Making Their Own Freedom

By Robert Caldwell

From Against the Current 168, January-February 2014

The Amistad Rebellion
An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom
By Marcus Rediker
New York: Viking/Penguin, 2012, 288 pages,
$27.95 hardback, $17 paper.

MARCUS REDIKER’S THE Amistad Rebellion embarks from Stephen Spielberg’s 1997 film “The Amistad,” a subject with which most readers will be familiar. But Rediker’s Amistad is not centered on the 1841 Supreme Court case, or the white elites on either side of the courtroom barrage.

Retelling the story from a bottom-up perspective, and re-centering it on the actions of the African protagonists at both sea and land on both sides of the Atlantic, Rediker draws readers into a closer look at the passengers’ African origins, their shipboard rebellion and ultimate resolve to chart their own course for freedom.

This follows Rediker’s many excellent books on the role of the dispossessed in the making of the modern world, including The Many Headed Hydra (with Peter Linebagh) and more recently Villains of All Nations and The Slave Ship: A Human History.

The Amistad Rebellion broadens the context from an 1839 watery rebellion and the U.S. courtroom to the broader Atlantic World system and its hinterlands, and offers insight into the personal history of the rebellion’s leaders, African cultures at the time, and the neglected importance of the “motley” multinational working-class workforces on both ships and the waterfront.

Readers are immediately drawn into the actions of these defiant men who refused to be human cargo. The introduction, titled “Voices,” makes agency of the historical actors manifest, but the book does an excellent job balancing individual agency with both historical contingency and the broader political situation. Each chapter focuses on a major theme, which broadly aligns with a phase in the struggle for liberation.

After a captivating 12-page introduction, the book turns to the individual histories of the Africans and broad context in which they lived. “Origins” uncovers snippets of African social and cultural history and examines the African slave trade in detail, starting in Africa. Rediker first introduces the cross-class, cross-cultural, all-male secret Poro warrior societies and the importance of the society’s discussion and consultation process, called a palaver.

The chapter also provides ample context of enslavement. The author vividly explains the African coastal slave-trading factories, the middle passage onboard a Brazilian slaver, and offers a detailed description of slave enclosures, called barracoons,in both Africa and Cuba.

While oppressive institutions abound, the defiant Africans’ fight back was part of a broader “Atlantic geography of resistance.” (21)

Victorious and Righteous Revolt

Chapter Two discusses the details of the rebellion itself. Here, Rediker focuses not only on Cinqué and the other leaders but also on rank-and-file individuals involved in the freedom struggle.

The crew that emerged from the cramped hull of the ship was far from culturally homogenous although all had been transported from Lomboko on the Gallinas Coast between Freetown and Monrovia. The Africans initially struggled to communicate with each other. They disagreed on strategy, including the level and depth of violence to exact against their maritime oppressors. But they were united in their desire for freedom and to return to Africa.

The fighters’ success was due to their own self-organization, but also to the context of a post-1809 Atlantic. Small ship, small crew slave smuggling of the Amistad type wouldn’t have happened prior to the United States’ passage of the Slave Trade Act and the ascendency of the British Atlantic abolition movement.

The third chapter examines popular perceptions of the Amistad Rebellion. Rediker spends most of this chapter deconstructing newspaper accounts, literature, theater and artistic depictions. Through a detailed examination of these sources, he successfully proves that the rebellion “detonated a bomb of American popular culture” and sympathy even before the mainstream abolitionists organized a campaign.

The chapter is also valuable for its inclusion of slave rebels, free people of color and working-class whites, as well as waterfront workers (and their detractors) within its concise overview of the abolitionist movement of the time. The revolutionary reverberations of the incident ultimately shifted the balance of public opinion and broadened the movement for abolition.

If the rebellion’s victory at sea represented a revolution in miniature, and popular culture created a Black hero in Cinqué and a revolution of public opinion, time the group spent in jail as political prisoners led to a kind of nation-building in miniature. Through this process of ethnogenesis, the polyglot and multiethnic group comes to self-identify as the “Mendi People.” (179).

In jail, the Mendi People fostered an uneasy alliance and “working misunderstanding” with elite Protestant and Reform abolitionists. African seamen proved more effective in creating a linguistic middle ground than scientific educators.

After five court appearances the Mendi People were released from jail but still couldn’t return home. The Amistad Committee organized a “victory tour” to raise funds for their lodging and education.

