History Through a Lens

Rolando E. Tobon

LaShawnDa Pittman


15 November 2015



January 1, 1808, was the date in which the United States made the Transatlantic Slave trade illegal. However, this did not stop exporting of African Americans from West and Central Africa to the West Indies, South America, and North America. Among the Transatlantic Slave trade, the key exporters were the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, and English. With the pioneering of sea faring trade by the Portuguese and the pre-existing slave system in Spain, this ignited the Transatlantic Slave trade and all those who joined it. Among one of the ships transporting slaves from the West Indies after the ban by the U.S., was a ship under management of the Spanish from Cuba, named the Amistad. The Amistad, along with the Africans who were illegally obtained by the Spanish, would become a heated debate in the United States and have a dramatic ramification on how slavery was viewed.

Steven Spielberg, did an excellent job of portraying the experiences of the Africans on board of the ship in the film “Amistad”, which was produced and directed by himself in 1997. In the film “Amistad”, Djimon Hounsou plays as Cinque – the main character – who is a slave aboard the Amistad ship that is sailing off of Cuba. During their journey at sea, Cinque uses a nail from the ship to unshackle himself and set the rest of the Africans free as he leads the revolt against the Spanish crew members. At the end of the revolt, Cinque leaves two Spanish crew members alive as he uses them to navigate the Amistad towards Africa, their homeland. However, the Amistad departed from Cuba and drifted north toward Long Island where an American ship captured the Amistad and arrested the Africans. The ship lets the two Spaniards go free, as the Africans were charged with murder of the Spanish crew members and thrown into jail in Connecticut. Involved with the NAACP union and a free African American in the North, Theodore Joadson believed it was his duty to help out Cinque and the rest of the Africans. In the process of helping out Cinque and the others regain their freedom, Theodore Joadson recruited property lawyer Roger Baldwin to assist in the case. Roger Baldwin provided evidence of Cinque and the others of being illegally captured when Baldwin found a record keeping journal on the ship that listed the purchasing of the Africans from Africa. Therefore, meaning Cinque and the other Africans were born free in Africa instead of being portrayed as slaves who had been born into slavery, which allowed them to regain their freedom as the Judge ruled in their favor. However, the case is appealed to the Supreme Court. This time, former U.S. President John Quincy Adams makes a plea in favor of Cinque to give them their freedom once in for all – which Adams prevails in doing so.

In the film “Amistad”, Cinque and the other Africans didn’t seem to have a clue about the situation that they were in, due to the fact that they didn’t speak or understand any English. However, Cinque, who emerged to be the leader among them as the movie progressed, could sense that they weren’t in a good situation – but he never lost faith in the idea of returning back to Africa and reuniting with his family. This positive outlook on life, even when stakes are high, is what captured my attention as I am capable of relating to this situation in a different matter. As a citizen of the U.S., I’m capable of leaving and returning from this country. Everyone in my family is capable of doing so, except my mother. With my mother being an illegal immigrant, I had to experience waiting for my mother in Washington with my aunt and uncle as she had to cross the border illegally from Mexico. During this experience, I couldn’t help but to feel hopeless as I couldn’t do anything to help her out. I couldn’t imagine how my brother felt at the time – an age where one constantly needs the nurturing of his mother – and to go two weeks without seeing her, is something I don’t wish upon any child. Therefore, the only thing that my father, siblings, and I could do was to have faith; faith in that we will be reunited with my mother again. And after two horrific weeks, my father called us saying that he was with my mother and that he was on his way to Washington as he had been waiting for my mother near the border on U.S. soil. After a couple of days, we were all reunited as a family.

As previously mentioned above, the producer and director of “Amistad” is Steven Spielberg. Steven Spielberg, according to IMDb, is “one of the most influential film personalities in the history of film” as he has produced and directed films such as “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial”, “Back to the Future”, and “Jurassic Park” (www.IMDb.com). One can easily come to the conclusion that all of these movies are under the category of sci-fi, which Steven Spielberg has built himself a career in. However, no other film has brought Spielberg more success and awards than “Schindler’s List”, a historical film pertaining to the Holocaust. According to the article, “Steven Spielberg Biography”, “Schindle’s List” won Spielberg “seven Academy Awards, including Spielberg’s first win as best director” (Biography.com). Another historical film that Spielberg directed was “The Color Purple”. However, “The Color Purple” was scrutinized among the black community for “softening Alice Walker’s novel” and “its harsh depiction of black men as abusive to women” according to “An Historian Goes to the Movies” (“An Historian Goes to the Movies”, 2015). Wanting to redeem himself, Spielberg decided to direct and produced “Amistad” in 1997. In addition, Spielberg “wanted to stretch his artistic wings after making ‘The Lost World: Jurassic Park’” when he was presented with the project (Wikipedia, Amistad). Although Spielberg received some criticism, I believe that he portrayed the history of the Amistad as authentic as he could without making the “Amistad” too Hollywood – drifting away from the essential message of the movie.

