Scholarly Debate on SLAVERY-L
Discussion List (1997-98)

Source: SLAVERY-L.



[In reply to Richard Bernstein:]

Richard (if I may),

I read with great interest your remarks about the movie and various other aspects of the Amistad case. At one point you noted that I had seemed to contradict myself in, on the one hand, raising questions about Hollywood's use of fact, and, on the other, speaking glowingly about my visit to the set and meeting Spielberg.

You have raised a valid question that deserves an explanation. It does upset me to hear Hollywood lawyers cavalierly dismiss history as "mere facts" (quote in press from DreamWorks attorney)--that no one has a patent on history, that it belongs to everyone as part of the public domain. I cannot quarrel with history as part of everyone's heritage. But I do question the value of someone's claim that history is just facts--in other words, the kind of history that I (and probably many others) learned in high school: facts and dates only. No wonder I did not care for history back then.

Those who take this simplistic stand, as we all know, fail to understand what a historian goes through in presenting a nice, well-shaped "story" for Hollywood to exploit and claim as its own--akin to the government's right of "eminent domain." The sound historian delves deeply into numerous archives for documentation, some of those places unsavory and downright unpleasant. We knew on choosing the profession, however, that these were the dues we must pay to earn our credentials as historians. I find it frustrating for non-historians to dismiss our work as border-line respectable and then adopt it Hollywood style as creative and original. Historians alone provided them the story for the movie. I regard our work as a sacred responsibility; we are recording our heritage for posterity and must do everything possible to come as close to the truth as the available documents permit.

Having said this, I now need to explain my favorable reaction to the movie. In truth, several aspects of the movie were disturbing in that they were fabricated as part of what Hollywood calls "dramatic license"--introduced to heighten the plot and provide a continuum for the story. But I have no quarrel with these features as long as they do not change the essential truths of the story.

In this regard, I adopt an approach to movies that most critics, it appears, reject. Whereas these critics, I believe, focus on the inaccuracies and quibble over nonessential matters, I concentrate on the favorable qualities. Amistad has been lying around for decades, the source of much discussion about developing it into either a movie or TV series. Indeed, my book has been under option two times, the latest being Tristar until June 1996. But for all kinds of speculative reasons, the story never became a movie.

Now, at last, Steven Spielberg has made the hard decision--particularly after his negative experiences with "Color Purple"--to make the movie. Is it historically accurate? No--on nonessential details; Yes--on the essential story. If Spielberg shows the following--that this incident was the only time in history in which a group of blacks, captured in Africa, brought to the New World, taken into the American court system where they won their freedom, and then returned home; that blacks and white cooperated in this great endeavor; that those enslaved will do anything to win freedom; that these enslaved people not only survived but maintained their dignity as well as their identity; that the African slave trade was a horrid business--indeed, the "black holocaust," as some have called the practice; that human rights vied with property rights--that morality clashed with the law, that the Constitution and Declaration of Independence were at odds, that a self-professed republic encountered the profound dilemma of promoting both liberty and slavery; that the triumph of freedom came within the system rather than outside it; that Cinque was a real hero in the sense that he did not seek leadership but accepted it once thrust upon him; that to rid the system of a great wrong, one must first convince the public that that wrong exists--hence, the graphic depiction of the slave trade with all its implications for race relations in general (and to the present); that one of the biggest problems in race relations is a failure to communicate with each other; that politics often obstructs justice; that the Amistad story is part of America's history and not just that of black people; that this marked the first civil rights case in America's history in that blacks testified and went free on the basis of the inherent right of self-defense--and in antebellum America; that the story deserves a powerful and riveting retelling; that the story must be known in the widest possible sense and that it must be included in our textbooks--then the movie is worth the price of admission--and more. I am convinced that Spielberg has succeeded in all the above.

Spielberg once philosophized that fiction is basically a perception of reality, that literature is primarily a product of our times. Thus, in many instances, fiction and non-fiction can come close. The fabricated parts of this movie do not change the basic thrust of the truth.

I am interested in your reaction.

