Words

A Perilous Voyage

Not just for Black History Month

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

History is filled with half-truths, especially about our heroes.

Abraham Lincoln, for instance, wasn’t the stern, humorless man that old photos lead you to believe. Queen Victoria was very definitely “amused” quite often. Roosevelt made mistakes, Boudica had her fears—even Churchill undoubtedly had his doubts.

Or so we hope, because we want our heroes to be human, too. And for that, author Marcus Rediker dug deep to present a few surprises in his new book The Amistad Rebellion.

It should’ve been a routine trip for Ramon Ferrer, captain of the Amistad. He was hired to accept cargo, sail it from Havana to another port in Cuba and drop it off, where it would be sorted and sold. Routine, but it cost him his life because the cargo—49 men and four children—had other ideas.

Until then, the journey for these men and children had been like that of every other slave who came through the Middle Passage: most had been snatched by slave hunters (although some had been taken in exchange for a family member’s debt), they were crammed beneath the deck of the ship, stacked on shelves with little-to-no room to move, often with less than three feet of headroom. Food was scarce, water was often denied, the stench of bondage choked them, and many died. Of those who did not, it was said that their bodies sometimes never recovered from the voyage.

But on the moonless night of July 2, 1839, the Amistad Africans, as Rediker calls them, had had enough. One broke a padlock that held them below deck and, through the leadership of four men from various tribes who shared membership in a cultural society, they snatched cane knives, snuck up from below and immediately killed the ship’s slave-cook, who had been taunting them for days. They attacked other crew members, slashed at the captain, seized the ship, and forced their Spanish “owners” to sail back to Sierra Leone.

But the surviving Spaniards tricked the Africans and kept the Amistad near American shores, hoping U.S. authorities would help. And they did—which ended in a major trial, political wrangling and a 19th century media circus that changed history.

So you saw the movie and you know all about what happened on the Amistad. But you don’t—until you’ve read this book.

Rediker does an exceptional job in putting individual faces on each of the ship’s passengers and those who assisted them on their journey home. We come to see their strength, wisdom and playfulness, which softens this story with personality and turns these men into more than just historical figures.

I appreciated that Rediker didn’t stop there, but carefully explains how the Amistad Rebellion affected slavery and history in general.

Though I must admit that I liked the first two-thirds of this book better than the latter part, I think it’s an exciting, horrifying, triumphant tale overall, and definitely worth reading.

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