‘All We Want is Make Us Free’ – The Voyage of La Amistad’s Children Through the Worlds of the Illegal Slave Trade
CHILD SLAVES IN THE MODERN WORLD, pp. 12-35, Gwyn Campbell, Suzanne Miers, Joseph Miller, eds., Ohio University Press, 2011
Posted: 25 Aug 2011 Last revised: 10 Nov 2017
Date Written: September 22, 2011
In “Amistad,” Steven Spielberg’s 1997 dramatization of the multiple trials of the African survivors of the slave ship La Amistad, Cinqué, in a trance-like state, standing only a few feet from his erstwhile Spanish-Cuban captors, faces the judge and chants “Give us, us free!” The demand is a powerful and persuasive testament to man’s inhumanity to man and an unmistakable call to correct the injustice of enslavement. It is also a multi-dimensional fabrication. Not only was the adult Cinqué (a European rendering of the Mende “Singbe Pieh”) only briefly in the Hartford circuit court, and not to give his personal (translated) testimony until January 8, 1840, before Judge Judson of the United States District Court for Connecticut in New Haven, but the utterance itself is an infantilizing corruption of the penultimate line of a letter to former President John Quincy Adams by Ka-le, one of a group of child survivors.
The collapsing of multiple hearings and the attribution of a real child’s words to a fabricated adult protagonist are variations of a classic cinematographic technique of compression, but this doubly silences the historical subjects. First, Cinqué is reduced to a child-like caricature. But a second and I would venture more deleterious, historical erasing unfolds in this scene: silencing the voices of the five child captives aboard La Amistad, and of Ka-le in particular. An unknown number of “slave” children were aboard the Portuguese vessel Teçora on which the eventual La Amistad captives had purportedly sailed from Sierra Leone in 1838-39. After arriving in Cuba, where many of the group were surely sold, a number were placed aboard a coastal schooner, La Amistad, which then made for another port on the island. Among them were at least five children; and the ship’s crew included at least one child. The status of the child captives featured in the legal arguments in the multiple hearings that followed the eventual seizure and landing of the vessel and its human cargo in the United States. In particular, there were multiple habeas corpus hearings for the children, and a separate ruling regarding ownership of the cabin “boy”, Antonio. The four surviving children were claimed as property in a libel action by Pedro Montez, (as opposed to José Ruiz, claimant of the adults aboard La Amistad). They were listed as “Francisco, Juan and Josepha” and while “the Spanish name of the fourth was not mentioned,” and in the context of the trials “the four were… called Teme, Mahgra, Kene and Carria.” All four were among those eventually returned to West Africa aboard the Gentleman in the fall of 1841. One of these, a girl called Mar-gru (Mahgra), subsequently returned to the U.S. and attended Oberlin College.
Despite this double silencing, the film – perhaps inadvertently – underscores how adult slaves in antebellum America were often viewed socially and culturally as children. Discourses infantilizing Africans were deployed by abolitionists and proponents of Liberian colonization, active at the time, to garner support among liberal white northerners, and became increasingly widespread as the slave trade was phased out in stages. But what happens to our understanding of slaving and slaves in this context of illegality when the focus is returned to the children enslaved? How did the social, cultural and legal status of children who became slaves in the Western hemisphere shift between their moments of initial enslavement, via sale, relocations, and resales?
This essay traces the lives of the children of La Amistad as they proceeded across the Atlantic to elaborate the processes of enslavement as they pertained to children, the legal regimes to which these children were subject as they moved from Africa to America and back, and the children’s limited capacity to express the autonomy and agency of the “freedom” that Ka-le claimed, and Spielberg exploited. My hope is that this story will stimulate others to reexamine evidence of the enslavement of other children, particularly in expanding context of illegality characteristic of the nineteenth century, in order to better understand how and under what conditions children were enslaved.
Keywords: Africa, La Amistad, Children, Slavery, Habeas Corpus, Courts, Supreme Court, Abolition, Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, Sierra Leone, Gender
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