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Transcript of 'All we want is make us free'

In this free lecture Dr Benjamin Lawrance from the University of California, Davis talked about the voyage of Amistad's children through the worlds of the illegal slave trade.

Dr Benjamin Lawrence:Thank you very much for inviting me to speak today. I would particularly like to thank my friend Dr Dmitri van der Berselaar and also the director of the museum, Dr Richard Benjamin.

In Steven Spielberg's 1997 dramatization of the US Supreme Court trial of the African survivors of the Spanish-Cuban slave ship Amistad, Cinqué, in a trance-like state, stands, faces the judge, and chants "Give us, us free!" The demand is a powerful and persuasive testament to man's inhumanity to man and an unmistakable call to correct the injustice of enslavement. It is also a complete and utter fabrication. Not only was the adult Cinqué (a European rendering of the Mende name Singbe Pieh) imprisoned in New Haven, Connecticut, and thus not present in the Hartford court, but the utterance itself is an infantilising corruption of the penultimate line of a letter to former President John Quincy Adams by Ka-le, one of four child survivors from the Amistad. [1]

Attributing a real child’s words to a fabricated adult protagonist is a variation of a classic cinematographic technique, but it doubly silences the historical subjects. [2]  First, Cinqué is reduced to a child-like caricature. But a second, and I would venture more deleterious, historical erasing unfolds in this scene: silencing the voices of the five child captives aboard the Amistad, and of Ka-le in particular. An unknown number of ‘slave’ children were aboard the vessel Tecora on which the eventual La Amistad captives had purportedly sailed from Sierra Leone in 1838-39. [3]  After arriving in Cuba, where many of the group were sold, those remaining were put on board a coastal schooner, the Amistad, which then made for another port on the island. Among them were at least five children; and the ship’s crew included at least one more child. The status of the child captives featured prominently in the court arguments that followed the eventual seizure and landing of the vessel in the United States. Among other matters, there were separate habeas corpus hearings for the three girls involved, and a separate ruling regarding ownership of the ship’s cabin ‘boy’, Antonio. The four surviving African children, claimed as property by Pedro Montes, owner of the slaves aboard the Amistad, were among those eventually returned to West Africa aboard the Gentleman in the fall of 1841. One of these, a girl called Mar-gru, subsequently returned to the US and attended Oberlin College. [4]

Despite this double silencing, the film underscores how adult slaves in the Americas were often viewed socially and culturally as children. [5]  Discourses infantilising Africans were deployed by abolitionists and proponents of African colonisation, active at the time, to garner support among liberal white northerners, and became increasingly widespread as the slave trade was phased out in stages. [6]  But what happens to our understanding of slaving and slaves in this context of illegality when the focus is returned to the children enslaved? How did the social, cultural and legal status of children who became slaves in the Western hemisphere shift between their moments of initial enslavement, via sale, relocations, and resales?

Today’s talk traces the lives of the children associated with the Amistad as they proceeded across the Atlantic to elaborate the processes of enslavement as they pertained to children, the legal regimes to which these children were subject as they moved from Africa to America and back. My hope is that this story will stimulate others to reexamine evidence of the enslavement of other children, particularly in the nineteenth century, in order to better understand how and under what conditions children were enslaved.

I am attempting to ‘make free’ the stories of the children of the Amistad by bringing to light lives that have been relatively ignored by historians. Like the adult males, the children of the Amistad had no legal standing in the United States to bring suit in its courts of law or to seek international diplomatic representation. But the youth of the children largely determined the outcome of the case because “it was impossible for the children to have been native Africans enslaved before 1820,” that is enslaved legally under the terms of the US laws and treaties in effect in 1839. [7]  As these youthful captives from the Amistad were indeed children, social and cultural infantilising discourse was redundant. Instead these children capitalised on the protection that their status as children enabled them to claim, regardless of their standing as slaves, and actively participated in winning their own freedom. Ka-le in effect translated the shelter of their families in Africa to safeguards of citizens under the federal government in the United States.

The lives of the Amistad children are emblematic of the often overlooked but “dramatic increase in the proportion of children” in the mostly “illegal” slave trade in the nineteenth century. [8]  Over the course of several decades in the nineteenth century, until the termination of the trans-Atlantic trade in the 1860s, the percentages of children among slave cargoes increased, by some estimates, from twenty-two to over forty percent. [9] The complexity of the slave identity of children is particularly visible in the context of the illegal trade, because slavers consciously tried to circumvent accepted practices of enslavement and of emerging international law. At a number of stages in the legal process, aspects of their lives, such as their ages and cultural backgrounds, were deployed to strengthen the case that they were born and raised free in West Africa.

Furthermore, a careful examination of the evidence suggests the intriguing possibility that their youth and dependency were largely responsible for why they had become ‘slaves’ in the first place in Africa. A focus on the lives of the Amistad children will demonstrate how the multiple cultural, social and legal worlds through which the children moved proved central to the outcome of the case.

