Vol. XVIII, Issue 3 (Summer 2011): The 2011 AMISTAD Lecture
Olayemi Akinwumi (South Africa)
For more information
Dr. Gloria Emeagwali
The Legacies of the
The Amistad Event
In the spring of 1839 when the Portuguese slave ship Tecora sailed to a barracoon in the vicinity of Havana, Cuba, it seemed to have been just another slave-trading season in a region that had built its plantation economy on the backs of an entrenched trade in human flesh. Pedro Blanco, a Spanish slave trader had purchased 600 captives from Spanish and Portuguese dealers in the Gallinas country (which is mostly located in the south western part of Sierra Leone today). The shipment arrived in Havana as planned and the captives were auctioned and dispersed across the island. Fifty-three of these slaves ended up on a smaller ship called La Amistad along with their new owners Pedro Montes and Jose Ruiz: Montes had purchased four children, one boy and three girls, and Ruiz had bought 49 men. Their destination was Puerto Principe (Camaguey) about 300 miles from Havana.
On June 28, 1839, the Captain of the Amistad ship, Ramon Ferrer, and his crew set sail for Puerto Principe, which they should have reached in three days. However, stormy weather kept the ship at sea for another night. What should have been an uneventful trip became fatally dramatic when the captives decided to revolt against their captors and the crew of the ship. The captain’s cook, Celestino, had teased the Africans telling them that the crew of the ship was planning to kill them and eat them. It was during this third night that the captives decided to take their own fate into their hands. They reasoned among themselves that it was better to attempt to escape and die trying, than to succumb to the alleged cannibalism of the crew. They attacked their captors with sugar cane knives killing both the captain and the cook.
Their goal was to seize the ship and head back to Africa. In the ensuing struggle, the captives lost two of their members, some in the Spanish crew jumped overboard to escape their attackers, and Montes, one of their new masters, was badly wounded. Although the Africans managed to take control of the ship they depended on the Spanish crew and their Spanish owners to navigate the ship for them. This particular set of slaves was unfamiliar with the sea and had no navigational experiences because they were mostly from the hinterlands of Mende country. Sengbe Pieh, a Mende captive who had been a farmer back in his hometown of Mani, emerged as the leader of the revolt. Pointing east in the direction of the rising sun, he commanded the Spaniards to sail back to Africa. Montes, who was an experienced navigator, deceived them by obeying their command to sail east during the day but steered north and west at night, hoping to get help from other ships or from some slave port in America. In the meantime, several more Africans died from the rapidly deteriorating situation on board the ship.
Although the Africans soon discovered that they were far from Africa (they were at sea for almost two months), it became evident to them that killing the Spaniards would not solve their problems. They managed the best they could, seeking food along the coastline and buying from other ships they encountered. After its meandering journey up the eastern seaboard of the United States, the ship eventually berthed at Culloden Point, Long Island, on August 26, 1839. A US naval patrol boat headed by Lieutenant Gedney seized the ship and arrested the Africans. The ship was towed to New London, Connecticut, and the Africans were jailed in New Haven, Connecticut. The Spanish owners had to go to court to fight to retain the Africans as their slaves. Even Gedney and his men claimed salvage rights to the ship and its cargo (the cargo included the Africans). In the midst of this confusion, the abolitionist movement in the New England area decided to represent the Africans in court.
From the moment the Amistad ship was sighted near Long Island it captured the imagination of 19th century Americans who lived in the Free States. For the next two years the Amistad case would go from the courts in Connecticut to the Supreme Court in the nation’s capital. The Amistad story galvanized American interests in the abolition movement; abolitionism had been waning in membership and relevance in the 1820s and 1830s. The Amistad story drew a line in the political sand of time, so to speak, because it was a case that forced people to decide whether they were pro-slavery or antislavery, not just in sentiment but also in action. It was a case that forced the superpowers of the 19th century, England and Spain, to clarify their commitment to the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade and their willingness to abide by the treaties they had signed into law. Even in America, where it was obvious that a good number of the Supreme Court justices were proslavery in sentiment, the arguments set forth by John Quincy Adams, a prominent lawyer and former US president, and Roger Baldwin highlighting the question of freedom rather than the question of color, led to the historic decision that the African captives were not slaves and could freely return to Africa.
