The Amistad Revolt: Memory, Slavery, and the Politics of Identity in the United States and Sierra Leone

By Iyunolu Folayan Osagie | Go to book overview

Introduction

The many stories surrounding the Amistad revolt and its aftermath are compelling arguments in the nineteenth-century arena of identity politics and in twentieth-century discourse on the formation of political consciousness. The revolt and the subsequent trial cases in the United States are relevant to people living in both the United States and Sierra Leone, even to this day. Analysis of the social and political factors that precipitated the debate on slavery and the question of human rights, first in the United States and more recently in Sierra Leone, shows that the Amistad revolt of 1839 initiated key dialogues about race, culture, and the law. The Amistad case helped to ground abstract debates about the constitutional rights of American slaves through the corporeal reality of the Amistad Africans, whose rhetorical insistence throughout the trial focused the debate on the defendants’ identity rather than on their actions.

The Amistad case also produced a major paradigm shift in the approach of the U.S. North to the problem of slavery. The politics of abolitionism was effective at two levels: although the battle against slavery was necessarily fought in the American justice system, its success depended on the grassroots involvement of a sympathetic public. The implications of the Amistad event in the arena of identity politics are manifest in a specific body of commemorative processes in both the United States and Sierra Leone. These processes engage individual and collective “re-memory” of resistance in slavery.

The Amistad story revolves around events that began in 1839 just off the waters of Cuba. African captives onboard an American-built schooner, named La Amistad (“friendship” in English), revolted against their Span-

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