The very singular testimonies of Ka-le and his girl companions, parts of which were recorded by Yale Divinity Professor Josiah Willard Gibbs, form the basis for these discussions. [10]  Other individuals, including as Antonio, the ship’s ‘boy’, and James Covey, the Mendi interpreter during the trial, experienced similar processes of enslavement in Africa as children. [11]

Conceptualizing the child slave in the context of the illegal slave trade

I would now like to explore the context in which children are enslaved in Africa and the illegal transatlantic trade in children. Illegal transatlantic slaving operated in the context of multiple, sometimes overlapping legal regimes. The children in the Amistad case passed through at least six separate moments of illegality and eleven separate legal jurisdictions. The ‘illegal’ North Atlantic slave trade operated under steadily tightening legal constraints over the course of several decades between 1792 and 1867. British flagged ships were banned from transporting slaves in 1807, and American vessels in 1808. From about the same period the British used Sierra Leone, and its port of Freetown, as a base and command center for its anti-slaving naval patrol. The Portuguese trade was banned in the North Atlantic in 1815, but exemptions existed for the slave ships of France and Spain. By 1838-39, when the Tecora purportedly sailed from an illicit harbor on the Sierra Leone coast, however, trade in the North Atlantic was completely banned to all parties.

The victims aboard the Amistad transgressed the expanding illegality of slavery at six crucial points. The zone on the African mainland whence the captives came was off limits to slave trading because it was the hinterland to the British-protected and thereby free territory of Sierra Leone; the North Atlantic passage itself was illegal under the international treaties in force, as was the sale of Africans in New World Spain (Cuba); and the subsequent smuggling of those same Africans from one Cuban city, Havana, along the coast to another, Guanaja, aboard the Amistad was also banned. Finally, when Ka-le and the men were imprisoned, and three girls were placed under the guardianship of the New Haven jailor Colonel Stanton Pendleton, they were registered as Pendleton’s slaves, in violation of a Connecticut law that had ended slavery in the state as of 1784, as well as of Federal law that deemed children to be “incapable of the crime of murder or piracy.” [12]  Ultimately the Supreme Court determined that the Amistad ‘cargo’ comprised people enslaved illegally, who were thereby to be restored their freedom. The primary adjudicating document with respect to the survivors of the Tecora aboard the Amistad was a 1795 treaty between the United States and Spain pertaining to the treatment of parties, vessels and cargo. [13]

The Amistad children voyaged through and became subject to at least eleven legal and quasi-legal jurisdictions, some overlapping, during their passages to and from the United States. At each step their statuses changed, and their civic personhood and access to social protections shifted. They had begun their lives in the familial legal systems of Mendiland (modern-day Sierra Leone). Depending on their respective paths to enslavement, they were bonded or pawned, or kidnapped and sold, subject to local African systems of either pawnship or abduction and ransom. Subsequently, they were imprisoned in the Dunbomo slave pens on Lomboko Island on the coast of Sierra Leone, where they experienced their first European-style incarceration. As the Lomboko Island slave fort may have been operated by Portuguese (or Brazilian) and/or Spanish slavers, they became subject to Portuguese Republican (or Brazilian imperial) and/or Spanish monarchical law, which prioritized, among other things, general commercial laws of property and recognised judges’ authority to dispense royal privileges to particular slave traders. Upon sale to a maritime slaver, the child became subject to the almost absolute authority of the ship’s captain within the wider realm of international maritime law, including the treaty obligations of the monarchical power whose flag the captain flew. Upon arrival in Cuba they became subject to the Spanish monarchical law prevailing in the colony, which guaranteed property rights conveyed through resale. Upon boarding the Amistad in Havana harbor they remained under Spanish law but were again subject to maritime law once the slave mutiny diverted the schooner beyond Cuban waters.

Once the captives on the Amistad mutinied, and upon seizure in US coastal waters, the survivors became subject to international and US interpretations of maritime laws of seizure and salvage. Upon being landed in New Haven they also became subject to Connecticut law under the exclusions of the US Constitution, and specified US federal law; depending on their (as-yet-undetermined) standing as African persons or Spanish property, they were also subject to international agreements signed by the US with Spain. In 1839 US federal law was still fairly undefined, and the Supreme Court ruling specifically focused on the interstices between the international law of nations and specific treaty obligations between the Spanish monarchy and the government of the United States. As the children returned to Sierra Leone they fell subject once again to maritime law, and then to British colonial authority in the Colony of Freedom, in modern Sierra Leone, and the informal western Christian jurisdiction that enveloped missionary compounds such that as run by the Christian Missionary Society there. Optionally, they also regained access to the complex iterations of customary law operating in Mendiland.

Of the total of six children - the five child captives and the ship’s ‘boy’ - aboard the Amistad on August 26, 1839, when it was captured off Long Island by the USS Washington commanded by Lieutenant Thomas R Gedney, one died shortly after being taken ashore in New Haven. It is possible that the children among the Amistad survivors were aware of the multiple illegalities of their unfolding circumstances. Mar-gru, one of three girls, later reported that they had initially been sent off from Africa aboard a ship that had been chased by the British naval patrol. Running the gauntlet of Britain’s anti-slaving West Africa Squadron was part and parcel of the illegal traffic in the North Atlantic Ocean. [14] That vessel returned to Lomboko Island, where it was hastily emptied of its human cargo before the empty hull was seized by the British. [15] The slaves subsequently boarded the Teçora, which was the ship on which they eventually arrived in Cuba.[16]

Child slave identities, African enslavement practices and the illegal slave trade