Howard Jones
University Research Professor and Chair
Department of History
University of Alabama

The following message is cross-posted from H-SHEAR, which is moderated by Peter Knupfer (

From: "Richard B. Bernstein" (

I am delighted to have the chance to reply to Howard Jones, whose fine book I am going through to make sure that I'm grounded in the facts before diving into the movie. (One of the most insulting things about the Chase-Riboud complaint in her suit against Spielberg & Co. is her dismissal of MUTINY ON THE AMISTAD, which predated her novel by two years, as a "textbook," with all the invidious overtones that that word carries.) On the major controversy that we historians have to confront, Howard Jones and I occupy the same ground. We agree that, if the core issues and significances of the history come across in a Hollywood treatment (or, as shown in another context, in a PBS television documentary), specific factual omissions or fictionalizations are comparatively insignificant. Thus, when one of my students praised LIBERTY: THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION because it made her realize that the Revolution's outcome was up for grabs and that winning independence and making a nation were terribly difficult, I smiled because she had absorbed the basic big points about the story. I also agree completely with Professor Jones's catalogue of the major points that he would want a movie about the Amistad case to get across. I have not yet seen it (as noted), but friends who have, both historians and nonhistorians, have assured me that all these big points do come through and that the moviemakers fought hard to make sure they came through. I will be seeing the movie with Professor Jones's catalogue of essential points in mind, and I will judge the movie on that basis.

My experience as an advisor to LIBERTY: THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION is, I hope, illuminating as regards AMISTAD. Two schools of critics among our colleagues have emerged. The first school rejects mass-media treatments of history, whether in the movies or on television (and they lump together commercial television and public television), as betrayals of the sole reliable and accurate means for conveying history: books written by historians. The second school focuses, as Professor Jones has noted, on factual errors and omissions. "How could you leave out the double-right-enfilade by Sergeant Schmidlap at the Battle of Buzfuz Falls?" Or, more seriously (a point that I tried but failed to make as an advisor), "How could you leave out the amazing story of the negotiation of the Treaty of Paris of 1783, which ended the war, guaranteed American independence, and doubled the size of the United States?" Some of these points are niggling and trivial; others are more troubling but still problematic in that they do not acknowledge that movies and television documentaries differ significantly from books as media for recounting history.

But, given that the vast majority of our fellow citizens -- and, more specifically, our students -- get their history mostly from movies and television, we should be more understanding of the difficulties of using movies and television as means of doing history, and we should be pleased when a movie or television documentary gets the essentials right. Two other points occur to me in passing. First, we should do everything we can to ensure that television documentaries and movies are not the endpoint of most people's exposure to history, but rather spurs to curiosity and further inquiry -- yes, by reading books. Second, we should pay closer attention to the efforts of moviemakers, whether for Hollywood or independent movie efforts or television series or PBS documentaryes, to draw on the past. In this connection, I note Mark C. Carnes's excellent anthology of essays, PAST IMPERFECT: HISTORY AT THE MOVIES (Holt, 1993). Maybe in a future edition Professor Jones will treat the Amistad case and AMISTAD. In conclusion, these controversies over AMISTAD and the Amistad case affect our standing as legal and constitutional historians, specifically, as intermediaries between the public, on the one hand, and history (as raw material and as scholarship) on the other hand. I welcome Professor Jones's willingness to take part in these discussions.

Richard B. Bernstein
Adjunct Professor
New York Law School
Daniel M. Lyons Visiting Professor in American History
Brooklyn College/CUNY (1997-1998)
Assistant Book Review Editor for Constitutional History, H-LAW


From: IN%"" "Ralph Austen" 19-DEC-1997 13:14:15.45

If any of you saw the A&E; Biography program on Cinque (made with the support of Dreamworks but with Jones as the main and apparently controlling advisor cum commentator) you could hear him say this. plus describing the last year in the life of Cinque (or at least of a man who came to the American Sierra Leone mission and called himself Cinque). This tv production is probably a better teaching device than the Spielberg film (for one thing, it is a lot shorter) but clearly the Hollywood production is the key catalyst, in more ways than one.

Ralph A. Austen
Professor of African History
Chair, Committee on International Relations
University of Chicago
5828 S, University
Chicago IL 60637
Phone: 773-702-8344
Fax: 773-702-2587


From: IN%"" 29-DEC-1997 12:49:34.48


Can't argue with much of what you say, but I wonder why of all the leading characters---Cinque, Tappan, Adams, Baldwin, Van Buren, Judson, et al.---the free black, who we all know is Pennington, is the only one not identified by name? Odd that!

