Exploring Amistad: Race and the Boundaries of Freedom in Maritime Antebellum America
home | many pasts | evidence | www.history | blackboard | reference
talking history | syllabi | students | teachers | puzzle | about us
search: go!
advanced search - go!

Exploring Amistad at Mystic Seaport
Created and maintained by Mystic Seaport.
Reviewed January 14, April 11–14, 2001.

The powerful opening scene of Steven Spielberg’s Amistad (1997) mesmerized many viewers. In 1839 fifty-three African slaves aboard the Amistad, a schooner lying off the Cuban coast, broke their chains, killed two of their captors with cane knives, and demanded that the crew sail them back home. Thanks to Spielberg, millions of nonhistorians worldwide learned that the bloody slave revolt aboard the Amistad began an odyssey that led the Africans to their recapture in American waters, to imprisonment in New Haven, Connecticut, and then through the labyrinthian American judicial system. Ultimately former president John Quincy Adams served as the slaves' counsel before the United States Supreme Court. In January 1842, thirty-five survivors of the Amistad mutiny finally returned to their homeland.

Exploring Amistad at Mystic Seaport underscores the horrors of enslavement, the brutality of the middle passage, the centrality of slavery and “race” in Jacksonian-era politics, and the intricacies of international slave jurisprudence. It also testifies to the agency of the black captives who resisted their enslavement and celebrates the contributions of American abolitionists who mounted the legal defense on the Africans' behalf. Exploring Amistad at Mystic Seaport fills in gaps and corrects inaccuracies in Spielberg’s film.

The site contains seven basic elements. The “Site Map” sketches its contours. “Discovery” presents the Amistad case’s chronology, emphasizes its key themes, and identifies people and places. “Library” provides over five hundred documents on the Amistad saga culled from newspapers, personal papers, court records, government papers, popular media, maps, and artistic renderings. Many appear both in their original format and in transcription. “A few are extremely racist,” the site’s creators warn, “and we are a little uncomfortable putting them on-line.” "Timeline" contextualizes the Amistad case within the history of the international slave trade, Caribbean history, and significant events in American history. “Teaching” suggests ways to use the Amistad case in the classroom and includes an extensive (though riddled with inaccuracies) bibliography of secondary and primary sources. “Search” and “Forum” provide tools for exploring the site’s documents and for posting readers' interpretations of the Amistad saga.

Using “Timeline,” researchers can follow the details of the unfolding case and access varied contemporary documents. On February 24, 1841, for example, Adams opened his argument, later recording in his diary, “With grateful heart for aid from above . . . I could not answer public expectation—but I have not yet utterly failed—God speed me to the end.” On March 9 Adams wrote matter-of-factly that the Supreme Court had affirmed the Africans' freedom. On May 22 the Colored American (the site fails to identify this source) reflected on the broad meaning of the Amistad case. "The event of the landing of these brethren upon our shores is to be, not without its beneficial effect, as well to the colored population of this country, as it promises to be to Ill-fated Africa."

Though the site cautions users about the “racist” texts, it fails to advise students how to evaluate primary sources—“racist” or otherwise. Nonetheless, Exploring Amistad at Mystic Seaport is a useful resource, especially for junior high and high school students.

John David Smith
North Carolina State University
Raleigh, North Carolina

History Matters