Activity 1. What was the Amistad revolt?
Introduce this Activity by reminding students of the story of the Amistad revolt, which many of them may know from the Steven Spielberg film, Amistad (1997). Ask those who have seen the film to summarize the story, then draw on resources available through EDSITEment to provide a fully accurate account.
- A detailed narrative of the Amistad case, which traces events back to the Amistad captives' life in Africa and includes contextual information about the slave trade, is available at the Exploring Amistad website, along with a timeline of events surrounding the revolt and trial. (At the website's homepage, click on "Discovery Section" for a summary of the Amistad case with links to the separate chapters of a more detailed narrative. At the homepage, click on "Amistad Timeline" for a chronology of events covering the period from 1839 to 1846, with links to corresponding news reports.)
- More background on the Amistad revolt is also available at the National Archives Digital Classroom website homepage. Click on "Primary Sources and Activities," then select "The Amistad Case" for background and links to archival documents.)
- Discuss how students' knowledge about the Amistad revolt, whether gained from the film or elsewhere, may differ from the facts supplied by the historical record. Explain that in this Activity they will discover that the facts about this case, and the man at its center, have been in dispute from the very start.
Activity 2. Read conflicting reports about Cinque
Use the resources available through EDSITEment at the Exploring Amistad website to provide students with examples of the conflicting reports about Cinque, the leader of the Amistad revolt, that appeared in various newspapers at the time. (To access the website's newspaper archive from the homepage, click "Library," then click "Newspapers" and hit the "List All Newspaper Articles" button to browse the collection.) The following are news reports that include a description of Cinque during the period when he first came to public attention:
- New York Journal of Commerce, August 30, 1839: brief sympathetic description of Cinque in custody aboard the brig Washington, with comment on positive traits discerned in him "by physiognomy and phrenology."
- Charleston Courier, September 5, 1839: extended report on the U.S. Navy's capture of the Amistad, with sympathetic descriptions of Cinque and transcripts of two speeches he is supposed to have made to his companions.
- New York Morning Herald, September 9, 1839: report on "The Case of the Captured Negroes" with demeaning descriptions of Cinque and his companions.
- New York Journal of Commerce, September 10, 1839: letter from Lewis Tappan, a leading abolitionist and organizer of the Amistad Committee, who reports on an interview with Cinque conducted through a qualified interpreter.
- Charleston Courier, September 24, 1839: brief account of Circuit Court proceedings, with a sympathetic description of Cinque's appearance at the trial.
- New York Morning Herald, October 4, 1839: extended report on "The Captured Africans of the Amistad," which ridicules their abolitionist supporters and comments unsympathetically on Cinque's character and behavior.
- Colored American, October 5, 1839: response to critical reports in other journals on the Amistad captives and their leader, who is compared to Patrick Henry.
- Colored American, October 19, 1839: extended essay on Cinque, describing him as "the African hero."
Activity 3. Assess several contemporary newspaper accounts
Divide the class into study groups and have each group read and assess two or more contemporary newspaper accounts of Cinque and his companions.
- Have students determine the point of view represented in each article -- anti-slavery, anti-abolitionist, neutral, etc.
- Have them mark in each article specific words and passages that reveal the writer passing judgment on Cinque and thereby prejudicing the reader's view of him, for better or worse.
- Have them note also the use of characterizations and comparisons in each article that serve to categorize Cinque, whether as "the son of a chief" or as "the ringleader" of the revolt.
- Have each group report its conclusions, then work together as a class to describe the shifts of public opinion toward Cinque recorded in these press reports. Refer to the "Amistad Timeline" available at the Exploring Amistad website to gauge how legal developments may have influenced public opinion. What different roles is Cinque made to play by those who reported on the Amistad case? How can historians choose among these versions of Cinque to gain an understanding of him as he really was?
Activity 4. Review images of Cinque
Turn next to images of Cinque, using the resources available through EDSITEment to provide students with a selection of the many drawings made of him during the height of the Amistad controversy. The most comprehensive collection of images can be found at the Exploring Amistad website. (Click "Library" at the website's homepage, then select "Gallery" and click on the "List All Gallery Images" button to browse the collection.) Included here are:
- Cinque Addressing his Compatriots (1839): a lithograph published soon after the Navy's capture of the Amistad, as a souvenir of the event.
- Portrait of Joseph Cinque (c. 1839): a color lithograph showing the "leader of the gang" posed with his machete.
- The Captured Africans of the Amistad (1839): a newspaper cartoon showing Cinque and his companions diverting themselves in prison.
- Phrenological Developments of Joseph Cinquez (1840): illustration taken from an article applying the then-accepted science of phrenology to the task of assessing Cinque's character.
- Death of Capt. Ferrer (1840): frontispiece of a pamphlet that compiled news reports and court records of the Amistad case, showing Cinque and his companions in the midst of their revolt.
- Profile of Cinque (1840): illustration from the same pamphlet which accompanies a "biographical sketch" of Cinque and is said to be based on casts made of his face while he was imprisoned. (The illustration appears on page 8 of this electronic text.)
Another important image of Cinque can be found in the "African American Odyssey" exhibition at the American Memory Project website. (Click "Browse" at the website's homepage, then select "African American Odyssey" and click on the "Slavery" section of the exhibit; select "Part 2" and click on "The Amistad Mutiny," then scroll down to the image.)
The most celebrated image of Cinque is an oil portrait made by Nathaniel Jocelyn in 1840; a contemporary reproduction of this portrait can be found at the National Portrait Gallery website. (Click on "Collections" at the website's homepage and select "The Amistad Case," then scroll down to the image.)
