If the moniker of the slave ship Amistad brings to mind images of Anthony Hopkins, Djimon Hounsou, and Morgan Freeman you are likely not alone. The monumental success of Steven Spielberg’s cinematic depiction of this antebellum event swept the nation when it hit theaters in 1997. However, the event itself––the insurrection onboard the slaving vessel––made up only a small portion of the film and the tale Spielberg tells, which instead focuses on the courtroom drama. In fact, nearly all of the histories written about the Amistad focus solely on the triumphs of the American legal system, leaving the story of the true protagonists––the Africans––by the wayside. Marcus Rediker’s The Amistad Rebellion: An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom (Viking, 2012) corrects this historical oversight by peeling back the layers of the often told “top down” history to tell the story of the rebellion from the perspective of the African captives, the story from below.
Rediker artfully employs newly discovered evidence to piece together cultural backgrounds of the disparate group of African captives in order to tell the hitherto untold story of the African roots of the Amistad rebellion. His adroit ability as both author and historian make this retelling both engaging and deeply informative. Rediker illustrates how the Amistad Africans overcame innumerable obstacles by playing a leading role in their own legal victory, liberation and repatriation. The political, legal, and cultural implications of the Amistad rebellion, as Rediker reminds us, were vast. That fifty-three slaves had violently emancipated themselves was jarring enough to the antebellum slaveholders in the South, but lawful recognition of the rebels’ self-emancipation by the United States government was another matter entirely. This reality and its reverberations influenced the sectional crisis unfolding in the antebellum United States and altered the nature and discourse of abolitionism in the Atlantic world.