The evidence is overwhelming that the story of the Amistad has no connection to real history other than fictional storytelling. Of course, Steven Spielberg’s 1997 movie “Amistad” was replete with undocumented cruelty and took extreme license with the narrative.
But it gets worse- there have been approximately 25 books written mentioning the Amistad: one in 1840, one in 1941, one in 1942, two in 1953 and about 20 since the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. Five of the books were written by Jews, including admitted works of fiction, screenplays or novels “based on the screenplay” of the film, produced by Jewish-Zionist director Spielberg.
The standard texts on international law published between 1866 and 1948 contained no mention whatsoever of the Amistad.
The story is that the Amistad case was supposedly argued before the U.S. Supreme Court between Feb. 22 and March 2 of 1841, and decided on March 9, 1841. Ultimately, congressman and former U.S. President John Quincy Adams argued the case.
What is most curious about this account is a letter allegedly put forth by J.Q. Adams in which he mentions the January session (not late February-early March ) as the date of his impending appearance before the court. Details, details, Sherlock. The motivation of Adams — who had never before actively opposed slavery — is completely unclear.
If Adams did actually make the argument, the film version of his closing speech before the Supreme Court and the court’s decision as read by Justice Joseph Story bear no resemblance to the much longer historical versions. They’re not even fair summaries.
Slavery and the slave trade, like piracy, are classic topics of international law.
Is it conceivable? Can a “landmark case” before the Supreme Court of the United States, argued by a former President of the United States — and also involving (or so we are told) incumbent President Martin A. Van Buren, as well as John C. Calhoun and many other famous people — a case overturning (or at least modifying) the Antelope case, could be ignored for well over a century in classic texts on international law written in the United States?
The principal slave trading cases mentioned in most texts on international law are the Antelope, Le Louis, La Jeune Eugenie, the Amedie, the Amelia, the Africa, the Fortuna and the Diana. The Amistad is never mentioned. John Quincy Adams is mentioned solely in connection with the Monroe Doctrine. His role was in the negotiation of various international treaties in 1822 and 1842 — never in connection with the Amistad.
Henry Wheaton’s “Elements of International Law” (1866 edition, No. 19 in “The Classics of International Law” by Clarendon Press, Oxford, England, with notes by Richard Henry Dana) is an extremely complex and complete classical work of international law, with numerous, exceedingly lengthy footnotes.
The index states, “Adams, J.Q.: responsibility for the germ of the Monroe Doctrine, 82 n.; argument of, on fisheries, 287; on “free ships, free goods,” 485 et seq.” There is no mention whatsoever of Adams in connection with the Amistad.
The “Table of Cases” (starting on p. xxxiii) mentions (under the letter A) the following ships, among others. Again, no mention of the Amistad, the Abby, the Abigail, the Acteon, the Actif, the Adeline, the Admiral, the Adventure, the Africa, the Alabama, the Alerta, the Alexander, the Alexandra, the Alfred, the Amedie, La Amistad de Rue (an unrelated case having nothing to do with the slave trade, the Amy Warwick, the Anna, the Anna Catharina, the Anne, the Antelope, the Antonia, the Apollo, the Ariadne, the Arrogante, the Arthur, the Atrea, the Atalanta, the Athol and the Aurora.
Another comprehensive textbook, “Cases on International Law” by Chas. G. Fenwick (1935), contains an Index of Cases (p. xvii). Cases involving ships beginning with the letter A include the Adula, Alabama, Amelia, Anna, Anne, Annette, Antelope and the Appam, etc. There is no mention of the Amistad.
“The Sources of Modern International Law” by George A. Finch (published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1937) mentions the Antelope (pp. 26-28). The Amistad is not mentioned.
Fenwick’s “International Law” (3rd edition, Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1948) mentions Le Louis and the Antelope (pp. 327-8). The Amistad is not mentioned.
“International Law” by W.E. Hall (7th edition, Oxford, 1917). No mention.
“A Handbook on International Law” by T.J. Lawrence (11 edition, 1938). No mention.
“International Law” by Oppenheim-Lauterpacht (5th edition, Longman and Green, 1935). No mention.
“Wheaton’s International Law” by A. Barriedale Keith (vol. 2, War, Stevens & Sons, 1944). No mention.
“Handbook on International Law” by George Grafton Wilson (3rd edition, Hornbook Series, West Publishing Co., 1939) mentions the Antelope (p. 74, note. 3, and p. 344, note. 1). There is no mention of the Amistad.
The Amistad is mentioned once — in two sentences only — in this 24-volume standard reference work. It’s not mentioned in any of the articles on slavery or abolition, or in any of the biographical articles or articles on the United States, but in the article on the “American Missionary Association,” which it describes as
… precipitated into action by a slave mutiny on the Amistad off the coast of Cuba in 1839. The Amistad Committee carried the case successfully through the United States Supreme Court, and sent the liberated slaves to a Connecticut school before expatriating and assisting them in opening the first antislavery mission in Africa.
At long last, the non-event turns up in the 1966 “Collier’s Encyclopedia.” The timing corresponds with the takeoff of the ethnic and racial aggrandizement industry.
Much later David Bryon Davis’ “Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World” opens with the Amistad case. It was published in 2006, well after the 1997 movie run.
The Amistad story was problematic for historian Eric Foner, a DeWitt Clinton professor of history at Columbia University.
Most seriously, Amistad presents a highly misleading account of the case’s historical significance, in the process sugarcoating the relationship between the American judiciary and slavery. The film gives the distinct impression that the Supreme Court was convinced by Adams’ plea to repudiate slavery in favor of the natural rights of man, thus taking a major step on the road to abolition.
Amistad‘s problems go far deeper than such anachronisms as President Martin Van Buren campaigning for re-election on a whistle-stop train tour (in 1840, candidates did not campaign), or people constantly talking about the impending Civil War, which lay twenty years in the future.
The film’s historical problems are compounded by the study guide now being distributed to schools, which encourages educators to use Amistad to teach about slavery. The guide erases the distinction between fact and fiction, urging students, for example, to study black abolitionism through the film’s invented character, Theodore Joadson, rather than real historical figures. And it fallaciously proclaims the case a “turning-point in the struggle to end slavery in the United States.”
Most galling, however, is the assumption that a subject does not exist until it is discovered by Hollywood. The guide ends with a quote from Debbie Allen, Amistad‘s producer, castigating historians for suppressing the “real history” of African-Americans and slavery. Historians may be guilty of many sins, but ignoring slavery is not one of them. For the past forty years, no subject has received more scholarly attention.
Winter Watch Takeaway
The Amistad, therefore, is far from being a “landmark case.” It was — quite literally — a sketchy and fictional “non-event” until the 1990s when Hollywood took over.
Key and Peele put up with false history white guilt.