After this major political victory, the abolitionists formed the American Missionary Association (AMA), which had oversight of the project to aid the Africans to return to Sierra Leone. The AMA’s objective went beyond the immediate need for funding to get the Amistad Africans home to a desire to build a mission center around or near Mani, Sengbe Pieh’s village. Sengbe had continued to provide leadership for the Africans and it seemed natural to the abolitionists that Sengbe’s hometown might be a good place to start. When the Africans returned to Sierra Leone in 1842 on the boat called the Gentleman, they were accompanied by five missionaries: William and Elizabeth Raymond, Henry and Tamar Wilson, and James Steele. Although the group encountered many challenges after they arrived in Sierra Leone, including the fact that the mission location had to be moved because Sengbe’s village had been ravaged by wars and had been burned beyond recognition, the missionaries and the Amistad Africans, many of whom were inclined to stay with the team, eventually settled in Kaw Mende, an area not yet under the auspices of the British colonial government of Sierra Leone.
19th Century Impact on Sierra Leone
As the Amistad returnees told their stories they continued to spread the fame of the mission thus augmenting its legitimacy to the powerful chiefs in those territories. In a way, the Amistad Africans felt that the mission was a part of their new identity as returnees. Those who lived away from the mission made constant pilgrimage to the mission. In fact, the mission became a place of salvage. Raymond would boast in one of his letters to New York in 1846 that anyone or anything belonging to him was safe because of the culture of respect the mission had built over time in the area. In some instances, the mission had to come to the rescue of Amistad returnees living outside the mission to ransom them after they were captured. As the slave wars intensified, more and more locals sought refuge at the mission. “In fact, the mission became a symbol of redemption in the war-torn hinterland. As many as two hundred people at one time sought refuge there.”
After Raymond died in 1847 of yellow fever, a white missionary by the name of George Thompson was sent to replace him. Thompson had the formidable task of bringing together many warring parties to the peace talks he organized. He was also known to be a shrewd political strategist who believed that the politics of inclusion was a way to mitigate the negative energies that compelled the chiefs to constantly be on the “war road,” as these wars were called. Thompson asked for both military and financial aid from the powerful chiefs and sought for ways to give them more productive responsibility for the welfare of the territories they ruled. By 1850, Thompson had successfully made peace between the many warring parties. Consequently, the slave trade ceased and a very unstable region began to enjoy the benefits of peace. Education became highly prized and the chiefs as well as other locals clamored to send their children to the schools established by the missionaries. Many students from the mission schools will later serve as teachers and missionaries in Sierra Leone. These former students-turned-teachers continued to receive support from the stream of black and white missionaries sent from the US. Directly and indirectly then, the Amistad revolt of 1839 led to the dissolution of the slave trade in one of the important trade routes on the West African coast.
Another positive effect of the switch to education as an index of social mobility is the founding of major academic institutions that are still in the business of educating Sierra Leonean youths. Both Albert Academy, a secondary school for boys in Freetown, and Harford Secondary School for Girls in Moyamba stemmed directly from AMA activities. Sierra Leone’ s first Prime Minister, Sir Milton Margai, and the first president of the nation, Siaka Stevens, were all products of Albert Academy. The AMA also introduced some key industrial projects, such as Sierra Leone’s first sawmill and printing presses. More important to note is that AMA activity initiated by the interactions the abolitionists had with the Amistad Africans led to a transatlantic cooperation in the area of education and other social engagements. For instance, as mentioned earlier, Margru did travel abroad to study at Oberlin College in Ohio. After her studies she returned to teach at the mission and would later, with her husband the British-educated Sierra Leonean, Henry Green, head one of the mission schools at another town. Margru was not the only one to study abroad. Other non Amistad Africans, such as Thomas Tucker, Chief Caulker’s grandson (Caulker had sold the land to the missionaries), and Barnabas Root completed their education abroad and worked for the AMA. After the American Civil War, Tucker taught in one of the Freedmen’s school in Virginia and Root was a pastor in Alabama in one of the Freedmen communities. Root eventually returned home and started a school and a church in his hometown. Tucker stayed on in the US and founded, with Thomas Gibbs, the State Normal School at Tallahassee, Florida, now known as Florida A & M University. He was the school’s first president. It is important to note that the flow of knowledge and bodies were not unidirectional. This transnational flow demonstrates the productive interdependencies that came out of the missionary response to the Amistad crisis.
