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Books: The Amistad Rebellion

Contemporary lessons in story of courage and solidarity

The Amistad Rebellion

By Marcus Rediker

Verso: £20.00

According to a visitor to Sierra Leone in 1848, "No-one can get a realising sense of the horrors of a slave ship from any oral or written description - it must be seen or felt".

Steven Spielberg's 1997 film, Amistad brought to popular attention a major event in the long continuing struggle against slavery. A three minute viewing of the You Tube clip The Middle Passage - from the film - will convey something of the ghastly journey suffered by the estimated 12 million slaves shipped from Africa to America over four centuries.

Marcus Rediker book - subtitled An Atlantic Odyssey Of Slavery And Freedom - does much more than retell the momentous events of the first successful slave revolt in 1839.

When a small group of multi-ethnic Africans, already shipped from the slave "factories" of Sierra Leone to Havana's concentration camp barracoons and now shipped onward aboard the Amistad - ironically Spanish for friendship - to the hell of Cuba's sugar plantations, escaped their chains and seized the ship, killing the captain and some others of the crew, they energised the anti-slavery movements in US and Britain.

Picked up by the US navy and interned in New Haven, Connecticut, the Mendi people - self-named after the main tribal group in their homeland - spent three years anxiously waiting for the US courts to decide their fate - doomed chattels to be returned to the slave owners or free men with the opportunity to return to Africa.

During that time, under the leadership of the charismatic Joseph Cinque and with the help of abolitionists, they educated and organised themselves playing a major part in the popular cultural explosion that spawned massive interest through not only the trials but the concomitant journalistic and artistic coverage, including theatrical reproductions of the rebellion.

In the process the public at large were themselves educated into recognising slavery with a human face not as a soulless economic problem.

This recognition resulted in the US legal system, never the most progressive entity, freeing the Mendi people in 1841 to return to Africa in triumph - a significant victory for them and for the antislavery movement.

Essentially, however, the author establishes that the survival of the group through both the vicissitudes of their transportation and subsequent imprisonment was largely owing to having come from societies "in which the common good of the group almost always came before individual preference."

This unity was ironically welded by the efforts to Christianise the Africans into "new people" and through necessarily learning English "a language community became a political community."

Gordon Parsons

 

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