I now turn to the types of enslavement experienced by African children. The Amistad children had been enslaved by one of two mechanisms - pawnship, and violent abduction in the context of conflict, of which a number of variations existed. The first mechanism, evident in the histories of two of the Amistad children, involved parents or guardians intentionally releasing children from their control as collateral for a family obligation, often a commercial one, and accounted for two of the captive children. The second mechanism, which accounted for the other two children, amounted essentially to targeted kidnapping made possible in a violent and/or lawless environment. Ka-le seemed to associate himself with this second group in a letter to President John Quincy Adams. [17]

Professor Gibbs described the circumstances of the four in the following manner:

(33.) Ka-li, (bone,) 4 ft. 3 in. a small boy, with a large head, flat and broad nose, stout built. He says his parents are living; has a sister and brother; was stolen when in the street, and was about a month in traveling to Lomboko.
(34.) Te-me, (frog,) 4ft. 3 in. a young girl, says she lived with her mother, with an elder brother, and sister; her father was dead. A party of men in the night broke into her mother’s house, and made them prisoners; she never saw her mother or brother afterwards, and was a long time in traveling to Lomboko.
(35.) Ka-gne, (country,) 4ft. 3in. a young girl. She counts in Mendi like Kwong, she also counts in Fai or Gallina, imperfectly. She says her parents are living, and she has four brothers and four sisters; she was put in pawn for a debt by her father which not being paid, she was sold into slavery, and was many days in going to Lomboko.
(36.) Mar-gru, (black snake,) 4 ft. 3 in. a young girl, with a large high forehead; her parents were living; she had four sisters and two brothers; she was pawned by her father for a debt, which being unpaid, she was sold into slavery. [18]

The three girls among the Amistad survivors were described in the New London Gazette as “from eight to thirteen years of age, the very image of health and gladness.” [19]

Although children seem to have been enslaved by many of the same tactics as captured adults, pawnship was exceptionally prevalent for them. Pawning operated as a “crucial as a way of securing credit” in slave-vending communities and was a primarily means for enslaving children.[20] Historians Paul Lovejoy and David Richardson have explained that,

"The use of human pawns to secure goods advanced against the delivery of slaves represented... an extension of local credit arrangements to British ship captains enabling them to enforce repayment of debts in compliance with customary law... Moreover, as pawns were subject to possible transport and sale in the Americas should they be unredeemed, ship captains were sometimes faced with making judgments about whether or not to sail with pawns instead of waiting for slaves to be delivered." [21]

Indeed the very mechanics of the slave trade rested upon securities afforded by pawns.

Usually only wives and children in West African society were subject to the potentially perilous transactions associated with offering family members as security for a debt. [22] In the 1780s the prevalence of children among the pawned as a source of slaves was observed in the Sierra Leone River thus,

"Another method which they make use of to dispose of their slaves is, to put them in pawn either to shops and factories, or the native traders, for a limited time; and if they are not redeemed at the expiration of that time, they become slaves to the person to whom they were pawned... It is customary, indeed, for people of all ranks to put their children out as pledges, but then they are careful either to redeem them in time or to pawn them to the resident traders or established factories; and these pawns are generally considered as a protection for your property... but are equally as liable to be sent off, if not redeemed in due time, as the pawned slave." [23]

Another story from 1806 from the same area painted an only slightly less pessimistic picture of the fates of children pawned.

"If a king or any other person goes to a factory, or a slave ship, and procures articles which he is not at that time able to pay for, he sends his wife, sister, or child, as a pawn, putting a tally round their necks; the child then runs among the slaves until exchanged; and it is an invariable custom never to take these pawns away... At Tasso Island, I saw a great number of pawns with their tallies." [24]

Pawning continued unabated after the Amistad survivors returned to Sierra Leone. There are numerous examples in the hinterland of Sierra Leone from the 1850s onward and well into the early twentieth century.[25] The general circumstances thus confirm the plausibility of Ka-gne’s and Mar-gru’s recollections.

The two pawned girls came from large families. Girls were bonded or pawned in the context of famine and rural distress, although they featured less prominently in slave cargoes, presumably because their acquirers in Africa valued their potential as bearers of children for them and did not sell them to Europeans. Kag-ne’s parents were still living and had eight other children - four girls and four boys. Both of Mar-gru’s parents were also alive, and she had six siblings, among them four sisters. If their parents may not have regarded Kag-ne and Mar-gru as expendable, it is surely not inconsequential that the two slaves who began their journey into slavery as debt-pawns were also from the two largest families. These circumstances point to abandonment of children as responses to drought and poverty in the late-eighteenth-century, particularly from western central Africa. [26] Famine and other hardships, meant that

“[n]ot only would these parents be putting newly enslaved children into a circumstance that guaranteed them food and shelter, but the money obtained from the sale of their children also enabled the purchase of provisions for the rest of the family.” [27]

The second path to child slavery in West Africa - violent abduction in contexts of conflict - included capture in general wars and targeted kidnapping. [28] Though whole families may have been enslaved together in the violence widespread in much of West Africa, it was probably rare for them to remain together throughout the entire process of enslavement, Middle Passage, and resale in the Americas. [29] Ka-le was “stolen when in the street,” perhaps because his community was experiencing raiding characteristic of that engulfing West Africa during the slave trade.

