Many scholars are already familiar with the saga of the Africans from La Amistad. But don’t let such familiarity with the episode keep you from reading Benjamin N. Lawrance’s new book, Amistad’s Orphans: An Atlantic Story of Children, Slavery, and Smuggling. Focusing on African child slaves, the book provides a fresh perspective on both the Amistad affair and the illegal African slave trade to Cuba during the second quarter of the nineteenth century. With good reason, Lawrance takes issue with those who characterize the period as an “age of abolition.” On the contrary, he argues that it constituted “the beginning of an age of child enslavement” (7).
In 1997, the superstar director Steven Spielberg released the film Amistad, which portrayed the ordeal of 53 African slaves who staged a successful insurrection onboard a Cuban slave ship called La Amistad in 1839. Although the Africans sought to sail the ship to Africa, they wound up near Long Island. They were detained in Connecticut and then subjected to a drawn-out legal battle for their liberty. Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Africans, enabling 35 of them to journey back to Africa in 1842. Not surprisingly, Spielberg’s spotlight on the Amistad affair drew both popular and scholarly attention. David Brion Davis began his book Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World (New York, 2006) with a description of the famous revolt and the various legal issues surrounding it. And it was only a couple years ago that Marcus Rediker published The Amistad Rebellion: An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom (New York, 2013).
Lawrance recounts in Amistad’s Orphans the same narrative as previous works concerning the Amistad affair. And, at times, he tries to relitigate the case on behalf of the Africans (perhaps if only to demonstrate his exhaustive research into African dialects). For the most part, though, Lawrance’s book is only about the Amistad affair insofar as it produced sources about six children from Sierra Leone: Covey, Antonio, Ka’le, Te’me, Kag’ne, and Margru. Lawrance employs the extant information about these children—“Amistad’s orphans,” as he refers to them [End Page 846] collectively—to explore “the African child slave experience and [reevaluate] the centrality of child mobility to the massive illegal trafficking enterprise undergirding the nineteenth-century trans-Atlantic slave trade” (5). “With the requisite contextual information,” he assures, “the lives of Amistad’s orphans can, and do, speak to the broader experience of tens of thousands of others enslaved during the nineteenth century” (46).
In Amistad’s Orphans, Lawrance asserts that the experience of African child slaves in the illegal slave trade has been “misunderstood” (5). He is being too generous. Few scholars have ever sought in earnest to understand whether African child slaves experienced the traffic differently than their adult counterparts. Yet children comprised a significant portion of the African slave trade (roughly one-fifth of the total number of captives). Moreover, the percentage of children in the traffic increased over time. By the second quarter of the nineteenth century—when the African slave trade to Cuba was purportedly illegal—children constituted more than a third of the total number of captives. Several scholars have suggested that this demographic shift must have resulted from a change on the supply (African) side. After all, wouldn’t most slave traders prefer to purchase adult males, rather than women and children? Not so, says Lawrance. “Slave children,” he contends, were “highly prized, specifically targeted, and exceptionally valuable investments” (29). The question, then, is why would traffickers want them?
According to Lawrance, slave traders sought to purchase African children because they viewed child slaves as more “coercible” than adults— meaning that they were easier to enslave, more controllable, and less likely to rebel. It also stands to reason that such “coercibility” became more desirable during the illegal period when slave traders could no longer rely on the authorities for support and protection...