Richard Blackett


From: IN%"" "howard jones" 29-DEC-1997 18:08:34.96

Thanks for your response. I am baffled, like you, that Spielberg did not use Pennington, black minister from Hartford and leading abolitionist. So many problems could have been avoided. Of course, I had no input in the script. On that note, I also wonder why Spielberg created Judge Coglin to hand down the same decision that, in reality, came down from Judge Andrew Judson. Perhaps to throw more negatives on MVB and his cronies--who not only were prepared to prevent the captives' appeal, but also handpicked a judge to hand down an expected favorable decision. What drama could have resulted from simply using Judson, a white supremacist who also was an ambitious judge caught in a political mess! Oh well, we historians are used to being ignored, aren't we?

Howard Jones


From: IN%"" "Robert P. Forbes" 30-DEC-1997 09:48:32.99

Howard Jones writes:

Judson was as close to a hand-picked judge as one could find, I should think, having been involved in the Van Buren campaign. It also seems very likely (although I haven't seen the documents to demonstrate this) that the Jackson White House was kept well informed regarding Judson's involvement in the Prudence Crandall matter--and that his appointment to the bench would have in part been designed to reinforce the administration's anti-black bona fides, largely for Van Buren's benefit.

Robert P. Forbes
Visiting Assistant Professor
Department of History
Wesleyan University
Middletown, CT 06459


From: IN%"" "Clayton Cramer" 31-DEC-1997 11:31:46.83

For those who are tracking complaints about the accuracy of _Amistad_, The 12/31/97 Wall Street has two letters on the subject. One from Harold Brackman defends Adams from charges of cynicism about the slave trade issue, and the other, by Thomas R. Gildersleeve, attacks _Amistad_ and its portrayal of the slaves in chains, "In fact, the Africans, from the first, were kept under minimum restraint. Only Cinque, because he had tried to escape, was initially in chains, but his chains too were soon removed."

Glidersleeve also complains about the portrayal of Van Buren appointing a special judge for the circuit court trial, when according to Gildersleeve, the circuit court trial "was just an exercise in which the district court decision was affirmed so that the case could be rapidly appealed to the Supreme Court."

Not having seen the movie, or having read much about the Amistad case, I have no way of knowing if either of these "corrections" are correct.


From: IN%"" 31-DEC-1997 16:10:39.52

From reading Jones, I agree with number 2. Since we will all be faced with queries about the accuracy of this film, it would be helpful to have a list of major inaccuracies e.g. (I assume) the whole "ancestor" bit in Adams' speech, based on an honestly iamgined (because real but undocumented) conversation between him and Cinque.


Co-moderator's note: Adams's closing statement before the Supreme Court was not wholly different in spirit from that presented in the film. After announcing that 37 years had passed since he first had his name entered before the court, he made these concluding remarks to the justices:

Ralph A. Austen
Committee on African and African-American Studies
University of Chicago
5828 S. University
Chicago IL 60637


From: IN%"" "Ralph Austen" 1-JAN-1998 12:36:58.53

Thanks, this note is very helpful. However, I would submit that the spirit is quite different from the idea in the film. In the latter, Cinque is supposed to have inspired Adams by his AFRICAN view of ancestors as spirits whose responsibility is to look after the living, who in turn perpetuate their spiritual existence through various rituals. Adams is, instead, evoking the example of his predecessors (but note, not his own father); in African terms, this would be like a praise singer (usually not the descendent himself) who evokes great ancestors to inspire and/or criticize the actions of the living.

Ralph A. Austen
Professor of African History
Chair, Committee on International Relations
University of Chicago
5828 S, University
Chicago IL 60637
Phone: 773-702-8344
Fax: 773-702-2587


From: IN%"" 1-JAN-1998 12:28:22.13

The Wall Street Journal has printed a number of articles and letters regarding the Amistad case. Two of the letters attack and defend John Quincy Adams.

