Ghosts Of Amistad
In 1839, a Spanish slave ship called the Amistad was captured near Montauk Point on Long Island. The African people, who had been brought on board as cargo in Cuba, had seized the ship after they rebelled and killed the Captain and some of the crew. They were attempting to make their way back to West Africa when they were stopped.
The U.S. government claimed possession of the ship and the people, who were put on trial for piracy and murder. The case was heard in the U.S. Circuit Court in Connecticut, and, eventually, in the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that the people were not slaves under Spanish law and were free.
A Spielberg movie tells the story of the trial, Hollywood style, but a new documentary offers another perspective of the Amistad rebellion.
The film is called Ghosts of Amistad by Tony Buba. It follows University of Pittsburgh historian Marcus Rediker on his trip to Sierra Leone in 2013. Rediker was searching for village elders to find local memory of the Amistad rebellion.
You say the type of history you do is, “history from below.” Could you explain a little bit more what you mean by that?
History from below is basically an approach to history which is different from what most of us have learned in school. It’s not the history of Presidents or generals or philosophers or great men. It’s really the history of ordinary working people. It tries to get at the experience of people who are frequently left out of the elite narratives, the history from above. I’ve always been very keen to try to find out how working people not only participated in history, but shaped it, and I think the Amistad rebellion is a very good example of that. The actions taken by a small group of people off the north coast of Cuba in 1839 created a firestorm of controversy and, really, it had the most important and powerful people debating what they had done.
You say you were searching for oral history in Sierra Leone that had been passed down through the generations. How do you verify the information that you get? Wouldn’t the story change as it’s passed from person to person?
That’s absolutely true, Tom, one must be very careful in evaluating information that you get through an interview because, in fact, the telling and the retelling of a story does change it. One of the things we were very keen to try to figure out is how people had learned about the Amistad Rebellion. There was a campaign in the 1980’s to try to make this a better known part of Sierra Leone’s history. So we had to sort through more recent and more distant knowledge of the case. Now, the most convincing way one can use oral history is when one is able to find documentary evidence that corroborates it. And we were able to do that in a number of cases. Those are always the most compelling and convincing pieces of history that one recovers. There are certain things we learned where there is nothing in the documentary record to prove so we can’t regard that as certain, but it may be right. It may be correct. It may be that the stories have preserved evidence that is just not available anywhere else.
When you finally found the village whose elders connected memories with the Amistad that you knew, in the documentary we see their faces light up. There definitely seemed to be a sense of excitement, certainly on their side and I’m guessing on yours as well?
Certainly we were very excited. We had great success in a village called Falu, where two of the Amistad Africans had come from. A man known as Fabana and another man named Grabo. Now, those were not their actual African names. One of the things we had to do with the elders was to have them tell us what they thought the real names in Mende, the native language, actually were. When we got to the point of discovering memory of this person in Falu there was tremendous excitement all around. Mende people, and most of the Amistad Africans were from this particular culture group, they value very highly ancestors. Ancestors are a living presence in Mende society. When we discovered that this man Grabo was someone who was remembered in the village and we were able to tell them things about the ancestors that they didn’t know, this was something that was extremely important to them. It was almost as if were were bring a relative home to them.
How did the villagers respond to your search for their side of the story of the Amistad Rebellion?
They responded very well. There were a couple of tense moments. This happened in Falu. We had discovered that this man named Grabo had been involved in the rebellion. After all this discovery was kind of dying down, one man said, “Are you trying to get all this information for the sake of retaliation?” I literally didn’t know what he meant but then our translator Tazif explained to me, “Well you did say that their great-great-great great grandfather went and killed a white man over on the other side of the world and are we going to be held responsible for that? Are there going to be consequences for our village?” We immediately assured them that there were not consequences. That this was really for history sake. But the moment he said that there were some villagers that were embarrassed that he showed fear. One man spoke up and said, “We are all descendant from great warriors here and we are unafraid and whenever we speak in public we speak loudly so everyone can hear."