One hundred and seventy-five years ago today, La Amistad and its crew of former slaves was captured off the coast of Long Island and towed to New London, Connecticut, where the story of the slaves’ revolt and subsequent trial for piracy and murder immediately became the sensation of the popular press, and a cause célèbre for abolitionists and other sympathizers. In this excerpt adapted from Outlaws of the Atlantic, historian Marcus Rediker takes us back to the first days of the ship’s capture, when the idea of “black pirates” would ignite the imagination of early America and take these fifty-three Africans on a journey from the holds of a slave ship to the halls of the Supreme Court and beyond.
The story began with a sensational headline: “A Suspicious Sail—a Pirate.” The New York Morning Herald announced on August 24, 1839, that a pilot boat had spotted a mystery ship about twenty-five miles off the coast of New York. On deck were “a number of negroes, twenty five or thirty, . . . almost or quite naked; some were wrapped in blankets, and one had on a white coat.” They were a “strange crew,” all the stranger for brandishing machetes, pistols, and muskets. One sailor “had a belt of dollars round his waist; another called the captain, had a gold watch. They could speak no English, but appeared to talk in the negro language.” Black pirates, armed and flush with plunder, were cruising the coast of Long Island.
The vessel itself was in eerie disrepair: “Long grass was growing upon her bottom, and her sails were much torn, as if she had been driving about at the mercy of the gale, with her sails set and no one at the helm.” Here, declared the Morning Herald, was the “Flying Dutchman,” the ghost ship that wandered the seas endlessly as a portent of doom. Indeed, doom seemed already to have struck the vessel, which once upon a time had been a slave ship: “It was supposed that the prisoners had risen upon the captain and his assistants and captured her.” Having murdered the master and crew, those aboard could not navigate the vessel. They “are now drifting about bound for no particular port.”
Over the next few days, other newspapers offered new accounts of the vessel, many of them short on reliable information and long on overheated speculation. One reported that this “black, rakish, suspicious sail” was full of “black piratical wretches” who had “undoubtedly robbed several vessels, and perhaps committed murder.” Another had no doubt: the crew “had murdered all the white men.” They were, moreover, rife with riches: “there is money and jewels on board of the value of $40,000.” Another wrote, “Some accounts say, that there are two hundred thousand dollars in coin stowed away in her hold.” Yet another claimed they had “three tons of money on board.”
Thus began the story of the Amistad in America’s penny press, with lurid tales of gore and gold. These articles made “the long, low, black schooner” a popular sensation. The nation’s two leading penny newspapers, the Morning Herald and the New York Sun, known for their interest in crime stories, especially murder, and for their ability to convey the news cheaply to the “great masses of the community,” took an avid interest in the case of the “black pirates.” So did the older commercial newspapers, the New York Commercial Advertiser and the New York Journal of Commerce. Southern newspapers such as the Richmond Enquirer, the Charleston Courier, and the New Orleans Bee, republished articles from the Northern press, sometimes editing out inconvenient information about the slave rebellion and adding fearful rhetoric of their own, demanding the gallows for murderous “African pirates.”
A mere six days after the Amistad had been towed ashore in New London, Connecticut, a drama troupe performed a play about its story of mutiny and piracy at New York’s Bowery Theatre. Commercial artists drew images of the leader of the rebellion, a man called Cinqué, reproduced them quickly and cheaply, and had them hawked by boys about the streets of eastern cities. Artist Amasa Hewins painted a 135-foot panorama depicting the Amistad Africans as they surrounded and killed Captain Ramón Ferrer and seized their freedom by force of arms. Another artist, Sidney Moulthrop, created twenty-nine life-size wax figures of the Africans and the Amistad crew, which he cast and arranged to dramatize the shipboard insurrection. Both artists would tour with their creations, charging admission to see a visual reenactment of the uprising. The wax figures appeared in Peale’s Museum and Portrait Gallery in New York, Armory Hall in Boston, and finally in Phineas T. Barnum’s American Museum. Meantime, thousands of people lined up daily to pay admission and walk through the jails of New Haven and Hartford to get a glimpse of the Amistad prisoners. When legal proceedings began, citizens jammed the courtrooms to capacity and beyond, refusing to leave their seats during breaks for fear of losing them. Popular fascination with the case was unprecedented. Slave resistance became a commercial entertainment, a commodity to be consumed in the ever-growing American marketplace.