All but one of fourteen known slave autobiographers mentioning their capture in Africa left there as children. [30]

Belinda, captured as a child and taken to Massachusetts, for example, only says that she was kidnapped ‘before she had twelve years’ by ‘men, whose faces were like the moon, and whose bows and arrows were like the thunder and lightening of clouds’; John Joseph, kidnapped at around the age of three, briefly mentions that his father was engaged in a ‘deadly war’, and during ‘an unsuccessful encounter with the enemy... a great many of our tribe [were] taken prisoners’. James Bradley was ‘between two and three years old when the souldestroyers tore me from my mother’s arms’, and all that Omar Said, a Muslim from present-day Senegal, relates is that he was captured ‘by a large army’ and brought ‘to the great sea, and sold... into the hands of the Christians, who bound me and sent me on board a great ship’... Abraham, originally from the ‘Mandingo nation’, briefly relates how he was captured in warfare, ‘and then sent back to his father with mutilated ears’. His father was so angered that he ‘stirred the inhabitants of the community’ to another war ‘to get his revenge’; during this second war, Abraham was captured again and enslaved.

Among the children whose lives we can follow, Ottobah Cugoano, Archibald Montieth, and Sibell, were “duplicitously enslaved when they were children, having been innocently enticed to accompany someone they or their parents trusted.” [31] Te-me’s story, one of three girls on the Amistad, was thus surely a commonplace experience of children’s enslavement. In a parallel to Sibell, Gibbs described how, “a party of men in the night broke into her mother’s house, and made them prisoners; she never saw her mother or brother afterwards.” [32]

The most famous targeted kidnapped child was surely Olaudah Equiano, who was carried away with his sister by men he did not know who broke into his family compound.[33] Slave raids specifically for the purpose of kidnapping children, however, seem not to have been particularly common. The increasing representation of females and children from certain areas near the coast directly correlated to the fact that “there were [also now] more females and children in the local slave population and hence more were available in local slave markets.”[34] Regardless of the ultimate goal of slavers (ranging from resale of boys to retention of girls as highly prized goods), children were particularly vulnerable to enslavement in active slave raids.[35]

The experiences of the children, regardless of their paths to enslavement, converged significantly as they moved toward the coast. Each of the four children was purchased illegally by a slave merchant on the island of Lomboko, off the coast of Sierra Leone. In the European legal context of the slave trade, what constituted a ‘child’ among the captives boarded in West Africa was constantly in flux and often the subject of complex negotiations revolving around lesser - and therefore cheaper - requirements for provisions and ‘crowding’ for children. [36]Another key factor in how many people in a cargo were listed on a ship’s manifest as children was the fact that tax regimens often assessed children at half the rate of adults. [37] Slavers thus had a financial interest in counting every possible younger individual as a ‘child’. Among slave purchasers on either side of the Atlantic the most constant determinant of classification as a child was height. At least among British slavers, an individual standing less than four feet, four inches, was a child.[38] Perhaps because toddlers between the ages of two and five are highly unmanageable, prone to illness, and a greater burden than unweaned infants or children of six years and above, very few of this age group appear in the records. [39]

The descriptions of Professor Gibbs enumerated the four children (after the adult males), as numbers 33, 34, 35 and 36, and listed Ka-le, Te-me, Ka-gne and Mar-gru all as four feet, three inches tall; precisely one inch below the British standard defining an adult.[40] The children’s Mende names were translated into English as ‘bone’, ‘frog’, ‘country’, and ‘black snake’ respectively. In one instance, that of Ka-gne, he noted knowledge of two languages. In two instances, those of Ka-le and Mar-gru, he gives sketchy descriptions of their faces. Because the basis for the Amistad victims’ freedom suit rested on proving their African origins, his most extensive descriptions pertain to the family compounds from which they were taken and the modes by which they came to be enslaved.

Age and proof of standing in the Amistad trial

While it is quite possible that, like many adults, some former child pawns aboard ships remained unclear about their status in transit, upon arrival in the Western hemisphere any pretence that ships’ captains operated as guardians of the welfare of a child pawn quickly evaporated. All former child pawns became slaves, if not when sold to a ship’s captain and during the Middle Passage, then most certainly upon disembarkation and sale in the Americas before the growing illegality of the trade after 1807.

Their shift in legal standing might be framed as from parental nurturing/training (crudely in the child’s interest) for the future of the family to ‘owning’, with minimal responsibility for fungible physical survival. The frequency of this shift in the eighteenth century British trade, generally, though not specifically with regard to children, is made particularly clear by Lovejoy and Richardson in their discussion of one trader.

Richard Rogers observed, when he could ‘Gett my Debts in Such Cytuation’ as he desired, he would give the dealers just two days to clear any outstanding debts, and ‘Should they not pay in that time,’ he would then ‘Borrow their pawns to sell in the West in die.’ The idea that one might ‘borrow’ pawns is in itself intriguing since it implies that, even after being shipped from the coast, pawns might still be redeemed, at least in theory. Be this as it may, these examples confirm contemporary suggestions that British merchants normally regarded pawns as enslaveable by sale in the Americas ‘if their friends refuse, or are not able to redeem them’. [41]

This explanation underscores the extent to which, once in the West, any notion of guardianship ceased. But what Lovejoy and Richardson seem to ignore is that foreclosure/seizure of a pawn in satisfaction of a debt incurred in material (or currency) was the primary method whereby pawns were converted from persons (meriting respect and, in the case of children, protection) to disposable objects.