In 1839, the abduction of Africans from Africa and selling them into slavery was still recurrent although the Transatlantic Slave trade had been outlawed. With the releasing of the film “Amistad”, this allowed for the public to see the unfortunate story of the Africans aboard the Amistad and the process in which they regained their freedom again – a monumental event in American history that had a ramification on slavery. However, the event of the Amistad is talked about very little in regard to the effect it had on slavery in the United States. During this period in America, African Americans were not yet racialized into slavery because of their skin color, but because of their religious affiliation. Therefore, Africans Americans who were free, were capable of being active in court and seemed to have a little bit more of freedom in the North – like the character Theodore Joadson in “Amistad”. This allowed free African Americans to be socially involved in their government and to fight to abolish slavery, since Southern influences – wanting slavery to be sanctioned by the government – had yet not reached a drastic effect in the U.S. government.

When the Amistad emerged in 1839 and was argued in a Connecticut courtroom, this became an opportunity for African Americans to change the way the government viewed slavery in the United States. However, the case was then appealed to the Supreme Court after the Africans had been found innocent. This was due to the fact that Southerners knew what effect the Amistad case would have within the African Americans in the United States – hope of freedom being near. Therefore, whites who were in favor of slavery made their decision very clear, making the Amistad case go to the Supreme Court. However, with former president John Quincy Adams on the defendant’s side, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Africans – giving them their freedom back and letting them go back to Africa. With the help of Steven Spielberg, this magnificent event was able to be shown to the public through the film “Amistad”. Which enables the public to obtain historical information, like that of the Africans aboard the Amistad, more effortlessly.

As we know, the Amistad was a ship under Spanish management that purchased Africans in Havana, Cuba. This Africans were first kidnapped within tribes in Sierra Leone and sold to the Portuguese, who then shipped them to Havana, Cuba. In West and Central Africa, African tribes would usually capture Africans from an opposing tribe and would sell them to slave exporters in return for goods. Although in 1808 the Transatlantic Slave trade had been outlawed, Europeans kept exporting and importing Africans to the new world – West indies, South America, and North America. We discussed in class the horrific events that would happen in the Middle Passage – the transporting of Africans from West and Central Africa to the New World. In the film “Amistad”, Cinque describes how the Portuguese tied up several Africans to a rock, which they then pushed off into the sea in order to save food rations to be able to feed the strong slaves. I also know that it wasn’t unusual for record keeping journals to not list events like Cinque described in the film “Amistad” because the merchants who were providing a set number of slaves to a paying owner, wouldn’t be paid if they were to lose some of slaves during the Middle Passage.

The conditions in which Africans were put through during the Middle Passage were appalling. Dr. William Chancellor was a surgeon aboard The Wolf, another Transatlantic slave trade ship, who can testify to the egregious circumstances under which Africans were put. He recorded these in journals that were later titled and published. In chapter “Bonfire of the Negroes” in the book “Ebony and Ivy”, Dr. Chancellor conducted an autopsy on the corpse of a three-year-old and “‘found in her intestines 7 worms some of them 12 & 13 inches, roll’d up together in a bundle”’ (Dunaway, 64). The result of the deaths were also correlated with the conditions in which the slaves lived through the Middle Passage. Aside from being stripped naked and crammed into small spaces in order to fit more Africans on board, the floor was so “covered in blood and excrement that ‘it resembled a slaughter-house’” (Dunaway, 62). However, the most dehumanizing act that these merchants would do the Africans, who were now slaves, was throw the corpses overboard and violating the women. Although these merchants did prevent diseases from spreading on the ship, the merchants did not even let fellow slave’s morn the death of the deceased. In the end, the film “Amistad” and the information covered in class, has made me become very aware of the dehumanizing acts that Africans underwent during the slavery era, the separation of families and how far, once being settled in the Americas, African Americans have succeeded in life.


Work Cited

Amistad (1997). Digital image. ImDb. N.p., 12 Feb. 2014. Web. 17 Nov. 2015. <http://www.imdb.com/media/rm2303972352/tt0118607?ref_=tt_ov_i#&gt;.

“Amistad (film).” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 17 Nov. 2015. Web. 16 Nov. 2015. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amistad_(film)&gt;.

“An Historian Goes to the Movies.” An Historian Goes to the Movies. N.p., 05 Jan. 2015. Web. 18 Nov. 2015.

Biography.com Editors. “Steven Spielberg Biography.” Bio.com. A&E Networks Television, n.d. Web. 18 Nov. 2015.

N/A, Scott. “Steven Spielberg-Biography.” IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 15 Nov. 2015. <http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000229/bio?ref_=nm_ov_bio_sm&gt;.

Wilder, Craig Steven. Ebony & Ivy : Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities. First U.S. ed. 2013. Print. 16 Nov. 2015

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