The first letter, by Peter Riga, argues that when Adams "could have put his whole being and future on the line by defending the personhood of slaves, he did not." In 1820, when the Antelope with 281 slaves was captured by the cutter Dallas, Adams was serving as Monroe's Secretary of State. "In his diary," Riga writes, "Adams says that someone should step up and defend these slaves as persons." But he failed to do so because he wanted to become president.

The second letter, by Harold Brackman, argues that Riga is misleading about Adams's pre-Amistad views on the slave trade. Brackman notes that Adams was one of the American commissioners who negotiated the Treaty of Ghent, ending the War of 1812, which committed the United States and Britain "to use their best endeavors" to end the Atlantic slave trade. Brackman notes, however, that as secretary of state and as president, Adams "consistently opposed any treaty that would condone the British search of American vessels," including slavers flying under the American flag, as a violation of the principle of freedom of the seas. When asked in 1824 by the British minister to Washington if he could think of a greater evil than the slave trade, "he replied yes, because to grant the right of search would 'make slaves of ourselves.'"

Brackman goes on to argue that "whatever their moral equivalency, there was a critical difference in international law between the Antelope seizure of 1820, involving a Spanish flag vessel at a time when Spain still sanctioned the slave trade, and the Amistad case of 1839 involving a rebellion on what, legally, was a pirate ship." Brackman concludes that while Adams "is vulnerable to the charge (made by his most recent biographer, Paul Nagel) of not being fervently anti-slavery enough--even at the time of the Amistad he criticized the Garrisonian abolitionists for endangering the Union"--he was not a hypocrite.

Happy New Year!


Bob Huddleston
Metro Brokers Adco Associates
Office: (303) 457-9300
Toll Free: (888) 451-6376


From: IN%"" 1-JAN-1998 12:28:21.14

In response to Hugh Thomas's December 16 review of the Spielberg film the Wall Street Journal printed a critical letter by Thomas R. Gildersleeve.

In his letter, Gildersleeve charges that "many details in the movie are either distortions or outright fiction." His letter points to two. First, he claims that the African captives "from the first, were kept under minimum restraint. Only Cinque, because he had tried to escape, was initially in chains, but his chains too were soon removed." He says that the rebels "exercised on the green across the street from the New Haven jail, where they were housed. There they put on athletic exhibitions, and people passing the green would toss them coins. The Africans used the money to buy rum in the saloon that was the entrance to the jail and that was run by the jailer."

Second, Gildersleeve criticizes the film's portrayal of President Van Buren appointing a special judge for the circuit court trial. "The only trouble with this sequence," Gildersleeve writes, "is that none of it ever happened." "The critical trial was conducted at the district court level. The circuit court hearing was just an exercise in which the district court decision was affirmed so that the case could be rapidly appealed to the Supreme Court.


Bob Huddleston
Metro Brokers Adco Associates
Office: (303) 457-9300
Toll Free: (888) 451-6376


The following messags are cross-posted from H-SHEAR, which is moderated by Peter Knupfer (

From: "Robert P. Forbes" (

Saw AMISTAD this weekend, and, at the risk of boring the list by revisiting a worn-out topic, I feel the need to throw in my two cents. I have two reactions, one historical and one aesthetic. Historically, I found the film exceptionally disappointing. Picking at particular historical inaccuracies is, it seems to me, beside the point; while no doubt the majority of filmgoers will take it as history, I have no sense that the filmmakers intended it as such. The film bears the same resemblance to the actual historical events that many of these recent souped-up versions of Jane Austen or Henry James films do to the books they are based on. That's to be expected, I guess, although as several list members commented, it's a pity, because the real story is at least as interesting, even from a Hollywood perspective, as the version they came up with. (The exception is Anthony Hopkins' uncannily convincing John Quincy Adams, who often seems to be acting in a different film altogether.)

Aesthetically, the case is a good deal more interesting. AMISTAD is an intensely visual film, but it is using a visual language I have never seen used in a movie before. It took me a while to put my finger on it, but once I did it seemed unmistakeable: It calls to mind the bold, cartoonish style (politically as well as pictorially) of the great WPA murals that decorate post offices and other public buildings from the 1930s, portraying famous events from national and local history. There is (or was) in fact such a mural dedicated to the Amistad affair here in New Haven, I believe--I have often seen reproductions of it illustrating historical accounts of the event. At certain points--the row of faces of the Supreme Court justices staring stolidly ahead is a vivid example, or the line of comical black-clad, crucifix-wearing(!) evangelical abolitionists lining the path to the courthouse--the almost two-dimensional, muralesque quality of the film particularly jumped out at me. The storytelling has the same quality: two-dimensional, highly physical, evocative of a Popular Front-era celebration of the Founding Fathers in its conclusion.

