Amistad's Orphans

Amistad's Orphans: An Atlantic Story of Children, Slavery, and Smuggling

Benjamin N. Lawrance
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 376
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Amistad's Orphans
    Book Description:

    The lives of six African children, ages nine to sixteen, were forever altered by the revolt aboard the Cuban schoonerLa Amistadin 1839. Like their adult companions, all were captured in Africa and illegally sold as slaves. In this fascinating revisionist history, Benjamin N. Lawrance reconstructs six entwined stories and brings them to the forefront of theAmistadconflict. Through eyewitness testimonies, court records, and the children's own letters, Lawrance recounts how their lives were inextricably interwoven by the historic drama, and casts new light on illegal nineteenth-century transatlantic slave smuggling.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-21043-9
    Subjects: Sociology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. List of Illustrations
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. Introduction: The Orphans of La Amistad
    (pp. 1-26)

    In March 1917, Alexander Woods Banfield, a Canadian-British missionary, amateur linguist, and photographer, was traveling through southeastern Sierra Leone, inspecting mission stations for the British and Foreign Bible Society. Although he was headquartered in Lagos, Nigeria, his purpose was to evaluate the current status of proselytization efforts in the region and explore possibilities for new projects. Banfield toured various towns, villages, and abandoned sites. In the afternoon of March 16, he visited an old mission compound at Kaw-Mendi and the adjacent town. In a letter to his superior, he described how “the Mission premises” occupied “a large tract of land”...

  6. 1 “Most Favourite Cargoes”: African Child Enslavement in the Nineteenth Century
    (pp. 27-46)

    The itineraries and biographies of Amistad’s orphans are richly insightful as individual stories, but they also overlap in important ways. By reuniting them as an imagined slave ship family it is my hope that they may provide a template for understanding the broader contours of the nineteenth-century African child slave experience. From their enslavements in their natal villages, via their journey to the coastal prisons or barracoons, and then deep into the dark cavities of a slave ship, their collective experience echoed that of tens of thousands of others. And although these six children fortuitously avoided the ultimate destinations envisaged...

  7. 2 The Origins of Amistad’s Orphans
    (pp. 47-87)

    The dispute about the origins of the survivors ofLa Amistadresided at the heart of the trials in U.S. courts, 1839–41. In an effort to prove African origins, the defense team—Roger Sherman Baldwin, Seth Staples, and Theodore Sedgwick—developed sophisticated arguments built around information about the illegal African slave trade, Cuban slave systems, and African language, geography, and culture. Before the Supreme Court in January 1841, the expertise and evidence assembled appeared overwhelming. Justice Joseph Story observed, “It is plain beyond controversy, . . . that these negroes never were the lawful slaves of Ruiz or Montez...

  8. 3 The Enslavements of Amistad’s Orphans
    (pp. 88-129)

    In September 1839, at the first of the several trials of the survivors ofLa Amistad, the defense team forcefully asserted that the Africans were “born and still of right” free. Free-born status featured in the first habeas corpus hearing for the girls. During the civil proceedings in New York in October 1839, the Spanish Cuban claimants ultimately admitted the Africans were originally “free-born” and not “property.” And in subsequent cases, establishing not only the “domicile” of the Africans in Cuba but also a law permitting their being held as lawful slaves became crucial to the case. In Justice Story’s...

  9. 4 The Journeys of Amistad’s Orphans
    (pp. 130-178)

    Of the five myths silencing the experience of Amistad’s orphans, perhaps the most material or physical is that of a common Middle Passage on theTeçora, the elusive slave ship that purportedly transported all the Africans to Cuba. TheTeçoraappears in numerous accounts of the ordeal ofLa Amistad, in print, online, and in film, from the nineteenth century to the present day. TheTeçorais a veritableFlying Dutchman, sailing the oceans, riding across cinema and television screens, but never making port, never docking. The illusory vessel formed a fundamental component of the narrative of illegality assembled by...

  10. 5 The Liberations of Amistad’s Orphans
    (pp. 179-218)

    In deliberating the legal status of the captives found aboardLa Amistad, the Supreme Court wrestled with U.S. law and U.S. treaty obligations with Spain. The defense team, comprising Baldwin and Adams, argued forcefully that upon setting foot on Long Island, the Africans were legally free. In the court’s landmark ruling, Justice Story drew heavily on Baldwin’s arguments. He quoted liberally from Baldwin’s statements: “They appear here as freemen. They are in a state where they are presumed to be free. They stand before our courts on equal ground with their claimants; and when the courts, after an impartial hearing,...

  11. 6 The Return of Amistad’s Orphans
    (pp. 219-265)

    If anything substantive emerged from the first difficult, stilted conversations with Cinquez and the other survivors ofLa Amistad, it was that their seizure of the ship was motivated above all else by a desire to return to Africa and to reestablish contact with their families. After the ship was captured off Long Island and the survivors interviewed, it became clear that the Africans had been attempting to return to Africa. Grabeau, one of the adults who with Cinquez had assumed a degree of leadership, indicated that the Africans surrendered thinking they would be aided in this goal. He stated,...

  12. Epilogue: An Age of Child Enslavement
    (pp. 266-272)

    The lives of Amistad’s orphans provoke us to think about the survival strategies of children in contexts of conflict and social distress. In many ways the children remained socially segregated; their options for cultural reintegration and social advancement were few. Their experiences of enslavement, transportation, liberty, and resettlement deeply shaped their personal outlook and narrowed their perspective. They were permanently detached from those who would have been their social peers and ethnic kinsmen, and even in Kaw-Mendi they remained marginalized from the social and political life of the indigenous communities into which resettlement thrust them. Their experiences of trauma and...

  13. Chronology
    (pp. 273-276)
  14. Notes
    (pp. 277-318)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 319-348)
  16. Index
    (pp. 349-358)