Amistad: Sailing into History

Article excerpt

Sometimes a child's curiosity can give a parent fits. But when Debbie Allen's 10-year-old son asked her a question about his slave ancestors, she relished the chance to set her young son straight and dispel a misconception shared by scores of Americans. "Mama, why didn't they fight back?" asked Norman Nixon Jr. Allen told her son that no African went willingly into slavery or captivity. In fact, many Africans fought to their deaths to maintain their freedom, and many of those freedom fighters won.

Fortunately for the rest of us, Allen is a mother who also happens to be a force in Hollywood, and she can now dispel the myth for movie-goers. The director-actor-choreograpker-dancer (Fame, A Different World, The Academy Awards) is the producer of Amistad, a feature film depicting the story of 53 West Africans and their courageous rejection of slavery. Scheduled for release December 12, the film is a product of DreamWorks Pictures in association with HBO Pictures. It tells the story of the Mende people who were kidnapped in 1839 from an area now known as Sierra Leone and sold to Spanish slave traders. Amistad, which means friendship in Spanish, is also the name of the slave ship that transported the 49 men and four children.

Led by 25-year-old Senghe Pieh (called Cinque by the Spaniards), the desperate captives waged a bloody revolt three days into a voyage off the coast of Cuba, took control of the Amistad and began a circuitous journey back to their homeland. The Africans ordered their former captors to sail back to Africa, but the Spaniards secretly set the ship off-course at night and, after two months, piloted the vessel- to Long Island Sound, where the Africans were captured by a U.S. naval crew.

Facing charges of murder and piracy. Sengbe and his comrades were imprisoned in New Haven, Conn., and tried for their crimes. Their plight stimulated an abortionist movement in New Haven and led to the formation: of the Amistad Committee, which provided the defendants with housing, tutelage in English, and most important, legal: assistance.

After nearly two years, Supreme Justice Joseph Story delivered a landmark ruling, declaring the 35 Amistad survivors free men. But before they could secure that victory, the Africans' legal team had to head off political meddling, mostly that of President Martin Van Buren, who feared that a court victory for the Africans would cost him the 1840 election. Under the U.S.-Spanish Treaty of 1795, Van Buren tried to have the mutineers returned to Cuba (where the Spanish had purchased them via a slave auction) to face a trial and likely execution.

The case, however, proceeded through the Connecticut courts. In 1840 Story ruled that the Africans were indeed free and within their rights to take over the ship, adding that it was the "ultimate right of all human beings in extreme cases to resist oppression to apply force against ruinous injustice."

A key contributor to this huge victory was former U.S. President John Quincy Adams, who argued the Africans' case before the Supreme Court. For the abolitionists, the Amistad case was a milestone, ranking in significance with the Dred Scott decision. But while the Scott case is covered in most American history books, the Amistad story has long been overlooked--even in some African-American history texts.

Allen, 47, stumbled upon the story of the Amistad uprising while browsing in a bookstore on the Howard University campus 14 years ago. "I was inspired, overwhelmed and upset that I had not heard the story," she recalls. She acquired the rights to William A. Owens' book Black Mutiny. The Revolt on the Schooner Amistad, upon which her film is based. "This was too important a case," she says. "It involved John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, the Supreme Court, the international tribunal between Spain and Britain--too many big guns."

The triumph of Sengbe and his countrymen, Allen says, empowered her as she sought to get their story on the big screen. …