The visual portrayals of Africans in the film I found exceptionally striking, and not a little disturbing. From its opening moments, AMISTAD is a Winthrop Jordan-esque discourse on blackness, ringing all the changes of white Americans' phobias, fantasies and fears. Nowhere is the hearkening back to the visual style of the '30s (if that's what's going on) stronger than when the camera focuses on black bodies. There are moments of luminous beauty, as when the starry sky above the Amistad is set off against the naked torso of a black man--a shot that could have been lifted from a book illustration woodblock by Rockwell Kent. On the other hand, the shocking image of a wild-eyed Cinque drawing the sword from the Spanish captain in a frenzy of uncontrollable rage and fear goes way over the top, in my opinion: it could have been lifted without a change from D. W. Griffith's _Birth of a Nation_ or from the cover of a lurid racist dime novel of the 1920s. Throughout the film, I found a powerful aethetic of racial essentialism which seemed, like the pictorial language and the cartoonish rendering of historical actors and events, deliberately to hearken back to the style of the early decades of the century. particularly troubling when it takes Africans as its subject. I'd be most interested if anyone else had a similar reaction.

Rob Forbes
Robert P. Forbes (
11 Colony Road New Haven, CT 06511


The following message is cross-posted from H-SHEAR, which is moderated by Peter Knupfer (

From: "Robert P. Forbes" (

I have an amendation on my post on the muralistic style of Spielberg's _Amistad._ My wife gave me a copy of last month's _Newsweek,_ which reproduces a portion of the murals I was thinking of--they are "Mutiny on the Amistad" (1939), by the African-American artist Hale Woodruff, located at Talladega College's Savery Library. I am more convinced than ever that these magnificent paintings were a major source of inspiration for Spielberg, especially since many specific details from the film--the shape of the machetes (which I have heard an over-meticulous historian object to), the sugar cane on the deck--appear in them. But there is an important change: Woodruff's mutineers wear expressions of controlled resignation and determination as they battle their captors, rather than the pop-eyed frenzy of Spielberg's version. Their bodies are a luminous pallete of orange, yellow and brown instead of a menacing, uniform black.

There seem to be many messages encoded in this film, some not so appealing. In his article in Newsweek, Jonathan Alter wrote, "Long described as America's original sin, slavery is also our shadow: dogging our steps forward, projecting in black against the sunlight of democratic ideals." Maybe it's time to stop regarding slavery, which has a history of more than 10,000 years, has been practiced by and performed by peoples of all colors all over the world, as "America's original sin." I'd like to offer my formulation: America didn't originate slavery, and Africans are not the original slaves. Through a complex set of historical circumstances, Africans became almost the exclusive source of slaves for Western slavery, and it became convenient and plausible to defend Western slavery by means of stigmatizing Africans as peculiarly fit for it. In fact, however, the combination of African blacks and the "sunlight of democratic ideals" proved fatal for slavery in the space of less than 200 years. This is, in my view, clearly an instance where the short chronological horizon of Americans results in a serious distortion of history.

Robert P. Forbes
Visiting Assistant Professor
Department of History
Wesleyan University
Middletown, CT 06459


I very much enjoyed reading Rob Forbes's comments on the film "Amistad." He raises an issue that we might wish to discuss on the list. In his message he argues that the film might inadvertently reinforce popular assumptions about the uniqueness of American slavery.

In his recent book The Making of New World Slavery, Robin Blackburn emphasizes the "radical newness" of New World slavery. One of his key themes is that in its scale, its racial basis, and the way it is integrated into the larger world economy, modern slavery differed fundamentally from earlier forms of slavery. This viewpoint differs profoundly from that advanced by other scholars including David Brion Davis and Orlando Patterson. One of the great challenges we face as teachers is conveying a sense of continuities and discontinuities in the history of slavery. Perhaps members of the list would be willing to share some of the ways that they deal in their classes with the similarities and differences between "modern" New World slavery and slavery in other times and places.