While the legal resolution of the Amistad trial pertaining to the majority of adult males also determined the status of the children on the periphery of the case, it was the young Africans’ status as children that established the qualification of the entire group for release and return to Africa. In Barber’s account of the initial court proceedings in New Haven Judge Sedgwick wrestled with what was known and not known about the origins of the slaves as a matter relevant to international and maritime law. The children’s status was fundamental, because existing diplomatic agreements required that they had to have been enslaved in Africa prior to 1820 for them to be held legitimately in America as slaves. While it would have been difficult to assess the dates of capture for adults, all of whom were old enough in 1841 to have been seized in Africa before 1820, it was beyond doubt that children of five to eight years of age could meet this crucial criterion.

As the advocates of the victims insisted that the survivors constituted a single group that had remained together since Lomboko Island, and indeed the personal stories recorded by Professor Gibbs supported this premise, the children’s youth anchored the claim that the adults must also have been illegal enslaved. The Spaniards offered no opposition to the contention that the survivors were and had always been a single group of Africans.

Judge Sedgwick’s decision also rested partly on the quasi-legal tripartite division of ‘negroes’ in Cuba according to place of birth and consequent familiarity with Spanish language and culture.

“In Cuba, there are three classes of negroes, Creoles, those born within the Spanish dominions: Ladinos, those long domiciled on the island owing allegiance to Spain, and Bozals, the name given to those recently from Africa. The negroes in question are recently from Africa, imported into Cuba in violation of Spanish laws, and bought as slaves by Montez and Ruiz. The demand of the Spanish Minister is, that these Bozals shall be given up, that Montez and Ruiz may have them as their property. In order to justify this demand, and require our Government to give them up, according to our [1795] treaty with Spain, it is necessary that property and title should be proved. The whole evidence offered in support of this claim is a permit or license to transport 54 Ladinos, to Guanaja. But the Negroes are Bozals, not Ladinos. Here then, is the point upon which this great controversy must turn.” [42]

Because of the presence of four children among the survivors, Judge Sedgwick subsequently ruled that the persons seized aboard the Amistad could not plausibly be legally enslaved and that the two Spaniards had no proprietary rights in them. He concluded that,

“[A]s a matter of fact, that in the month of June 1839, the law of Spain, prohibited under severe penalties, the importation into Cuba of negroes from Africa. These negroes were imported in violation of that law, and by the same law of Spain, such negroes are declared free, and of course, are not the property of Spanish subjects." [43]

The four Africa-born children aboard the Amistad would have returned to Cuba as slaves only if the US government had recognized the proprietary claim over the adults. But the adults’ precise status was anchored by the presence of the children.

A child’s view of the legal issues

Like the adult males at the center of the case, the children strongly proclaimed their status as bozales, African-born, and imported illegally. Determined to underscore their standing in the United States rather than claims to them under Spanish law, Ka-le wrote to former President Adams,

“We want to tell you one thing. Jose Ruiz say we born in Havana, he tell you lie. We stay in Havana 10 days and 10 nights, we stay no more. We all born in Mendi – we no understand the Spanish language. Mendi people been in America 17 moons. We talk American language little, not very good; we write every day; we write plenty letters; we read most all time; we read all Matthew, and Mark, and Luke, and John, and plenty of little books. We love books very much.”

Ka-le’s emotional appeal to the President’s sense of their places of birth and subsequent removals was a careful enumeration of characteristics that underscored their Mendi identities as free-born, their nascent American legal subjectivity as acculturated immigrants, and Christian personal merit.

Ka-le’s appeals framed the case as a question of justice, and one that resonated with the goals of Christianity missionaries and the American rhetoric of colonisation. The following section of the letter responds to the racialised attacks to which they had been subjected,

“We want you to ask the Court what we have done wrong. What for Americans keep us in prison. Some people say Mendi people crazy; Mendi people dolt, because we no talk American language. Merica people no talk Mendi language; Merica people dolt? They tell bad things about Mendi people, and we no understand. Some men say Mendi people very happy because they laugh and plenty to eat. Mr Pendleton [the New Haven prison warden] say Mendi people angry; white men afraid of Mendi people. The Mendi people no look sorry again - that why we laugh. But Mendi people feel sorry; O, we can’t tell how sorry. Some people say, Mendi people got no souls. Why we feel bad, we got no souls? We want to be free very much.

With the directness of a child, interwoven with the resentment and humiliation of the proud adult males for whom he was acting as intermediary, Ka-le pled for rescue by the American judicial system in the name of their humanity. As thinking human beings, and with literate skills superior to those of many American citizens, Ka-le denied any basis for their imprisonment. And indeed Ka-le’s emotional appeal resonated with sympathetic portraits of the Amistad victims circulating in the popular press, including the etchings of William Townsend. [44]

The ‘soul’ claimed by Ka-le raises the spiritual aspect of the transformation of the identities of smuggled slaves. The last paragraph of his letter reads,

“We on shore and Americans tell us slave ship catch us. They say we make you free. If they make us free they tell true, if they no make us free they tell lie. If American people give us free we glad, if they no give us free we sorry - we sorry for Mendi people little, we sorry for America people great deal, because God punish liars. We want you to tell court that Mendi people no want to go back to Havana, we no want to be killed. Dear friend, we want you to know how we feel. Mendi people think, think, think. Nobody know what he think; teacher [as yet unidentified] he know, we tell him some. Mendi people have got souls. We think we know God punish us if we tell lie. We never tell lie; we speak truth. What for Mendi people afraid? Because they got souls."

