In order to gain greater insight into the politics and economics of slavery the first whole group read-aloud book of this curriculum unit will be, “The Amistad Slave Revolt and American Abolition” by Karen Zeinert. This book tells the story of fifty-three West African slaves from Sierra Leone, who in 1839 were transported to Havana, Cuba to work on sugar plantations. There they were illegally classified as native born slaves and put onto the schooner La Amistad. Led by the slave Cinque, the fifty-three slaves revolted and tried to sail the vessel back to Africa. Misled by their Spanish captors, they instead sailed north to Long Island, New York where La Amistad was stopped and seized by the U.S. Navy and all aboard were taken to New London, Connecticut. From New London they were then brought to jail in New Haven, Connecticut. The slaves were charged with murder and piracy and could have been sentenced to be hanged if found guilty. Lawyers and Abolitionists took up their fight for freedom. Their case made its way through the court system until 1841 when John Quincy Adams successfully argued that the Africans were not slaves and should go free. One of the deciding factors in the African’s favor was that international slave trade was abolished in 1820. Nineteen years later the Africans were claimed by their Spanish captors to have been slaves for many years. But how to explain that none of the Africans could speak Spanish? This raised the question as to when exactly these slaves were captured. The papers that Senors Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montez presented to court were found to be falsified and it was proven that the Africans were illegally obtained. The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed this decision, and the Africans made their way, by ship, back to Sierra Leone.
Cinque is the main character in the story of the Amistad revolt. He is the one who encouraged the captured slaves to revolt while aboard the La Amistad. Cinque was a Mende tribe member who was captured while strolling along a road in Sierra Leone. It was Cinque who united the Amistad captives and became their leader. After winning their freedom, Cinque and thirty-five of the original fifty-three mutineers set sail back to Freeport, Sierra Leone in Africa. Cinque, however, was never reunited with his wife and children and he was sure that they too had fallen captive to the slave trade. It is purported that Cinque died in 1879 on the Island of Sherbro off the coast of Africa and that he may be buried beside the Christian Mission there. But the Connecticut Historical Society asserts that Cinque left for the island of Jamaica never to be heard from again.
With my sixth graders, I find that whole group oral reading sessions are the best way to approach reading a story of this length. These oral reading sessions can vary day to day with the teacher reading some passages and the students reading aloud others. This type of format allows for group discussion, interpreting what has been read and identifying and defining unfamiliar vocabulary.
This book also opens up many avenues for written work. Students could be asked to write a persuasive essay based upon how they feel the situation with the Amistad “cargo” should have been settled. Speaking skills can also come into play as the students could be asked to choose sides to debate the issue.
Further exploration of the Amistad problem could include a play written for students by Susan Bassler Pickford entitled “The Drama of the Amistad”. It is issued by Discovery Press and may be copied for classroom use. The play could serve as one of the culminating activities to the Amistad book. Classroom writing lessons could be explored with the students writing alternative endings to the play: answering the question “What would have happened if?”.
Another activity that will help clarify the Amistad rebellion for the students is to watch the video entitled “The Amistad Revolt - All We Want Is To Make Us Free”. The video will make clear to students exactly what happened and why. Upon completion of watching the video, whole group activities may involve making a timeline of what transpired and each student can write a narrative based upon what they learned.
Because we are a school in the City of New Haven, I feel it is very important to further explore the history of the Amistad with my students. One of the ways in which to do this is to visit the historically accurate recreation of the ship that is on display in the New Haven harbor. I consider the ship to be a valuable teaching tool and a field trip to the Amistad replica at the harbor would be an enriching activity for the students in conjunction with this unit.
Furthermore, the City of Hartford offers additional field trip opportunities to engage the students’ interests. The first site is the Connecticut Historical Society located on Elizabeth Street in Hartford. Currently on exhibit is “Amistad - A True Story of Freedom” which is an in-depth look at the Africans’ revolt, and the events that surrounded it. The museum offers interactive and multi-media exhibits along with many historical documents relating to the Amistad incident. Also located in Hartford is the Old State House that was the location of the actual Amistad trial. This location would offer the students a unique experience to actually walk in the steps of the original participants, thus transporting themselves into the setting of the book.