In his history of popular movements and secret societies in China, French historian Jean Chesneaux noted that amongst Confucian mandarins, there existed a practice of referring to common rebels as fei -a negative grammatical expression that denoted non-persons. As such, the term spoke to their absence or outright omission from archetypal histories that were recorded.
The work of Chesneaux fits into an area of historical scholarship known as “history from below”, which attempts to highlight the stories of ordinary or disenfranchised people that have otherwise been left out of mainstream historical narratives.
The Amistad Rebellion began in 1839, when a small group of enslaved Africans rose up and seized their ship, the Amistad, and sailed it from the north coast of Cuba to the northern tip of Long Island, where they were captured by the American navy, charged with “piracy and murder,” and jailed in New Haven. American abolitionists flocked to the jail, where they formed an alliance with the Africans. Together they waged a legal defense campaign in New Haven, Hartford and, finally, with former President John Quincy Adams successfully arguing the defendants’ case, to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1841. The rebels returned home to their native Sierra Leone in triumph in 1842. Their victory broadened — and radicalized — the abolitionist movement as it deepened national conflict over slavery and hastened the coming of the Civil War. The courageous action taken by a small group of Africans reverberated throughout the United States and around the world.
However, while the story of the Amistad had initially created a swift and wide-reaching media-frenzy, it fell on deaf ears during the era of reconstruction. Despite its reemergence into popular historical memory as a result of the efforts of academics and social activists alike during the spread of the “history from below” movement in the 1960s and 70s, the narrative that was presented focused largely on the landmark court case, and its impact on the abolitionist cause in the United States. In the process, the heroic actions, motivations, and personalities of the rebels themselves were often overshadowed by an emphasis upon the legality and righteousness of the American legal system. Historian and author Marcus Rediker notes the irony of such a historical trend, given that at the time of the rebellion, “that very legal system held two and a half million African Americans in bondage.”
Therefore, when Rediker headed to Africa to make a movie about the Amistad Rebellion, he knew what he was looking for: the Africans’ side of the story. He found it in the most remote part of one of the most impoverished areas in the world, Sierra Leone. Rediker will share the untold tales of the Amistad mutineers–what they did and why–and the secret society that was essential to their revolt– in a special screening of the award-winning film, “Ghosts of Amistad: In the Footsteps of the Rebels.” The event is co-sponsored by The Amistad Committee, Inc., the Gilder-Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition, and the New Haven Museum. The free screening will take place at the New Haven Museum on Thursday, September 17, at 6 p.m.
Based on Rediker’s book, “The Amistad Rebellion: An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom,” (Penguin, 2012), The “Ghosts of Amistad” chronicles the 2013 journey by Rediker and filmmaker Tony Buba to the villages of the rebels who captured the slave schooner Amistad in 1839, and their search for the long-lost ruins of Lomboko, the slave trading factory where their cruel transatlantic voyage began.
Rediker notes that previously much of the focus of the story of the Amistad Rebellion has been on the sensational trial of the captives in New Haven, but few details from the perspective of both the slaves, and their African captors, are known by the public. To remedy such historical gaps, the filmmakers relied on village elders, and the stories passed from one generation to another in the West African oral history tradition, to recover a “lost history in the struggle against slavery.”
Rediker first visited the New Haven Museum in 2009 while researching for his book on the Amistad. He notes that some of the most important resources of Amistad materials are in the museum’s Whitney Library, including the papers of John Warner Barber, who met with the rebels while they were held in a New Haven jail and chronicled their stories. He also obtained the images for his book from the museum’s Amistad Gallery and exhibit, “Cinque Lives Here,” which opens with the now famous portrait of Cinque, the leader of the Amistad captives. The 1840 work by New Haven painter Nathaniel Jocelyn is generally understood to be the first and one of the finest portrayals of an African in American art. The Amistad Gallery also includes remarkable Amistad artifacts, including the keys to the New Haven jail where the Amistad captives were held, a letter from John Quincy Adams, and the New Haven law-office sign of defense attorney Roger Sherman Baldwin (1793 – 1863) whose maternal grandfather was Roger Sherman, one of the nation’s founding fathers, author of the “Connecticut Compromise,” and the first mayor of New Haven.
Marcus Rediker is Distinguished Professor of Atlantic History at the University of Pittsburgh. He has written or edited nine books, including “Villains of All Nations,” “The Slave Ship,” “The Amistad Rebellion”, and, most recently, “Outlaws of the Atlantic.” He is currently writing a biography of the radical abolitionist dwarf, Benjamin Lay. His writings have won numerous awards and been published in 14 languages. Over the years he has been active in a variety of social justice and peace movements, especially the worldwide campaign to abolish the death penalty.
For more information, contact Margaret Anne Tockarshewsky, Executive Director, New Haven Museum, 203-562-4183 or firstname.lastname@example.org