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Justice Sails on the Amistad Slave Ship : ECHO OF LIONS by Barbara Chase-Riboud (William Morrow: $19.95; 379 pp.)

June 18, 1989|Gary B. Nash | Nash is in the department of history at UCLA. and

One hundred and fifty years ago, a black-hulled schooner with shredded sails dropped anchor off Long Island, N.Y. For two months the vessel had been zigzagging northward, seemingly out of control. When a U.S. revenue cutter investigated, it found the ship to be the Amistad, a Portuguese slaver whose crew had been overpowered by mutinous slaves who were trying to sail the vessel back to Africa. The 53 Africans aboard, and two Spaniards who had purchased the Amistad slaves in Cuba and were carrying them to their plantations, were only half alive.

The Spaniards had deceived the African mutineers by steering the ship northward until it reached the American coast. At that point the Amistad mutineers found themselves sucked into the vortex of American politics--and especially the politics of race and abolition.

So far as the naval officer who took the Amistad in tow was concerned, the vessel and its occupants were so much salvage--to be condemned by an admiralty court and sold at auction. But the abolitionist movement in the United States had entered its militant stage in the 1830s, and such anti-slavery leaders as New York's Lewis Tappan turned the Amistad case into a cause celebre . Aiding their cause was the attractiveness of the African leader who led the mutiny--a Mende warrior later known as Joseph Cinque, an athletic, bronzed Prometheus who caught the public's fancy. New York abolitionists turned Cinque into a national figure and the cause of the Amistad mutineers into the most spectacular indictment of the slave trade and slavery of the antebellum period.

Barbara Chase-Riboud, winner of the Kafka Prize for her first novel--about Sally Hemings, the reputed mulatto mistress of Thomas Jefferson--tells the story of Cinque and his fellow mutineers with a particular talent for re-creating the story from the African point of view. Her re-creation of Cinque's capture, the march to the West African coast, his attempted escape from the slave barracoons, and the tortured passage across the Atlantic is as personal and vividly horrific as words have been able to render this dark chapter in human history. Historians have written shelves of books on the slave trade, which brought about the largest forced migration in history, but they have never adequately captured, as this skilled novelist has done, the terror and trauma of the enslavement experience.

Most of "Echo of Lions," however, is about the trials that stretched over 18 months before the Amistad mutineers were given their freedom by the Supreme Court and allowed to return to Africa. The politics of justice revealed in these trials may shock Americans today, and it is notable that almost all history textbooks completely ignore the incident. Both the Spanish purchasers of the Africans and the Spanish government sued the United States for the return of what they claimed was their property, and the mutineers were also potentially liable for piracy and murdering the crew members they overpowered. In the first trial, in a federal court in Hartford, Conn., the court found no basis for indicting the Africans. It was at that point that the Africans found themselves trapped in the labyrinth of American presidential politics.

Running for reelection, President Martin Van Buren had already called for the return of the Amistad and its human cargo to the Spanish in Cuba. This was an open concession to Democrats in the South, whose support he needed and whose alliance with northern Democrats depended on avoiding the slavery issue. When the circuit court found no basis for indicting the African mutineers and a second trial was about to begin, the President secretly directed the attorney general to have a ship ready to whisk the Africans out of the country if the court should rule against them, thus subverting their legal and constitutional rights of appeal. This was a clear case of executive interference with due process. And when this trial ended in the Africans' favor, the President ordered the decision appealed to the Supreme Court.

The aging ex-President John Quincy Adams, who had not argued a case in 30 years, stepped aside from his seat in the House of Representatives to argue the case of the Africans before a Supreme Court dominated by Southerners who had been slaveholders themselves. By this time, Van Buren's attempt to retain Southern support had failed, and he had lost his reelection bid to William Henry Harrison. Now he lost in the chambers of the Supreme Court as well with the charges of executive interference in judicial due process counting heavily against him. Chase-Riboud makes the gnarled Adams the hero of the story. If the picture is somewhat overdrawn in view of our understanding of Adams' deep ambivalence on the question of race, she nonetheless obliges us to think about an era of American history in which an ex-President would take up an unpopular cause and throw himself into it with such passion. The politics of justice may not have changed, but the behavior of ex-Presidents surely has.

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