The Amistad Rebellion: An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom by Marcus Rediker (review)
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Slavery, Amistad revolt, Cinque, Abolitionism

The Amistad Rebellion: An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom. By Marcus Rediker. (New York: Viking, 2012. Pp. 288. Cloth, $27.95.)

Stephen Spielberg’s 1997 film account of the Amistad Revolt of 1839 begins with gripping scenes of enslaved people digging out with bare fingers the nails holding imprisoning irons. After those visceral images the movie settles into a familiar courtroom drama, leaving the flesh and blood world of the rising slaves behind. The film depended heavily on Howard Jones’s Mutiny on the Amistad: The Saga of a Slave Revolt and its Impact on American Abolition, Law, and Diplomacy (New York, 1987). Jones emphasized the effect of the revolt on abolitionism and American politics and focused on the legal battle over the rebels’ status. Now Marcus Rediker applies his ample talents to tell the story of the Amistad Africans themselves within Atlantic culture. Rediker, winner of many prizes for his works on eighteenth-century pirates and on slave ships, is one of the best prose stylists and researchers among contemporary historians, and those skills are on full display in the present book.

The Amistad Revolt is well known to historians, though never before have all of the methods of a skilled social historian been put to use. Howard Jones’s fine monograph is closest thematically to Rediker’s approach. One should also, given Rediker’s heavy emphasis on the contemporary creation of historical memory in popular culture, consider Iyunolu Folanyan Osagie’s 2000 book on Amistad in historical memory. As Rediker is especially keen to place Amistad as a formative intervention in abolitionism, Jones’s argument that the revolt made abolitionism ever more entwined in American politics is most apposite. Moving beyond this argument, Rediker focuses on the rebels themselves and contends [End Page 145] that the revolt made abolitionists more accepting of violent means for ending slavery.

Rediker begins his saga with a careful account of the African origins of the Amistad rebels. By locating their nationalities, he indicates the importance of the Poro, a secret masculine society devoted to settling local disputes and creating global unity (32). Throughout, Rediker combines direct factual recollection with context about domestic servitude, wars, slave factories, the slave trade, and the Middle Passage to the slave pens of Havana, where traffic in human bondage still persisted decades after the British closed Atlantic slave commerce. In so doing, Rediker firmly aligns with and pushes forward W. E. B. Du Bois’s observation in The Souls of Black Folk that rebellion flowed in the blood of African-American slaves. Rediker thereby contradicts a long train of scholarship starting with Gerald Mullin’s Flight and Rebellion in 1973, through Ira Berlin’s 1999 opus, Many Thousands Gone, and implicitly argued as well in 2012, in Stephen Kantrowicz’s More Than Freedom: Fighting for Black Citizenship in a White Republic, 1829–1889—that skilled, acculturated enslaved people were more likely to run away and rebel than forcibly imported bond people brought directly from Africa.

Following a fine section on the rebels’ experiences in Cuban slave society, Rediker details their rising against their sea masters on the Amistad and the ensuing, wandering sail to Long Island in the United States. Rediker covers well the legal quagmire of violent rebels against slavery who landed in a free state indisposed to returning enslaved people to masters in the United States, let alone to a foreign government.

Quickly, the Amistad rebels became a media sensation with an outpouring of pamphlets, newspaper articles, and dramatic presentations. After a translator appeared, the rebels, particularly Cinque, the leader, provided their side of the story. Rediker’s assiduous research in this section is, I think, especially valuable. Jones and others have shown the impact of the Amistad rebels on prominent American politicians. Here Rediker proves how the rebels and their plight influenced ordinary northern Americans through the popular press, in widely distributed engravings and paintings, wax figurines, histories, and dramatic presentations. The rebels became celebrities against slavery in performances in venues ranging from the famous Broadway Tabernacle in New York City to churches in small towns across the Northeast. Rediker...