Ka-le’s hope for rescue for himself and for his compatriots rested on his understanding that humans, whether Mendi or Americans, had souls and therefore deserved freedom. Although he expressed a desire to return home, he seems unaware that the decision to restore their freedom was based in significant part on his own apparent age.


Freedom for all of the Amistad captives was coupled with an order for their deportation. The four children’s social and legal identities changed again as they made the seven week return trip across the Atlantic to Sierra Leone in 1841. We know nothing of Ka-le after his pleas to ex-President Adams, but we can follow the life of his companion, Margru, from extensive correspondence she carried on with her sponsors from the American Missionary Association and some of her friends in Framingham, Massachusetts.

Mar-gru, baptized as Sarah Kinson, returned to Sierra Leone with a strong interest in Christianity and settled among the missionary community there. After several years in Freetown, she returned to the United States aboard the Oriental in 1846 and enrolled at Oberlin College as “perhaps the first African foreign student.” [45] Lewis Tappan, still in touch with the Amistad captives convinced her to reclaim her African name. On a lecture and fundraising tour for the American Missionary Society she was introduced as Sarah Margru Kinson. Sometime in 1849 Kag-ne, under the Christian name Charlotte, passed away from malaria in Sierra Leone. Sarah Margru returned to Sierra Leone later that same year and was reunited with her other surviving companion from the Amistad, Te-me, also a Christian and working in the small mission settlement of Kaw Mendi. In 1853 she miraculously reestablished contact with her father in Mendiland. She remained working for the missionaries as an interpreter until approximately 1855.

This material is copyrighted by Benjamin N Lawrance © 2009


The most accessible version of this letter is in Horatio Strother, The Underground Railroad in Connecticut (Middletown CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1962), 74-76. A single letter signed by Cinqué to one of the attorneys representing the case, Roger Sherman Baldwin, February 9, 1841, exists in the Yale University Library Manuscript Collection, (MSSA IMG 4241-42). A considerable mythology has enveloped the life and times of Cinqué. See, “Cinqué and the Historians: How a Story Takes Hold: A Round Table,” Journal of American History 87, 4 (2000): 923-50. Also, Arthur Abraham, “Sengbe Pieh: A Neglected Hero?” Journal of the Historical Society of Sierra Leone 2, 2 (1978): 22-30.

For discussion of the film see, Arthur Abraham, “Fact, Fiction, and the Making of Amistad,” Film and History CD-ROM Annual, 1999;
Eric Foner, “The Amistad Case in Fact and Fiction,” http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/74/ (March 1998) (Last retrieved July 4, 2008); Ronald F. Briley, “The Study Guide Amistad: A Lasting Legacy,” The History Teacher 31, 3 (1998): 390-94; “‘Amistad’: Facts & Fiction,” Workers World (22 January 1998). The main criticism of the film stems from its deployment of spurious ethnic formulations.

As Bob Harms points out, it is quite “unfortunate that the Africanness of the Amistad captives is shown largely through untranslated utterances and stereotyped inter-tribal conflict.” Robert Harms, “The Transatlantic Slave Trade in Cinema,” in Black and White in Colour: African History on Screen, Vivian Bickford-Smith and Richard Mendelsohn, eds. (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2007), 69. See also, A. Bresnick, “Telling Everyone’s Story: ‘Give Us, Us Free’: Amistad and the Hollywood Fantasy of Abolitionism,” Times Literary Supplement (20 February 1998), 18.

For the best theorization of how various parts of a film work to condense the whole film, see Thierry Kuntzel, “The Most Dangerous Game,” Camera Obscura 5 (1980). See also a French version of the same article, entitled, “Savoir, pouvoir, voir,” in Le Cinéma Americain, Raymond Bellour, ed. (Paris: Flammarion, 1980).

David Eltis, editor of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, has found no record of the Teçora, “there is no evidence of such a vessel from any other source at this time, nor are the circumstances consistent with the patterns of slave voyages from this part of the coast.”

Personal Email communication, June 26, 2008. I am currently researching the possibility that the ship was registered under another flag and known by a different name.

Ellen NicKenzie Lawson, “Children of the Amistad,” American Visions (Feb. 1989): 38-41; Ellen NicKenzie Lawson with Marlene
Merrill, The Three Sarahs: Documents of Antebellum Black College Women (New York: Mellen Press, 1984). See also Marlene D. Merrill, “Sarah Margru Kinson: The Two Worlds of an Amistad Captive.” Oberlin Historical Improvement Association, 2003. http://www.oberlin.edu/external/EOG/Kinson/Kinson.html (last retrieved July 4, 2008).

See Stanley Elkins, Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959), and his leading critic, John W. Blassingame, The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South (1972; rev. ed., New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), xi, 226.