In this phase, African-American churches played an important political role. While white audiences focused on the Amistad Africans as entertainment, Black preachers embraced the “revolutionary implications” of Black people fighting for their own liberation and thereafter became active in the Underground Railroad.

When the Amistad Africans finally returned to Africa, they did so in the “country fashion,” shedding their western clothing and displaying their traditional “country marks.” (218-219)

Incomplete Evidence

The Amistad Rebellion is not without fault. The book makes a strong case for the importance of a prior mode of African self-organization. To Rediker, organization matters so much as to be the linchpin of his thesis. But this confidence reveals a weakness, as the author is unable to show conclusive evidence of the crew’s experience with Poro Societies. Instead he depends on inference, relying primarily on later anthropological sources.

On the important question of the specific relationship of capitalism to slavery, the author demurs. Rather than taking a definitive stance on the relationship, his reprise “Sugar is made with blood” (18) and his argument that an Atlantic world system linked disparate people in a “larger Atlantic economic transformation that combined bondage and industrialism” (19) suggest that these phenomena were for a time mutually reinforcing.

In any case most historians would agree with Rediker that slavery was a vital component of this epoch, and perhaps for the purposes of this book this is sufficient.
Despite any weaknesses, The Amistad Rebellion is invaluable. It’s immediately useful for providing a new examination of the historical dynamics of the shipboard rebellion itself, but also makes important interventions into the historiography of the 19th-century Atlantic World, U.S. Slavery, and Transatlantic Abolition.

In illuminating an alternate framework of self-emancipation of slaves seeking freedom, the book connects to recent studies of legitimate armed struggle and self-defense in the long Civil Rights, Black Power and decolonization movements. In pushing beyond an elite or middle-class, pacifist and white-centered accounts of transatlantic abolition, the book dispels the tired mythology of passive slaves and religiously-inspired white saviors.

The book fills a gap in Atlantic Basin historiography between the “Red Atlantic” and formative “Black Atlantic” Middle Passage explored in Rediker and Linebagh’s earlier work, and the Atlantic Crossings of the 19th century. The Amistad Rebellion opens a channel for further studies of African contributions to the abolitionist movement as well as a deeper examination of subsequent movements inspired by the rebellion.

Ultimately, the book places the Amistad on a collision course with the entire system of plantation slavery, connecting the earlier Atlantic history of slavery to John Brown and the U.S. Civil War


Mass Murder at Colfax, The Bloody Death of Reconstruction
by Robert Caldwell
from Against the Current 144, January-February 2010

The Colfax Massacre:
The Untold Story of Black Power,
White Terror, & the Death of Reconstruction
By LeeAnna Keith
Oxford University Press. 240 pages, $24.95 cloth.

The Day Freedom Died:
The Colfax Massacre, the Supreme Court,
and the Betrayal of Reconstruction
By Charles Lane
New York: Henry Holt and Co. 326 pages, $17 paperback.

ON APRIL 13, 1873, white supremacists laid siege to a Black Republican stronghold in rural north Louisiana, brutally slaying freedmen and altering the course of the United States. The Colfax massacre happened at the courthouse of newly created Grant Parish, located in a town named after Vice President Schuyler Colfax. Colfax is situated in cotton country along the Red River.

The Colfax massacre was the single bloodiest event of all Reconstruction-era violence. On Easter Sunday, 1873, the paramilitary forerunners of the White League riled supremacists from throughout north Louisiana to attempt a political coup by crushing Grant Parish’s all-black militia. When all was said and done, the white supremacists killed up to 150 black men, including a number of duly elected officials. Most of the remaining men who were taken prisoner were later killed in cold blood.

The chilling effects of the bloody day rippled throughout the U.S. South. However, the resulting court case indicted fewer than 10 defendants, and ultimately freed all accused, and in doing so offered cover for violent white supremacists for the next 100 years.

Two recent books shed new light on this event. Both tell a dramatic story of the creation of the town of Colfax and Grant Parish by former slaves and William Calhoun, the son of Meredith Calhoun. The elder Calhoun was one of the wealthiest and most notoriously cruel plantation owners in the state. Yet former slaves and William Calhoun, their slave-master, became Republican partisans after the war. Both books recount the sequence of events leading to the bloody massacre at Colfax, and the white supremacist restoration in the United States.

LeeAnna Keith’s The Colfax Massacre is a good read, and very accessible. The reader gets a sense of race, class and political dynamics at work in Louisiana during the late Reconstruction period. Her book recounts the deadliest outbreak of political and racial violence during Reconstruction.

