Anthony Kemezys

Dr. Marshall


A History of the Amistad Captives

The revolt aboard the Spanish schooner La Amistad in 1839 and the ensuing landmark Supreme Court case regarding rightful ownership of the slaves on board is an event that has garnered little attention in the American historical consciousness.  A precursor to the cultural division that would take place during the civil war a short twenty years in the future, the trial has had a unique impact on American history.  The case finally established a clear relationship between the antislavery cause and our nation's revolutionary principles of liberty and equality.  Highly publicized in its day, the trial of the abducted Africans was used to gain support for the abolitionist cause.  Their story was told in the pamphlet A History of the Amistad Captives with the woodcut, The Death of Captain Ferrer contained within.

A History of the Amistad Captives was originally published by John W. Barber of New Haven, Connecticut in 1840. This woodcut was designed as a frontispiece, set opposite the title page, to give any potential readers insight into the pamphlets content.  It acts as the equivalent of modern print advertising as it describes the story in considerable detail.  “Woodcut is a printing technique in which the printing surface has been carved from a block of wood.  The traditional wood block is seasoned hardwood such as apple, beech or sycamore.  Woodcut is one of the oldest forms of printing dating back to the 12th century” (Progressive).  This example uses bold text that clearly identifies the contents of the book as well as an illustration depicting the slave revolt that took place on board La Amistad in 1839.  Entitled Death of Capt. Ferrer, the Captain of the Amistad, July, 1839 with further description of the events surrounding the revolt written below the illustration.    

The opening line of text in the frontispiece says “a circumstantial account of the Spanish schooner Amistad, by the Africans on board” (Gilder) indicating a fully detailed and specific nature with which the story is retold.  It goes onto say “an account of the Trials had on their case, before the District and Circuit Courts of the United States, for the District of Connecticut, &c.  Compiled from authentic sources, by J.W. Barber” (Gilder) both statements seem to impart a sense of legitimacy upon the writing and by association make the account presented seem more legitimate in terms of its factual accuracy.  The specific use of the words “circumstantial” in the first sentence and “authentic sources” in the fourth sentence of the paragraph steer the reader towards the conclusion that this particular account is the decisive one on the subject of the Amistad.  However, I wonder if this attempt at establishing legitimacy of content was a valid attempt to denote historical accuracy?  It seems more likely that this was done by J.W. Barber, the publisher, to boost sales in the local northeast market and make money from this controversial topic.  

Another interesting part of the frontispiece is the illustration.  Upon first site it immediately draws your attention as the focal point separating the two paragraphs of text in the frontispiece.  The woodcut depicts nine African males on the schooner Amistad’s upper deck, four of whom are in aggressive posture brandishing machetes apparently attacking the captain of the vessel, Ferrer.  One other with a machete is standing further away with his arm raised in the air and the others are watching the events further away from the actual killing of the captain.  The cook who by the accounts contained within the pamphlet was also killed can be seen lying on the deck of the ship.  The slave boy, a Mendian or “black ladino” (Smithsonian) is a Cuban of African descent that the slaves aboard the Amistad were disguised as can be seen climbing the rigging of the ship and observing the scene.  One other white man can be seen on the ships deck wearing similar clothing to the captain.  Though he cannot be identified within the context of the story he is of particular interest because of his facial expression.  His expression displays a state of worry and fear at seeing the Africans take to Captain Ferrer with their machetes’.   I believe that this is one of the more interesting features of the picture because there is a clear difference in the body language between the two separate ethnicities.  The Africans have a blank countenance about them that suggests a lack of moral accountability that would be consistent with the thinking of the period in identifying blacks or Africans as less than human with an inability to feel remorse for killing the poor captain.  Though this is clearly an artist’s interpretation it speaks to the state of race relations in the United States during that time.

 The two living white characters that can be seen in the woodcut are in contrast portrayed as being in a state of victimization.  Captain Ferrer appears to be falling backward, left arm extended upward toward God in heaven, his right arm across his chest with his hand over his heart, and his head tilted back looking towards the sky in his final moments.  Though historically accurate by all accounts I think that this depiction would lend itself to gaining sympathy for the captain and cook as opposed to the Africans. They are portrayed as the aggressors, but this could again have been motivated by profit as the Africans looking merciful might not have been the most incendiary imagery for driving the sales of the pamphlet.   