Within the excellent scholarship on the Amistad rebellion, most notably by Arthur Abraham, Howard Jones, and Iyunolu Folayan Osagie, remains a puzzle: how did this bloody slave revolt—in which forty-nine African men, armed with cane knives, rose up, killed the white captain of the vessel and another member of the crew, and seized their freedom by force—manage to become a popular cause in a slave society, where, in 1839, two and a half million people were held in bondage? The last time anything like this had happened in the United States was 1831, when Nat Turner’s Rebellion in Southampton, Virginia, convulsed the nation. Slave revolts had long caused panic throughout white American society, not least among white middle-class abolitionists, many of whom were frankly terrified of them. Why would the Amistad rebellion prove different? To make matters more curious, the Amistad rebels would achieve popularity while cooperating with abolitionists, themselves despised as extremists by many. Another odd twist is that abolitionists committed to nonviolent principles flocked to the campaign as something heaven sent to advance their cause.
The outpouring of interest, most of it sympathetic, depended on the peculiar facts of the case. The Amistad affair centered on the slave trade, against which abolitionists on both sides of the Atlantic had already won major victories, establishing a limited but real popular consensus about its horrors. Moreover, it mattered that the slave owners, the villains of the story, were Spaniards, not Americans, and the self-emancipated heroes were Africans, who had never been American slaves. The Amistad rebellion did not, therefore, directly challenge American slavery as Nat Turner’s insurrection had done. The tactics, strategy, strength, and will of the abolitionist movement also helped to generate interest in, and favorable coverage of, the case. Indeed, victory in the Amistad case would be one of the movement’s greatest and most popular achievements.
Yet these facts cannot fully unravel the knot of contradiction: Nat Turner had become infamous, the very nightmare of many white people north and south, but Cinqué became a celebrity in the modern sense of the word. Indeed he was the first person of African descent to claim such status in the history of the United States. How can we explain this extraordinary difference in the popular images of the two best-known leaders of slave revolts in American history?
An unexplored part of the answer lies in how the Amistad rebellion originally appeared to the American public as a pirate story. Tales of “black pirates,” told in various ways in and through an increasingly commercialized mass culture, excited intense interest everywhere, rapidly making what happened on the Amistad a national issue of concern “among all classes of the community,” including, crucially, urban workers. Less than a week after the first report, the clamor had grown so loud that the Amistad was now called the “famous piratical vessel.” Drama, art, journalism, and law shaped the popular perception of the Amistad rebels and ultimately the outcome of the case.
Militant collective action taken by a small group of West African warriors on the deck of a small vessel off the north coast of Cuba would reverberate around the world, mobilizing an army of playwrights, actors, theater-goers, artists, correspondents, writers, readers, lawyers, judges, politicians, activists, and citizens, who would produce and consume images of the rebels and their actions. By representing the Amistad Africans as “black pirates,” the creators of popular culture shaped the popular perception of the case. The history of slavery and the history of piracy thus intersected in complex and ambiguous ways, with profound results, for the Amistad case and the struggle against Atlantic slavery. The international movement against bondage would take an unexpected popular form, which would in turn help to expand, strengthen, and radicalize the anti-slavery movement and its accompanying public.
Marcus Rediker is Distinguished Professor of Atlantic History at the University of Pittsburgh and the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including the 1988 George Washington Book Prize (2008), the Organization of American Historians’ Merle Cuti Award (1998 and 2008), and the Sol Stetin Labor History Award (2013). His books include The Many-Headed Hydra (Beacon Press, 2000; with Peter Linebaugh), Villains of All Nations (Beacon Press, 2004), The Slave Ship (Viking, 2007), and The Amistad Rebellion (Viking, 2012).