Obstacles and Opportunities
The Amistad captives had been kidnapped and transported to Cuba from Africa in violation of Spanish law barring slave trafficking. The Cuban enforcement of this statute was, however, notoriously lax. Bribes and a little careful night navigation were usually all that were necessary to get captive Africans into Cuba. Once captive Africans were smuggled onto the island, they could be provided with false papers suggesting that they were Cuban-born slaves. This is what happened to the Amistad captives. The violation of Spanish law was an important point in the resolution of the case. American law had formally prohibited importation of slaves since 1808; this statute, too, was frequently evaded by slave traders.
The zigzagging vessel was the Amistad, a Spanish slaver whose mutinying “cargo” of several dozen African captives had killed at least two of their captors.
Were they men—or were they property?
Why the Amistad Still Matters
In recent years, the Amistad affair has taken on greater and greater significance for those seeking an understanding of African American history and culture. I have decided to devote a chapter to it here for five important reasons:
- The Amistad case serves as a kind of pivot-point between the uneasy racial compromises of the Constitution and the later tumult of the Civil War.
- The case was a landmark event in the development of the American abolitionist movement. It proved to abolitionists that they could successfully appeal to the conscience of northerners.
- As a result, the case affected racial attitudes in the North, and in so doing presaged the momentous conflict of the Civil War. Although most southerners regarded the Amistad controversy as abolitionist propaganda, the Africans at the -center of the case won considerable sympathy among northerners. This fact presented President Martin Van Buren with another variation on the endless, exquisitely difficult dilemma of governing a nation that was half-free and half-enslaved. The Amistad episode is among the most revealing of a still-young America's social and political fault lines.
- The case highlighted a number of pressing questions that had been (and would continue to be) left unresolved by the American legal system. Among these questions were the following:
- Were freed slaves citizens of the United States?
- Were those enslaved to be regarded solely as property, or did they possess any natural rights whatsoever?
- To what degree can one human being (say, an officer of the U.S. Navy) claim salvage over another (say, a captive who has launched a rebellion on a slave ship)?
- Finally, the Amistad case offers a compelling story of freedom lost and won. It made (and still makes) great copy, which is why abolitionists did everything they could to fill the newspapers of the day with the story—and why Hollywood eventually decided to make a big-budget movie out of it.