amistad“Dear Mr. Adams, People say we bad.  We kill cook and captain and sailor.  But if white man come to Africa and he taken slave, then what he do?  He not try to get free too?  Please make court understand we free men who want to be free again.  We want go home.  We pray you to win our case.  You our friend.  We trust you.   Joseph Cinque” – p 260

There are several books out there detailing the history behind the case of the black men aboard the ship the Amistad.  This novel, by David Pesci, is a historical fiction.  Pesci has taken the facts of the case and used his imagination to create the parts of the story we don’t know.

The main protagonist in this fictionalization is Singbe – or Joseph Cinque, as the American courts called him.  He was a Mende rice farmer captured and sold onto a slave ship bound for Cuba.  When purchased in Cuba, along with 53 other Africans, they were transferred under false papers saying all of them were slaves who had been born and raised in Cuba.  This is after the time when the slave trade had been outlawed in England and America to the extent that you couldn’t bring in new slaves from Africa, but you could still continue to deal with slaves born on American or Cuban soil.  When told he and the other slaves aboard the Amistad were going to be cannibalized by their new owners in America, Singbe leads a revolt, killing most of the crew and taking two white men and a Cuban-born slave hostage.  They attempt to sail the ship back to Africa, having no knowledge of ships or navigation and are eventually picked up by an American Naval ship, who has heard reports of black pirates in the area.  The white men aboard claim the Africans were going to eat them and that they are the legal owners of the slaves.  Several Americans, including the Naval officers who took the ship, claim salvage rights.  Some people want the slaves sold on American soil, the Spaniards aboard the Amistad want the Africans shipped back to Cuba to be tried for murder, and the abolitionists realize these are Africans and not Cuban slaves and decide to fight for their freedom.

“Adams had received a framed portrait of himself with a fresh bullet hole shot through the head.  The portrait had been anonymously posted from Georgia.  Adams hung it on the wall behind his desk.” – p 254

What follows is the precedent setting court case in the American history of abolition.  Over the period of years, with the input of several Presidents, judges, and the Supreme Court, the Africans and Abolitionists fight for the freedom of the Amistads to return to Africa and their homes.  Their lives are threatened and several statements of perjury have to be de-bunked before they can even begin to make progress.

This book is an astounding fictionalization of a huge moment in American history that has failed to receive the attention it deserves.  Pesci does a wonderful job of creating the intensity of feeling in the reader which Singbe and the other Africans were feeling aboard a ship, with no hope of ever seeing their families again.  He manages to balance the emotional part of the case with the legal portion, never slipping into too much court jargon or sentimentalism.  This is a great place to start if you want to learn more about the case of the Amistad.

David Pesci wrote this book, which was published in 1997.

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