Africans, he proclaimed were victims of a conspiracy that denied their rights as human beings. The Supreme Court rules the slaves free, stating that the slaves had been “kidnapped” and they had an inherent right of self-defense. This verdict marked a major milestone for the white abolitionists. They had brought national attention to a great social injustice. For the first time in history, Africans seized by slave dealers had won their freedom in American courts. The importance of the Amistad case lies in the fact that Cinque and his fellow captives, with the help of the white abolitionists, had won their freedom. It pointed out the need to change American laws which contradicted the natural laws expressed in our Constitution. The Amistad incident exposed the need to bring the Constitution and American laws in compliance with the moral principles underlying the Declaration of Independence. This incident also helped abolitionists in their fight against slavery, with which they finally won with the addition of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1865.
Djimon Hounsou, a 33-year old native of Benin played the role of Cinque a native Mendi African from Sierra Leone. He does an outstanding job in the portrayal Cinque. The most impressive scene being when Cinque, stands up in the courtroom scene where he stands up and says, “Make Us Free”, “Make Us Free”.
While Stephen Spielberg did use humor to help subdue the emotional content of the movie the historical content remained relatively true to fact with a few exceptions. There were a few historical facts that were omitted from the move. In the movie, John Quincy Adams was moved to represent the Africans by a talk he had with Cinque in John Quincy Adam’s greenhouse. The true facts are that John Quincy Adams was moved to support the Africans in the Supreme Court by a letter that was written by Kali, one of the African children. In this emotional letter she makes the statement, “All We Want Is Make Us Free”. Spielberg keeps the movie from becoming too depressing by adding a lot of light hearted humor. The outcome helps to leave you feeling that against all odds, justice prevailed.
In 1839, fifty-three illegally purchased African slaves being transported from Cuba on the ship Amistad managed to seize control of the vessel. They killed two crew members and ordered the remainder to head for Africa. But by altering course at night, when the position of the sun did not reveal the ship’s course, they sailed in a northeasterly direction. Eventually, the Amistad was intercepted by an American brig off the coast of Long Island. The two Spaniards who had enslaved the Africans were freed by the Americans, and the slaves were imprisoned. President Martin Van Buren, along with many newspaper editors, favored extraditing the Africans to Cuba. But abolitionists and other northern sympathizers won an American trial for them.
At a hearing in Hartford, a federal district court judge ruled that the Africans were not liable for their actions because they had been enslaved illegally. The case then proceeded on appeal to the Supreme Court, where former president John Quincy Adams, defending the Africans, argued that they should be granted their freedom. The Court agreed, ruling that since the international slave trade was illegal, persons escaping should be recognized as free under American law.
The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
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