In a previous post, I highlighted ways in which Amistad (1997, dir. Steven Spielberg) deviates from the details of the Amistad story while still getting many of the basic facts correct. But I don’t want to suggest that the film doesn’t have any historical virtues, because it does. It offers a chilling cinematic depiction of the horrors of the Middle Passage.
The Middle Passage is the general term used for the maritime journey of slave ships from West Africa to parts of North, Central, or South America (in La Amistad’s case, from Sierra Leona to Cuba). The term derives from the fact that this was the middle leg of a triangular trade route that saw money and manufactured goods taken to Africa to purchase slaves, slaves taken to the Americas to sell for commodities such as coffee, sugar, or cotton, and those goods taken to Europe to sell, with the money acquired serving to repeat the process.
During the first trial, Joseph Cinqué (Djimon Hounsou) gives an extended narrative of his journey from Sierra Leone to Connecticut, which the film offers in the form of a flashback. He describes being captured by African slavers and taken to the Lomboko Slave Fortress where he was purchased along with hundred of others and forced into the hold of a slave ship. The film forces the viewer to watch a truly harrowing sequence of events.
The slaves are kept naked and packed in so tightly they can barely move. Many are screaming or crying out. Rough weather causes many of them to become seasick and they vomit on each other. One woman is smothered to death, her small baby being passed over the pile of bodies to another slave. When it is time for feeding, the slavers come down with a pot of gruel and simply dump the food into outstretched hands, but they skip some slaves they decide are too sick to survive. The slaves frantically eat the meager food and fight for each other’s share. One woman hungrily wipes food off another woman’s face to eat it. Then, for reasons that are unclear at the time, the slavers decide they have too many slaves on the ship, so they chain a group of slaves together, weight them down with a bag of stones, and push them overboard. A resistant slave is flogged bloody, and during the process, a woman with a baby chooses to throw herself overboard to die.
I haven’t been able to find out the details of the historical Cinqué’s testimony, so I’m not sure that what the film shows us bares any relationship to what Cinqué actually said in court. But absolutely everything in this sequence is solidly based on actual details of the Middle Passage. A typical slave ship held between 350 and 450 slaves, only about half of whom had to survive in order for the journey to turn a profit (and that’s not considering the insurance on the slave cargo; dead slaves could in some cases be written off to insurance, thereby providing some profit even if they died on the journey).
As a result, there was no particular incentive for the slave traders to treat their human cargo gently apart from the fact that healthy slaves fetched more on the market than sickly or weak ones did. The brutal treatment was considered necessary because it helped break the spirit of the captives and prepared them psychologically for a life of servitude. One might also theorize that dehumanization was a coping technique for the crew, who must in many cases have understood how harsh the conditions were.
The Middle Passage and its horrific conditions have long been known to historians, but it has rarely been depicted in cinema, and certainly not in a big budget mainstream film like Amistad. So despite the rather problematic elements of the film as a narrative about how wonderful whites are in helping blacks overcome the evils of slavery, Amistad forces American audiences to confront one of the most awful elements of the 18th and 19th century slave system, and it pulls few punches. It is a disturbing sequence to watch, but one that I think is extremely valuable for audiences to see. One scholar who saw the film reported seeing at least two couples, one black and one white, who both seemed visibly disturbed by this element of the film, and I suspect that’s a pretty common reaction to the Middle Passage sequence.
At a time when some commentators are trying to recast American slavery as not being so bad, or even actually a positive thing, this portion of Amistad is a reminder of how absurd those claims are. The American slave system was in fact one of the most brutal forms of slavery humanity has ever invented, far harsher in some respects than, for example, the Graeco-Roman or early medieval slave systems, and that brutality started with the Middle Passage.
Watch the Middle Passage sequence from Amistad. It’s not pleasant, but it’s unfortunately fairly accurate.
Want to Know More?
Amistadis available in different formats on Amazon.
If you’re interested in the Transatlantic Slave Trade, the masterwork on the subject is Hugh Thomas’ The Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade: 1440-1870. It’s a massive (900 page) work the surveys of the four-century history of the slave trade. This is a Kindle version. If you’re looking at something slightly less hefty, try David Bryon Davis’ Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World, which opens with the Amistad case.