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Mutiny on the Amistad

In 1839, African freemen, seized as slaves, struck a daring blow for freedom

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The news stories that began in late August 1839 bore a whiff of both mystery and menace, writes Donald Dale Jackson. A long, black schooner was sailing an erratic course up the East Coast of the United States, manned by what appeared to be an all-black crew. The name on their battered bow was Amistad.

The ship dropped anchor off the eastern tip of Long Island to allow men to go ashore for food and water. Before long, a U.S. Navy brig hove into view. Its commander had his sailors disarm the blacks on board the Amistad and seize the others ashore. The sailors discovered two Cuban planters on board, who said the ship had departed Havana in June, bound for Cuba's north coast, carrying 53 blacks they had purchased. The blacks, led by a strong young man in his 20s called Cinque, freed themselves from their chains and attacked with cane knives, killing the captain and cook. They ordered one of the slavers to steer for Africa, but he tricked them by sailing east in the day but north at night. What the slavers did not say was that the Africans had been brought to the Spanish colony of Cuba in direct violation of Spain's slave laws.

The brig's commander took the blacks to Connecticut, where they were held on charges of murder and piracy, and where a drama that mesmerized the country began to take shape. On the one hand, the Spanish government, acting through the administration in Washington, sought to get the blacks returned to Cuba--where they most certainly would be put to death. Abolitionists, on the other hand, saw the case as an opportunity to humanize the issue of slavery. The case eventually would be debated all the way to the Supreme Court, where "Old Man Eloquent," former President John Quincy Adams, would argue on behalf of the Africans.

Now, this fascinating drama will be reenacted on the big screen, with the release this month of Steven Spielberg's epic film Amistad. "While making the film," Spielberg says, "I never felt that I was telling someone else's story. I felt...I was telling everyone's story--a story that people of all nationalities and races should know."

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