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Free lecture revealing the truth of the slave ship Amistad

9 July 2009 by Sam

There’s less than a day to go now so I thought I’d take the opportunity to remind you to please vote for the International Slavery Museum in the National Lottery Awards before noon tomorrow.

There are lots of reasons to vote for this fantastic and groundbreaking venue, many of which were outlined by the head of the museum Richard Benjamin in his latest blog post. You only have to look at a few of the comment cards from the museum’s visitors to see how the incredibly moving and poignant stories told within the galleries have affected people.

Further proof of the museum’s importance and value is the standard of international speakers that it attracts. For example, US civil rights activist Diane Nash will be giving this year’s Slavery Remembrance Day memorial lecture on Friday 21 August.

If you can’t wait until then, Benjamin Nicholas Lawrance, the assistant professor of African history from the University of California, Davis will be giving a free lecture in the museum this Monday, 13 July, at 12 noon. Entitled ‘All we want is make us free?’ the lecture will look at the voyage of Amistad’s children through the worlds of the illegal slave trade. Here is his synopsis of what he will be talking about:


“In Steven Spielberg’s 1997 dramatization of the infamous US Supreme Court trial of the occupants of the Spanish-Cuban slave ship Amistad, Cinqué, the African leader of the survivors, in a trance-like state, stands up, faces the judge, and begins chanting “Give us, us free!” It is a powerful and deeply persuasive testament to man’s inhumanity to man and an unmistakable and universalizing call to correct past injustice.

It is also a complete and utter fabrication. Not only was Cinqué (a European rendering of the Mende Singbe Pieh) imprisoned in New Haven and thus not present in the courtroom, but the utterance itself is a corruption of the penultimate line of a letter penned by Ka-Le, one of four child captives from the Amistad, to former President John Quincy Adams. Film critics and historians have rightly rounded on the spurious ethnic formulations deployed with such great dramatic effect in the prison.  As if to anticipate an onslaught of criticism, Steven Spielberg claimed to be telling “everyone’s story.”  Notwithstanding the absence of “African agency,” as Robert Harms points out, it is quite “unfortunate that the Africanness of the Amistad captives is shown largely through untranslated utterances and stereotyped inter-tribal conflict.”

But a second, and I would venture more deleterious silencing is also enjoined in this scene, that of the voices of the four African child captives aboard the slave ship, and of Ka-le in particular. A number of kidnapped children were on board the Tecora when it sailed from Sierra Leone in 1838-9. After arriving in Cuba, where many of the slaves were sold, a group were boarded on the Amistad and set sail for another port town. Included in this group were at least five children, and the ship’s crew included at least one. The status of these five children featured prominently in the trial of the Amistad captives. Among other matters, there were separate habeas corpus hearings for the three girls involved, and a separate ruling regarding ownership of the ship’s cabin boy and slave, Antonio. Four African children returned to West Africa aboard the Gentleman in the Fall of 1841. And one of these, a girl called Mar-gru, subsequently returned to the U.S. and graduate from Oberlin College.

In this lecture I would like to reconsider historical evidence from the famous trial of the men and women found on board the Cuban-Spanish ship La Amistad. Documents from this unlikely and well-trodden source provide a rare window into the historical contexts of child smuggling in the nineteenth century. They also serve as a vehicle for helping historians navigate the complicated legal terrain of child slaves lives.”

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