)From: Mumia <Mumia@aol.com>
La Amistad and American law
By Mumia Abu-Jamal, 1 January 1998
The film and publishing worlds are all abuzz over the controversy brewing around the Stephen Spielberg work, Amistad, and claims of plagiarism made by acclaimed writer, Ms. Chase-Ribauld. Not having seen it, however, the writer thinks it premature to offer an opinion at this time.
The story of the Spanish schooner La Amistad is a very real historical drama that provides some interesting insights into the struggle for freedom in an age of global white supremacy and unbridled capitalist greed that fed on Black misery and stolen labor.
In short, it is the story of how 49 captured and chained Africans, while being shipped from Havana, Cuba to Puerto Principe, escaped from their shackles, slew the crew of slave traffickers, including the captain, leaving alive two Spaniards (Ruiz and Montez) only on the condition that they navigate the vessel back east to Africa. Ruiz and Montez deceived the Africans, who were unfamiliar with navigation, by sailing east during the day, but west by night, thereby bringing the vessel into U.S. coastal waters. When the Africans went on shore for provisions they were met and seized by officers and crew of the U.S. Brig Washington. Once again, these Africans were shackled, this time by officers and representatives of the U.S. government. The schooner Amistad was seized for salvage, and Spanish diplomats filed a formal request for the return of their "pirated" property: the boat, its cargo, and 49 Africans, called "ladinoes" in their papers.
Most readers know that the Spanish diplomatic effort failed, and that the Africans prevailed in their suit for freedom, both in the Connecticut District Court and in the U.S. Supreme Court in 1841. Why? At the time of the decision, both America and the Spanish colony of Cuba were firmly held slave societies, each with millions of Africans in bondage. The case began less than 10 years after Nat Turner and his rebels rocked the nation with a slave revolt in Southhampton County, Virginia. Fifteen years after Amistad, this same court would rule in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) that people of the "Negro African race" were "regarded as beings...so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect."
How then, can one reconcile the seemingly liberating message of The U.S. v. The Libelants, etc., of the Schooner Amistad with the damning repression voiced in Dred Scott?
To read the actual opinion of the court offers us invaluable insights and answers this question. Justice Joseph Story, who wrote the opinion in the case, left little room for the popular illusion that the Amistad case was about slavery--it was really about international law:
"If these negroes were, at the time, lawfully held as slaves under the laws of Spain, and recognized by those laws as property capable of being lawfully bought and sold, we see no reason why they may not justly be deemed within the intent of the treaty to be included under the domination of merchandise, and, as such, ought to be restored to the claimants;..." ( Amistad, p.591)
Having secured counsel, "Cinque" (his real name, Singbe-pieh) and the other captives argued that they were unlawfully seized in Africa, unlawfully taken to Cuba, and, as free-born Africans, fully entitled to resist slavery. The lawfulness of the Slave Trade was a crucial issue to the court, but international law was the determinant:
"Nothing is more clear in the law of nations, as an established rule to regulate their rights and duties, and intercourse, than the doctrine that the ship's papers are but prima facie evidence, and that, if they are shown to be fraudulent, they are not to be held proof of any valid title." (p. 595)
The problem, Justice Story wrote, was that the ‘negroes’.. .‘had been transported from Africa, in violation of the laws of the United States...’ and the ‘law of Spain itself.’
That ‘Cinque’; (Singbe-pieh) and his fellow captives were finally freed from their American captivity by a court composed primarily of slave owners was a remarkable, and unprecedented, achievement. We are rightly and justly inspired by their passionate struggle for freedom from Spanish and U.S. shackles, and their victory.
For Africans born in the U.S., however, it brought them no closer to freedom.
Unlike the captives of the Amistad, international law did not apply to their wretched condition, and for them, as well as those shackled Black millions in Cuba, there was little to celebrate with this decision.