The second paragraph that follows the graphical description of the events aboard the Amistad gives an account of the Africans voyage from Havana, Cuba where they were purchased.  This paragraph gives justification to the actions of the Africans “the African captives on board, in order to obtain their freedom, and return to Africa, armed themselves with cane knives, and rose upon the Captain and crew of the vessel”.  This paragraph also describes the fates that met those on board, “Capt. Ferrer and the cook of the vessel were killed; two of the crew escaped; Ruiz and Montez were made prisoners” (Gilder). These descriptions serve to give a brief synopsis of the revolt and its result, but lack the ability of the woodcut to express the events in a relevant manner to the reader.  I think that the woodcut itself is by far the most crucial piece of the three parts as it best represents what took place aboard La Amistad. 

The frontispiece came from the Gilder Lerhman Institute of American History.  I came across their website in the course of my research, but this topic was not the one I had originally intended to discuss when I began my research.  I began with topics relating to westward expansion, but I had already done a recent research paper on Louis and Clark and had not found any alternative in that category that I believed I could discuss at great length or detail.  When I looked up the Gilder-Lerhman website from the provided list the Amistad woodcut was one of the featured exhibits. I knew little about it and decided to take a closer look.  What I found was what I perceived to be an interesting topic in the course of American history that I had not had any significant exposure to in the past.  The story of the captives and what seemed like an extraordinary escape and recapture followed by a Supreme Court trial that sparked a fire for the cause of abolition was a very interesting prospect for more in depth analysis.  The Amistad incident had never been covered in any history class to my recollection so I chose it for this project with the hope that I might learn something new. 

This event proved to be one of historical significance in two specific ways.  First, in calling into question the oppressive practices of slavery the trial gained support for the abolitionist cause on a national level.  Second, it questioned the notion that slaves could solely to be considered property, as the declaration of their innocence proved they could be protected under the law even though they were not viewed as equals.  The verdict was not without its shortcomings “while the Court's decision was a moral victory for the abolitionist cause, it did not address either the legality of slavery or the status of runaway slaves in America“(Smithsonian).  Not commonly recognized an important part of American history this key event would further divide the nation to the point that our only course was revolution, The Civil War.  Though there is no direct connection between the Amistad incident and works of other authors it is reasonable to speculate that the publicity generated during the trial of the abolitionist cause could have come to influence and encourage abolitionist writers.  Women like Harriet Beecher Stowe and Harriet Jacobs might have been influence by the trials publicity as both of their books were published less than twenty years after the event and trial.  This is another reason Amistad should serve a more prominent role in abolitionist history. 

The Gilder Lerhman institute proved to be a very valuable resource through the course of the project.  Not only is the site itself highly detailed and well organized, but the staff was also very helpful.  They were easily able and readily available to answer questions I had pertaining to the document and responded promptly on two separate occasions through email.  The site itself has an amazing amount of primary source documents on display.  A summary directly from the Gilder Lerhman website describes the collection The Gilder Lehrman Collection, on deposit at the New-York Historical Society, contains more than 60,000 documents detailing the political and social history of the United States. The collection's holdings include manuscript letters, diaries, maps, photographs, printed books and pamphlets ranging from 1493 through modern times” (Gilder).  All entries are assigned a catalog number and each one has identifying peripheral information of the document that includes, but is not limited to, title, author, date, location, and a brief description of the documents content with related catalog numbers listed accordingly.  The only deficiency of the site was its lack of a more intuitive keyword search tool.  Finding entries again without a bookmark proved to be a bit difficult, but was only a minor inconvenience in comparison to the sites benefits.  The institute describes its purpose as “founded in 1994, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History promotes the study and love of American history. The Institute serves teachers, students, scholars, and the general public.  It helps create history-centered schools, organizes seminars and programs for educators, produces print and electronic publications and traveling exhibitions, sponsors lectures by eminent historians, and administers a History Teacher of the Year Award in every state through its partnership with Preserve America.  The Institute also awards the Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and George Washington Book Prizes, and offers fellowships for scholars to work in the Gilder Lehrman Collection” (Gilder).  A remarkable amount of information about American history is available from the institute and I will continue to keep the site in mind as a research tool and recommend it to others for future reference.   

La Amistad’s place in history has been secured, but without more emphasis on its importance that place will be relegated only to the past.  The Civil war is regarded as one of American history’s great turning points and perhaps Amistad might one day be considered the greatest of abolition.  The woodcut placed at the head of J.W. Barber’s pamphlet provides us a great primary source document in exploring La Amistad.  This piece will serve to remind us never to forget an often overlooked piece of our national heritage.