Nicholas Guyatt: Review of Marcus Rediker's "The Amistad Rebellion: The Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom"

Nicholas Guyatt, a fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center, teaches American history at the University of York in England. His most recent book is Providence and the Invention of the United States (Cambridge).

It’s been fifteen years since Steven Spielberg’s Amistad arrived in theaters, and the initial controversies surrounding the film’s sources and sentimentality have largely been forgotten. Instead, the Cuban schooner is now a fixture in textbooks and history classes. College students pore over the trial documents that upheld the freedom of the Amistad Africans, and New England children clamber over a replica vessel at Mystic Seaport. As Marcus Rediker’s new book reminds us, the place of the rebellion in popular memory hasn’t always been secure. While public interest in the Amistad Africans was instant and overwhelming, their story was almost entirely forgotten after the Civil War. In 1953, the Texas writer William Owens produced a historical novel, Black Mutiny, which would serve as the starting point for Spielberg’s movie. But it was left to the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s to rediscover the political power of the narrative. For the teachers and activists of those movements, the Amistad rebellion was a case study in a new kind of scholarship: “history from below.”

Rediker hails from this tradition, and it informs his definition of the basic problem with the post-Spielberg understanding of the story: “The drama of the courtroom has eclipsed the original drama that transpired on the deck of the slave schooner,” he writes in The Amistad Rebellion. We’ve been fed a version of events in which “the American legal system has emerged as the story’s hero”—a bitter irony because, at the time of the uprising, “that very system held two and a half million African Americans in bondage.” Rediker’s solution to the problem is startlingly obvious: retell the saga from the perspective of the rebels themselves....

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