Issue 217 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 1998 Copyright Socialist Review

Feature article: The Amistad mutiny

Katherine Dwyer

The film Amistad focuses on an 1839 mutiny of slaves on the Spanish slave ship Amistad and the court battles that followed after their recapture. It traces the relationships between the Africans' leader, Clinque, their initially cynical lawyer and representatives of the abolitionist movement fighting to end slavery. As the film progresses, we see both the horrors of the slave trade and the determination with which Africans resisted their captivity - as well as the transformation of all the individuals involved in the struggle for freedom.

The African slave trade was banned in the US in 1808, but slavery remained legal until the Civil War in the 1860s. The federal government was deeply divided over the issue of slavery. Sections of government tied to Northern industry increasingly viewed slavery as a regressive force. But Southern plantation owners relied on slave labour and would do anything to protect their profits.

At the time of the Amistad revolt the entire political establishment was desperately trying to prevent open conflict. The Amistad case caught the legal and political system in a bind. On the one hand, none of the leading politicians of the time wanted to risk war and their own careers by taking a stand against slavery. But the Spanish slave traders who laid claim to the Africans on the Amistad had clearly violated US law. In this situation abolitionists saw the Amistad case as a unique opportunity to strike a blow against slavery.

In making the film Amistad, Steven Spielberg has drawn some criticism - much of it from conservatives unhappy with any portrayal of the struggle against racism, but some from figures on the left.

Historian Eric Foner, for example, criticised Spielberg for focusing on the issue of slavery rather than the illegality of the international slave trade.

Foner, the author of several excellent books on African-American history, went so far as to say in one interview that the Amistad case 'had nothing to do with slavery in this country.' This is absurd. The Amistad court cases did focus on breaches of international trade laws rather than the abolition of slavery per se. But, as Foner himself pointed out, the case was a rallying point for anti-slavery forces in the US.

Amistad is not a documentary. As a fictionalised dramatisation of a real event, it takes liberties with the actual history of the case. But even though the facts may be off on several points, the movie brilliantly captures the broader reality of the time. It shows the hypocrisy of a society which claimed to stand for freedom and equality for all, while enslaving people on a mass scale for the sake of profit and political power.

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