See the chapter on colonization in Bruce Dorsey, Reforming Men and Women: Gender in the Antebellum City (Ithaca: Cornell
University Press, 2002). This discourse is particularly well reflected in literature on Liberia’s colonization. See, Abayomi Cassell, Liberia: History of the First African Republic (New York: Fountainhead Publishers, 1970); Archibald Alexander, A History of Colonization on the Western Coast of Africa (New York: Negro Universities Press. Original edition, 1846); Claude Andrew Clegg, The Price of Liberty: African Americans and the Making of Liberia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2004). Also, the American Colonization Society Annual Meeting Minutes contains information about their arguments for colonization in relation to abolitionist arguments against it. See, American Colonization Society, Annual Reports of the American Society for Colonizing the Free People of Colour of the United States, In Annual Report with the Minutes of the Annual Meeting and of the Board of Directors (New York: Negro Universities Press, [Original edition, 1818-1827] 1969).

Clifton Johnson, “The Amistad Case and Its Consequences in U.S. History,” Journal of the New Haven Colony Historical Society
(Spring 1990), 10. The precise language of the law can be found at US Revised Statutes §5377 (1916). Act March 4, 1909, c.321 §248, 35 Stat. 1139.

Paul Lovejoy, “The Children of Slavery – the Transatlantic Phase,” Slavery and Abolition 27, 2 (2006), 200.

See Paul Lovejoy, Transformations in Slavery, 65-66, 143; Patrick Manning, Slavery and African Life, 99. In the “declining years” the trans-Saharan trade was “focused almost exclusively on children.” Martin A. Klein, “Women and Slavery in the Western Sudan,” in Women and Slavery, Claire C. Robertson and Martin A. Klein, eds. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983), p. 76.

10 Among the Amistad captives in Professor Gibbs’ records were an adult called Ka-le and a boy child called Ka-li. In almost all subsequent correspondence, including the famous letter to President Adams and secondary material, the child signs himself and is referred to as Ka-le. “J. W. Gibbs, Professor of Theology and Sacred Literature at Yale Divinity School, took a great interest in the Amistad captives. He learned to count from one to ten in Mende and, armed with this new knowledge, proceeded to the New York docks, counting to every African sailor he met. His efforts paid dividends when, in early October, he found James Covey, a seaman on the British warship Buzzard, who could understand him.”

11 Deposition by James Covey, with additions by Samuel J. Hitchcock, October 4, 1839. Baldwin Family Papers, Yale University Manuscripts and Archives.

12 An examination of the 1840 census data for New Haven reveals a curious and sudden rise in the number of slaves “owned” by its citizenry indicating that the Amistad captives were listed as property of the New Haven jailor. United States of America, Bureau of the Census. Sixth Census of the United States, 1840. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1840. M704. For details of the Connecticut Law of 1784 see Johnson, “The Amistad Case,” 21. For the illegality of the imprisonment, see John Quincy Adams, Argument of John Quincy Adams, Before the Supreme Court of the United States: In the Case of the United States, Appellants, Vs. Cinque, and Others, Africans, Captured in the Schooner Amistad, by Lieut. Gedney, Delivered on the 24th of February and 1st of March, 1841: With a Review of the Case (S.W. Benedict, 1841), p.4.

13 Articles VI, VII, X, XV pertain to the treatment of vessels, parties and cargo aboard. Treaty of Friendship, Limits, and Navigation
Between Spain and The United States, October 27, 1795.

14 Chaim D. Kaufmann and Robert A. Pape, “Explaining Costly International Moral Action: Britain's Sixty-Year Campaign against the Atlantic Slave Trade,” International Organization 53, 4 (1999): 631-68.

15 Precise details of this claim are still unclear, although the HMS Lily, Commanded by John Reeve, of the 2nd Division of the West
African Station, boarded and seized vessels off the coast of Sierra Leone between 1837 and 1839.

16 Lawson, The Three Sarahs, 4. However, see the absence of any record of this vessel in the extensive data assembled in the Trans- Atlantic Slave Trade Database; fn 5. However, its invisibility in the official data is readily explicable.

17 Letter from Ka-Le to President John Quincy Adams.

18 Barber, History, 47. Very little is known of the one child or “youth”, Ka-pe-li, who died between the capture of the vessel and the trial. The description of the “captives” by Professor Gibbs concludes with a brief note about the six Africans who died in the United States after the ship was brought into harbor. All that is known about Ka-pe-li or Kaperi is that he was “Mendi” and died in jail in New Haven on October 30, 1839. His death was the fifth among the six deceased. His funeral was a solemn occasion attended by American clergymen, and the description of
the funeral ceremonies makes it clear that Mendi customs were followed. Barber, History, 60.

19 Reprinted in Barber, History, 36.

20 Paul Lovejoy and David Richardson, “Trust, Pawnship, and Atlantic History: The Institutional Foundations of the Old Calabar Slave Trade,” American Historical Review 104, 2 (1999): 335.

21 Lovejoy and Richardson, “Trust, Pawnship, and Atlantic History,” 335-36; Lovejoy and Richardson, “The Business of Slaving: Pawnship in West Africa, c. 1600-1810,” Journal of African History 42, 1 (2001): 67-89; Pawnship, Slavery, and Colonialism in Africa, Paul Lovejoy and Toyin Falola, eds. (Trenton NJ: Africa World Press, 2003).

22 See also E. J. Alagoa and A. M. Okorobia. “Pawnship in Nembe, Niger Delta,” in Falola and Lovejoy, eds., Pawnship in Africa, 74.
Also see Felix K. Ekechi, “Pawnship in Igbo Society,” in Pawnship in Africa, Falola and Lovejoy, eds., 83-104.