Keith frames the context in which the event came to be called a “riot,” a term applied to denigrate freedmen as disruptors of the “natural order”.  She recounts Meredith Calhoun’s personal journey, tracing exactly how he acquired his wealth.

Meredith Calhoun started in the global shipping trade, then invested his money in an  Alabama cotton plantation. After the land showed diminishing returns, he was able to turn government transportation projects to his favor through an inside deal (Henry Miller Shreve’s clearing of the Great Raft, making the Red River navigable and clearing the way for additional Red River cultivation and westward expansion).

The elder Calhoun retired to France, and on the eve of the Civil War left his Louisiana sugar cane empire to his son William to run.

Keith conveys the daily lives and struggles of Calhoun’s slaves.  She points to their arduous journey overland from Huntsville, Alabama to northwest Louisiana, and dramatizes the inhumanity of the slave system. In case any reader happened to be confused, she recounts Frederick Law Olmsted’s experience of seeing the slaves being mercilessly beaten and noting down their short life expectancy.

Keith devotes three pages to those historians — professional and self-taught — who have researched this story before she did. Many — including W.E.B. DuBois — missed Colfax altogether. However, the “second Reconstruction” of the 1950s and ‘60s opened the political door for this scholarship. Eric Foner briefly included the Colfax massacre in Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, but Keith acknowledges that the Angolite, a publication of prisoners at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, really illuminated the story in the article “Tragedy at Colfax” in 1989.
Freedom Died, Justice Denied

Charles Lane’s The Day Freedom Died is legalistic and more difficult to read. Lane tells the story of U.S. Attorney J.R. Beckwith attempting to bring the killers to justice and the ultimate Supreme Court decision in U.S. v. Cruikshank. That decision overturned the conviction of eight conspirators and rendered Ku Klux Klan Enforcement Acts toothless, ending Reconstruction and paving the way for a litany of Jim Crow laws, and the restoration of the white supremacist Democratic Party in Louisiana and throughout the South.

Even though the Enforcement Acts had been designed to allow the federal government to prosecute vigilante groups, the Supreme Court held that equal protection and due process only applied to actions of the state, and not individuals.

Lane’s book also discusses the relationship of Cruikshank to other landmark decisions, including Slaughterhouse, and Blyew v. United States which undermined the Civil Rights Act of 1866, and Plessy v. Ferguson, entrenching the notorious “separate but equal” doctrine (1896)

All save Blyew originated in Louisiana. In the wake of these cases, white supremacist Democratic Party mobs were emboldened and federal troops no longer pretended they could protect blacks in the South. State governments quickly reverted to Democrats, who swiftly disenfranchised black voters.

Lane’s book is an excellent resource on Reconstruction era civil rights laws and court decisions. The book also documents the inner workings of the national and Louisiana Republican parties of the time. But the book focuses all-too-much on the important men of the day: Attorney General James Beckwith, Samuel F. Miller, Justices Samuel F. Miller and Joseph P. Bradley, Ulysses S. Grant, William Pitt Kellogg, and locally Christopher Columbus Nash and the Calhoun Family.

This focus on “great men” misses much of the class and political dynamics that Keith’s book conveys. Lane’s book is best suited for Civil Rights attorneys, legal historians, and those wanting to know more after reading The Colfax Massacre.

The fate of Reconstruction occurred in a larger national context. Neither book seriously treats the decisive impact of capital in the political economy of the United States during the late Reconstruction period. Likewise, both authors refuse to indict U.S. Grant for signing the Amnesty Act in 1872. By Grant’s final year in office (1876), politics had shifted far to the right. The Panic of 1873 and ensuing Long Depression was undoubtedly a major influence on national politics at the time, but neither author offers more than a cursory mention of it.

The idealism and hope of the Reconstruction period was gunned down and buried in a shallow unmarked grave in Colfax, Louisiana. In conveying the events of 1873, the authors have done more than relay grim details and provide a sober assessment of the past. They have helped uncover the amazing will of the freedmen that died that morning while defending their freedom.

If there was a single historical event that effectively erased the gains black people had made immediately following the Civil War, it was the Colfax Massacre. To the authors’ credit, they help bring the post-Civil War story — initially inspiring, but ultimately overwhelmingly shameful — to a new generation. Those committed to fighting white supremacy would do well to study what happened at Colfax.