The Slave Ship Rebellion

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Long and low and black-hulled, the schooner beat along the Cuban coast in the black and starless night. The moon at midnight tried to break through the pall of the clouds, but was blotted from the rim of the featureless horizon by a drenching smother of rain. The schooner pitched and bucked in head winds and seas, discomfort in her after cabin where two wealthy Cuban planters slept fitfully, despair and desperation in the cramped hold where 53 Negro slaves were chained by neck and hands and feet. A hell ship, she was ironically named the Amistad, Spanish for friendship.

For four days the Amistad had been at sea on what normally should have been a two-day, 300-mile voyage from Havana to Puerto Principe. But nothing had gone normally, and on this night of July 1-2, 1839, mutiny and murder brewed. Through choppy seas the Amistad sailed into history. She was about to become a cause célèbre that would pit President against President, government against government, and that would affect the lives and education of American Negroes down to our own time.

In the hold of the Amistad on this night of storm, the slaves engaged in silent and desperate struggle. They had been kidnapped only recently from their homes in the Mendi country of Sierra Leone; they had survived the horrors of the middle passage, chained in a four-loot-high hold where they could never more than half stand, packed together so closely that the sweat of one mingled with the sweat of another. They had been spirited at night through the streets of Havana; they had been placed in a barracoon, examined from toes to teeth like cattle, and sold.

Even these experiences had not prepared them for the brutal foretaste of doom that had been theirs on the Amistad . When they were let above decks during the day, one of the slaves had helped himself to a dipperful of water. For this egregious offense, he had been lashed until his back streamed blood; then vinegar and gunpowder had been rubbed into the raw flesh, capping punishment with excruciating agony.

This savage treatment shocked all the Africans and filled them with apprehension. Where were they being taken? What was to be their fate? By gestures, they managed to ask the questions of the ship’s cook, a mulatto named Celestino. And the cook, in ghoulish and ill-timed jest, grinned malevolently at them, drew a hand across his throat, and pointed with huge relish to his bubbling pot, giving them to understand they were to be eaten. This prospective fate as the pièce de résistance at a cannibal board “made their hearts burn,” the slaves said later, and so they listened, in the dark hold of the pitching Amistad, to the impassioned urgings of their leader.

He was, by any standards, a remarkable man. Cinquè was his name. He stood about five feet ten inches, and he possessed the powerful torso, the sinewy arms and legs, of a fine athlete. His forehead was high, the eyes wide-spaced and intelligent; his carriage was erect, his bearing proud, for he was the son of a chief.

Using the technique of a born leader, Cinquè drove his followers to despair, and then held out to them a glowing hope. Did they want to die under the lash? Did they want to be eaten by the white men? When they moaned in misery and despair, he offered them the remedy: break the chains that held them; kill the white men; sail the ship back to their homes in Africa.

Cinquè’s exhortations whipped the slaves to frenzied action. The first barrier to their freedom was the long, heavy chain that passed from neck to neck and held them all together. It was fastened at the end only by a padlock. The slaves struggled with the lock, and with Cinquè exerting all of his tremendous strength, they finally managed to pry it open, to throw the hampering neck chain aside. One by one, the other chains followed until finally all of the slaves stood free of their shackles.

Their next need was to arm themselves, and in the nearby cargo hold of the Amistad they found what they wanted—several bales of sugar-cane knives. These were terrifying weapons. The handles were square bars of steel an inch thick, and the blades were two feet long, razor sharp, widening by regular gradation to a maximum width of three inches at the end. In the brawny hands of the aroused slaves, these machetes became deadly, hand-wielded guillotines.

The nightlong stirrings of revolt in the slave hold went undetected by the whites on the Amistad. They had no premonition of disaster when, between three and four o’clock in the morning, Cinquè led a horde of softly padding followers above decks in a final bid for freedom. On deck were Captain Ramon Ferrer; a mulatto cabin boy named Antonio Gonzales, a slave of the Captain’s; Celestino, the cook, snoozing in the shelter of his galley; and two sailors, Manuel Pagilla and a man known only as Jacinto. In the after cabin were the two Cuban planters: Don José Ruiz, who had purchased 49 of the slaves for $450 each at the Havana barracoon, and Don Pedro Montez, who owned the other four slaves aboard, three small girls and a boy.

Creeping stealthily along the dark deck, Cinquè led his band to the galley where Celestino slept, unaware that his cruel jest about the cannibal pot was about to breed bloody retribution. Cinquè himself sprang upon the sleeping cook, and the first intimation the white men aboard had of the slave mutiny came from the thudding of Cinquè’s machete, buried repeatedly in Celestino’s body. The thumping blows were so loud that they awoke Montez from sleep in the after cabin.