23 John Matthews, A Voyage to the River Sierra Leone on the Coast of Africa (London, 1788), 156, as cited by Allen M. Howard,
“Pawning in Coastal Northwest Sierra Leone, 1870-1910,” in Pawnship in Africa, Lovejoy and Falola, eds., 272.

24 F. B. Spilsbury, Account of a Voyage to the Western Coast of Africa (London, 1807), 40, cited by Howard, “Pawning,” in Pawnship in
Africa, Lovejoy and Falola, eds., 272. See also Lars Sundstrom, The Trade of Guinea (Upsala, no. 24 of Studia ethnographica
Upsaliensia, 1965), 36-45.

25 Howard, “Pawning,” in Pawnship in Africa, Falola and Lovejoy, eds., 273-78. Indeed Richard Roberts and Martin Klein note its return
in a neighboring region in the 1930s. See Martin Klein and Richard Roberts, “The Resurgence of Pawning in French West Africa During
the Depression Of The 1930s,” in Pawnship in Africa, Falola and Lovejoy, eds., 409-27.

26 Audra Diptee, “African Children in the British Slave Trade in the Late Eighteen Century,” Slavery and Abolition 27, 2 (2006), 187.

27 Diptee, “African Children,” 187.

28 For sale by family members, see, Charles Piot, “Of Slaves and the Gift: Kabre Sale of Kin during the Era of the Slave Trade,” Journal of African History 37, 1 (1996): 31-49; Joseph C. Miller, Way of Death: Merchant Capitalism and the Angolan Slave Trade, 1730–1830 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988), 380, 668; Joseph Miller, “The Significance of Drought, Disease, and Famine in the Agriculturally Marginal Zones of West-Central Africa,” Journal of African History 23, 1 (1982): 17-61. For enslavement of children as punishment for parents’ actions, see John Thornton, “Slave Trade and Family Structure,” in Robertson and Klein, eds., Women and Slavery, 41, 44.

29 For general information about separation and the middle passage, see Stephanie Smallwood, Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to the American Diaspora (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007).

30 Jerome S. Handler, “Survivors of the Middle Passage: Life Histories of Enslaved Africans in British America,” Slavery and Abolition, 23, 1 (2002), 32.

31 Handler, “Survivors”, 36.

32 Barber, History, 47.

33 Equiano’s early life in Africa has recently been questioned. See Vincent Carretta, “Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa? New Light on an Eighteenth-century Question of Identity,” Slavery and Abolition 20, 3 (1999): 96-105; Vincent Carretta, “Introduction” in The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings, edited with an introduction and notes by Vincent Carretta (New York: Penguin, 2003), pp. xxi; and Vincent Carretta, Equiano, the African: Biography of a Self Made Man (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2005). For the subsequent debate, see in particular Paul E. Lovejoy, “Autobiography and Memory: Gustavus Vassa, alias Olaudah Equiano, the African,” Slavery and Abolition 27, 3 (2006): 317-47; Vincent Carretta, “Response to Paul Lovejoy's ‘Autobiography and Memory: Gustavus Vassa, alias Olaudah Equiano, the African’,’’ Slavery and Abolition 28, 1 (2007): 115-19; Paul E. Lovejoy, “Issues of Motivation - Vassa/Equiano and Carretta's Critique of the Evidence,” Slavery and Abolition 28, 1 (2007): 121-25; Alexander X. Byrd, “Eboe, Country, Nation, and Gustavus Vassa’s Interesting Narrative,” William & Mary Quarterly 63, 1 (2006): 123-48; “Olaudah Equiano, The South Carolinian? A Forum ,” in Historically Speaking, 7, 3 (2006): 2-16; Douglas B. Chambers. “‘Almost an Englishman’: Carretta's Equiano - review of Vincent Carretta, Equiano the African: Biography of a Self-Made Man," H-Atlantic, H-Net Reviews, November, 2007. http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.cgi?path=53611200252153

34 Lovejoy, “Children of Slavery”, 198.

35 Miller, Way of Death, 380.

36 For discussion of this complexity see, Tara A. Inniss, “From Slavery to Freedom: Children’s Health in Barbados, 1823-1838,” Slavery and Abolition 27, 2 (2006), 252.

37 See Lovejoy, “Children of Slavery”, 199.

38 For Jamaica see Diptee, “African Children”, 185.

39 Lovejoy, “Children of Slavery,” 200; Miller, Way of Death, 346-47, 388, 412.

40 They may have been recorded at this height because children 4 foot, 4 inches and below were taxed at fifty percent of the adult rate. See Gwyn Campbell, Suzanne Miers, and Joseph Miller, “Children in European Systems of Slavery: Introduction,” Slavery and Abolition 27, 2 (2006), 165.

41 Lovejoy and Richardson, “Trust, Pawnship, and Atlantic History”, 353.

42 Barber, History, 55.

43 Barber, History, 55-56. This material is copyrighted by Benjamin N. Lawrance © 2009
To use or cite this information you may contact the author by email: BNL@UCDAVIS.EDU

44 “Little Kale,” by William H. Townsend (Image ID Number: 3728021), from “22 original pencil sketches of the Amistad captives,” Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

45 Lawson, The Three Sarahs, 13.