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The Amistad Rebellion

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The dispute played out for month after month—serving the “what-the-nation-is-talking-about” role that might today be associated with an inescapable media event like the Florida election fiasco of 2000, a long-running celebrity scandal, or a major business upheaval. Cinque, the leader of the uprising, received what would today be described as heavy media coverage. Abolitionist papers emphasized his dignity and patience; papers hostile to the mutineers' cause portrayed him as a crazed, bloodthirsty beast.

According to the testimony of the mutineers, they had been kidnapped, denied adequate provisions, chained together, and packed into a tiny hold. Four of them had been whipped. Led by Cinque, the Africans had risen up against the Spaniards shortly after a cook had made the strategic error of informing the captives that they would eventually be beheaded and eaten alive.

If the remark was meant as a jest, it was a costly one for the Spaniards. Convinced that they had nothing to lose, the captives used nails to pick their locks, found a supply of cane knives, killed the captain and the cook, and took over the ship. (Two members of the crew jumped overboard and were, apparently, never heard from again.)

Once the Africans were apprehended by the U.S. Navy, they were placed in captivity once again, and with questionable legal justification. For an extended period, they occupied a legal limbo because American law couldn't quite determine how to classify them.

A Challenge to the American Legal System

The American legal system didn't have an immediate answer to the question of the day: Should the Amistad mutineers be permitted to return to Africa as free men to Africa, as the abolitionists wanted … or should they be handed over to the Spanish authorities to face trial, as the Spanish government demanded? The White House, however, had its answer.

President Van Buren, eager to keep his coalition in the Democratic Party intact, sought at first to position the Amistad affair solely as a foreign policy question—one that could be resolved quickly, and with as little offense to southerners as possible, by simply handing the Africans over to the Spanish. As the legal challenges from anti-slavery forces escalated, however, and Van Buren realized that he could not make the issue go away before the 1840 presidential election, he decided to use a variety of delaying tactics to ensure that the long legal battle was not resolved until after the election took place.

This is why it took until early 1841—long after Van Buren had lost the presidential election to William Henry Harrison—for the Supreme Court to decide the fate of the Amistad captives.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to African-American History © 2003 by Melba J. Duncan. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.

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