- Dark Places of the Earth: The Voyage of the Slave Ship Antelope by Jonathan M. Bryant
Jonathan M. Bryant’s Dark Places of the Earth: The Voyage of the Slave Ship Antelope is a remarkable achievement. The book functions as a kind of prequel—one aptly named, because the story is indeed dark—to the Supreme Court’s famous decision in United States v. The Amistad (1841) that freed Africans whose ship was seized after they overtook their slaving Spanish [End Page 669] captors at sea. That story is a feel-good moment, centered on the heroic ex-president John Quincy Adams, who argued for eight hours over two days on behalf of the captives.
Bryant’s Dark Places of the Earth begins on June 29, 1820, when Captain John Jackson spotted a suspicious sail off the Georgia coast and engaged the target: a ship called the Antelope. Soon, “The first lieutenant confirmed what Jackson already knew from the stench: There were slaves on board” (p. 70). The Antelope as Jackson found her was only the latest iteration in a chaotic Atlantic odyssey that had begun when a ship named the Columbia left Baltimore’s harbor in 1819. In Bryant’s words, the Atlantic was “a wild and lawless place,” and the voyage of the Columbia certainly bore that out (p. 26). It was a world where the line between piracy and privateering was thin. Months after its departure, the Columbia’s crew accepted a new commission from the Banda Oriental’s José Artigas and renamed the ship the Arraganta. The ship was later briefly detained by the British for suspected piracy, but it went on to capture the slave ship Antelope on the west central coast of Africa. Although the Arraganta wrecked on the long journey back to the Americas, the Antelope survived to be captured by Captain Jackson.
That was, however, only the beginning of the journey for the captives—mainly children—aboard the ship. For nearly a decade, they were part of a protracted legal battle between Georgia’s U.S. attorney Richard Habersham, who sought their freedom under the 1819 Slave Trade Act, and lawyers representing Spanish and Portuguese interests, who claimed the captives were lawful property. There were partial wins, big losses, and no victories, as the case, engulfed in the complicated politics of the 1820s, made its way to the Supreme Court and finally culminated in a congressional act in 1828. By then, most of the captives had died, either in the United States or in Liberia, having been transported thousands of miles from their native lands.
Bryant masterfully brings together this dizzying array of material—people, places, ships, laws, and litigation strategies. In the process, he breaks down easy generalizations about proslavery and antislavery positions and instead takes the reader into the three-dimensional world where Habersham sought the captives’ freedom. This story features many familiar names of the era (Francis Scott Key, William Wirt, John Berrien), and in Bryant’s tale, John Quincy Adams emerges as at best an artful dodger, seeking to avoid involvement in and even to hinder a case that threatened his political ambitions. Bryant’s portrayal of the legal drama itself is especially well done. He explores the debate over the legal status of the slave trade, competing meanings of “the law of nations,” and the canny workings of the Court under Chief Justice John Marshall. Ending with Adams’s role in U.S. v. The Amistad, Bryant presents the gripping portrait of an elderly statesman trying to overcome a bad precedent—one he himself had helped create. Bryant handles these sometimes unwieldy threads well, resulting in an important tale compellingly told. [End Page 670]