Steve Mintz


From: Steve Hoge (

WebBOOK Update: W.W. Norton, Publishers has added a research module on the Amistad Incident.

On the world wide web, students are guided through resource links grouped in 8 primary categories:

1. Background Information
2. Accounts of the Mutiny
3. Individuals
4. Legal Documents
5. 19th-century Media Sources and Popular Opinion
6. Slavery, For and Against
7. International Diplomacy and Treaties
8. 20th-century Scholarship and Controversy

This web investigation is freely accessible at:

Thank you,

Steve Hoge, Editor
Norton Electronic Media


From: Claire Kluskens (

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) announces the completion of microfilm publication M2012, Appellate Case File No. 2161, United States v. The Amistad, 40 U.S. 518 (15 Peters 518), Decided March 9, 1841, and Related Lower Court and Department of Justice Records. 1 roll. Contains material from Record Groups 21, 60, 206, 267. A descriptive pamphlet will be published, but is not yet available.

Also available is microfilm publication M1753, Records of the U.S. District and Circuit Courts for the District of Connecticut: Documents Relating to the Various Cases Involving the Spanish Schooner Amistad. 1 roll. Contains material from Record Group 21.

National Archives Microfilm Publications can be purchased for $34 per roll. Credit card orders are accepted. Call 1-800-234-8861.

Claire Prechtel-Kluskens
Archivist/Genealogy Specialist
Archives I User Services Branch (NWDTA)
National Archives, Washington, DC 20408


From: IN%"" "Martin Klein" 25-JAN-1998 15:56:24.36

Can I give you an Africanist's response to Amistad? Like many of you, I found it a powerful film, though even had I not been reading this list, I would have wary about Spielberg's rewriting of history. The scene that most bothered me was one where Roger Baldwin sets up his table in the prison and the Amistad slaves argue about whether he is on Mende land or Temne land or Sherbro land. I find that difficult to imagine. Ethnicity is not the rigid divide outside observers often take it to be. Sierra Leone has many rather small ethnic groups. They regularly interacted with each other. Ethnicity is situational, that is to say, people define themselves differently in different contexts (as we do). Anything is possible. It would have be easier to talk to a countryman, but the Amistad captives must have had a sense of being in it together. Ethnicity palys itself out in much more subtle ways than Spielberg suggests.

I am also curious about language. The scene where Cinque cries "Give me Free" is moving because none of the captives have spoken a word of English. But Sierra Leoneans are and probably were then often multilingual. I cannot imagine that in a strange land, they would not have picked up a good bit of English from their jailers, from their lawyers, from those who prayed for them.


The following message is cross-posted from H-SHEAR, which is moderated by Peter Knupfer (

From: Steven Deyle (
Subject: Re: _Amistad_ and Spanish bias

I am glad that Jacquelyn Miller brought up the point of the anti-Spanish bias of the film "Amistad." This was something which bothered me almost as much as all the historical inaccuracies of this work (see Sally Hadden's excellent review which was published earlier on this list). For a film that was promoted as exposing the darker aspects of the American past, this feel-good movie had almost nothing to do with the evils of American slavery--or any recognition that slavery was anything but a political problem in this country. Except for Van Buren and possibly Calhoun, none of the villains in this piece are American, they're Spanish, Portuguese, or Cuban. Moreover, the central focus is on the evils of the AFRICAN slave trade, and the horrors of the Middle Passage, something which was condemned even by most American slaveholders. No mention is made at all about the AMERICAN slave trade, nor the horrors of American slavery, nor the fact that American slaveholders fought for their property rights as voraciously as the Spaniards did in this film. Once again, Spielberg has made a film that is guaranteed to offend no one, especially potential ticket buyers in the South. And just as earlier slaveholders like Jefferson could blame the presence of slavery on the British, current American moviegoers can now rest assured that they have never had any problems in their past. In fact, our Supreme Court even did the right thing, despite all the efforts of those evil foreigners and their silly child queen.

Steven Deyle
Assistant Professor
Dept. of History
University of California
Davis, CA 95616

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