Activity 5. Decide which images correspond to which points of view
Provide each student group with a selection of contrasting images for study. Have them first decide which images correspond to the points of view they identified in their study of newspaper reports. Are there additional points of view reflected in any of the images?
- Next have students analyze each image to determine how the artist has conveyed a particular point of view. Have students consider the postures in which Cinque is portrayed (e.g., arm raised in oration, holding a staff, standing with arm akimbo, etc.); the clothing he wears (e.g., a breechcloth, a toga-like robe, a scarlet shirt open at the neck, etc.); the expression on his face (e.g., eyes seemingly closed in sleep, gazing openly at the viewer, looking off to one side, etc.); the settings in which he is placed (e.g., a pastoral landscape, a ship's deck, a jailyard, etc.).
- Call attention also to the different media used for these images: What kind of person appears in an oil portrait? What kind of person appears in a newspaper cartoon? What kind of person is presented as a scientific specimen?
- Have students consider as well the captions and texts that accompany several of these images. How do they comment on the picture? Are the writer's words always consistent with the artist's point of view?
- Have each group offer a "reading" of two contrasting images of Cinque in a class presentation, explaining the point of view each offers on his actions as leader of the Amistad revolt. Then discuss as a group whether the same man appears in all these images. Compare, for example, the round-faced Cinque in the pamphlet profile with the long-faced Cinque who addresses his compatriots, or the youthful Cinque in the Jocelyn portrait with the older-seeming "brave Congolese Chief." How is it possible to tell from the evidence what Cinque actually looked like? To what extent do all these images show us instead what Americans at the time saw in him?
Activity 6. Select the most unbiased evidence
Turn finally to what should be the most unbiased evidence upon which to base a modern assessment of Cinque's character and historic significance: transcripts of court testimony and copies of personal letters. Such documents can be found among the archives at the Exploring Amistad website. Share with students:
- Deposition by Cinque (7 October 1839): Cinque describes events leading up to the revolt. (To retrieve this document, click on "Library" at the website's homepage, then select "Newspapers"; click on the "List All Newspaper Articles" button and scroll down to find the article titled, "A New Movement," which reprints Cinque's deposition. Or click "Search" on the website's homepage and type "A New Movement" into the "Library Catalog" search engine.)
- Testimony of Cinque (8 January 1840): Cinque describes his capture in Africa, his treatment by slave-traders, and the Amistad's voyage to the time of his arrest. (To retrieve this document, click on "Library" at the website's homepage, then select "Court Records" and click on the "List All Court Documents" button. Scroll down to "Cinque's District Court Testimony.")
- Letter from Kale to John Quincy Adams (4 January 1841): One of the Amistad captives urges Adams to win their freedom before the Supreme Court. (To retrieve this document, click on "Library" at the website's homepage, then select "Personal Papers;" click on "letters written by the Africans to Adams," then scroll down and click "Kale to Adams, January 4, 1841.")
- Letter from Kinna to John Quincy Adams (4 January 1841): One of the Amistad captives urges Adams to "talk hard" before the Supreme Court and "make us free." (To retrieve this document, click on "Library" at the website's homepage, then select "Personal Papers;" click on "letters written by the Africans to Adams," then scroll down and click "Kinna to Adams, January 4, 1841.")
- Letter from Cinque to the Amistad Committee (5 October 1841): Cinque appeals for assistance to make the voyage back home. (To retrieve this document, click on "Library" at the website's homepage, then select "Personal Papers;" click on "letters written by the Africans to Adams," then scroll down and click "African Repository in December 1841.")
Activity 7. Work with documents in study groups
Have students work with these documents in their study groups. Ask them to compare these first-person accounts of Cinque and his companions to those found in newspapers at the time.
- Are there factual discrepancies between Cinque's description of what happened and the journalists' reports? What differences in emphasis are there between his version of events and theirs? What differences in point of view? In the newspapers, the Amistad revolt appears sometimes as a savage uprising, sometimes as a noble crusade. How does Cinque characterize their actions? What is the point of his story in his own eyes? What role does he see for himself, and how does that role compare to the roles assigned to him by his American admirers and detractors?
- In their letters, Kale and Kinna respond directly to some of the characterizations that had been made about the Amistad captives. How do they see themselves? Call students' attention to the "put yourself in our place" arguments used in both letters. How do Kale and Kinna ask to be perceived by this shift of perspective? What other arguments do they advance to correct misperceptions about their people? How do these arguments affect the views one might have formed based on newspaper reports about the Amistad captives and their culture?
- Cinque's letter, like those of his companions, reflects in its language the influence of his abolitionist supporters, who sought to convert the Amistad captives to Christianity. To what extent did the abolitionists affect the captives' perceptions of their own experience by this teaching? Have students mark in these letters the words and phrases that seem to derive from the captives' course of Bible studies. In what respects might one say that this language represents a "veneer of Christianity"? In what respects might one say that the abolitionists enriched the Amistad captives' perspective on their own condition by sharing with them one of the core texts of Western culture? Have students compare this religious vocabulary with the competing vocabularies proposed by newspaper writers who similarly sought to make meaning out of the Amistad affair.
Activity 8. Discuss difficulties of recovering historic "truth" from documentary materials
Conclude this lesson by having students reflect in a class discussion on the difficulties of recovering historic "truth" from documentary materials that offer several versions of the truth to choose from. To what extent is it the historian's responsibility to reduce such conflicting points of view to a single set of facts? Have students explore this issue firsthand by producing a report on Cinque based on their research, answering the question "Who was he?" in a biographical profile or editorial.