20th Century Impact on Sierra Leone
On one occasion in 1992 when Haffner and his team of actors were staging the play at City Hall in Freetown, a coup d’etat, unbeknownst to them, was taking place just a few blocks up the street at the State House where the sitting president, Joseph Momoh, had just been unseated by the coup plotters, a group of young military men who were frustrated with the poor treatment they were receiving from the government. The shouts and confusion in the streets alerted the theater audience and the theater cast alike. They all spilled into the streets of Freetown to investigate and they discovered that the government had just been overthrown. Because the government was perennially corrupt, the theatre public immediately sided with the coup plotters. They ran out through the streets shouting praises to Sengbe Pieh, the leader of the Amistad revolt they had just encountered on stage. In fact, some people grabbed the stage prop of the Amistad ship and marched it down the streets of Freetown. The revolt against the government and the Amistad story quickly became a single event in the eyes of the people. This garnered popular support for the new government who made the most of such a populist symbol. From that point on the Amistad story became a household term. The disillusionment that people had generally felt about their own government gave way to the possibility of hope; the story of how the Amistad Africans fought and won their freedom in America played no small part in giving the people a sense of agency in their own destiny.
In The Amistad Revolt I argue that the play, along with the political changes happening in Sierra Leone at the time, helped Sierra Leoneans in their search for a new national identity. This sense of a new self was demonstrated in the type of iconographic representations that developed all over the country. Artists started painting their impressions of the Amistad leader, mostly making him relevant to their immediate context. For instance, although the famous 1839 painting of Joseph Cinque (the name by which Sengbe was known in America) by New Haven native Nathaniel Joceyln remains the standard platform on which Sierra Leonean artists launch their own narratives, they often deviate to embellish their work with meaningful stories and symbols relevant to the late 20th century. In one mural for instance, an artist drew Sengbe next to flags of ECOWAS countries. ECOWAS nations are countries that share military and economic ties in West Africa. Other artists submerged Sengbe in a narrative that foregrounds Africa’s role in intercontinental affairs. Others simply made him a chief wearing full native regalia in a Sierra Leonean setting.
In short, Sengbe and the Amistad symbolized success in a way that Sierra Leoneans were not used to. It is safe to assume that the revived Amistad story in Sierra Leone marked the beginnings of a more assertive era in the attitudes of the nationals to their own role in the fortunes of the nation. I have argued elsewhere that before this time Sierra Leoneans were more adept at collective amnesia than in any form of political assertiveness. We have to credit theater practitioners in Sierra Leone, such as Charlie Haffner and later Raymond Desouza George in his 1994 Amistad play, The Broken Handcuff; these theater artists were a major force in transmitting the story of the Amistad to the general population. We cannot, however, forget the intercontinental interaction that brought the story back to light through the American anthropologist Joseph Opala.
Amistad Imprints in the US and Sierra Leone
In Sierra Leone plays and wall paintings have honored the Amistad incident on the cultural front. Even the government has launched a stamp to honor the Amistad as well as a five thousand Leone monetary denomination to mark this important historical event that has now been institutionalized. More important, the political force of resistance that the memory of the Amistad invokes is a living legacy of the Sierra Leonean people’s consciousness of their identity as economic and political agents. The revived Amistad story has given ordinary citizens an avenue for believing that they themselves, like the Amistad Africans, are agents of change in their own right.
In both the United States and Sierra Leone, revivalist interpretations of the Amistad story continue to be intriguing. We can be assured that they will continue to play a significant role in the cultural negotiations that Black peoples in the Diaspora and the African continent must make in their quest to understand Black identity and its place in the world. The many iconographic representations of the Amistad not only make the past available to us but also make this important historical event usable in the interpretation of everyday experiences. Toni Morrison once said that memory is “always fresh, in spite of the fact that the object being remembered is done and past.” In the same way we can say that history is never really done and past. The story of the Amistad represents the merit of our struggles, its legacies freshen our memories of the past, and its fertile meanings promise hope to future generations. Every time we struggle for peace and justice in the world we become witnesses to the vitality of the Amistad story. Thank you.