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I taught history for twenty-five years. My college major was American History, but, of course, like others at the time, I was taught the “happy slave” narrative. The other “historic” tale about Reconstruction was one about the “corrupt, ignorant and not quite human, “Negroes” who with the help of white “Carpetbaggers” became representatives in state and federal government during Reconstruction. I am almost sure that one came with drawings of unruly black men in suits arguing in a legislature. Being a kid, I never thought much about what I was being taught. My high school education was decades ago and I do remember what I was taught.
Those “lessons, ” were augmented by much of our entertainment at the time. Movies showed us the funny in-charge but subservient Black maid who seemed to appear in almost every white family film and that really slow handyman. I also very much enjoyed the elegant Disney made for children tale “Song of the South” featuring the oh so happy and loving Uncle Remus.

In my mind these “facts” bore no connection to my family’s awareness of the horrible treatment of “colored people” in our country. We also went to the theater in New York City where in “Bloomer Girls” I watched the beautiful and terrifying scene of Liza holding her baby and crossing an icy river to escape slave catchers. We read in the newspapers that this famous actor or actress, musician, educator was not allowed into a hotel or restaurant because they were Black. Once my father had taken a bus from NYC to Florida and on his return awed us with tales of white injustice.

I arrived at college in 1956, at the beginning of the fight to end segregation. It was when I began to seriously think about race in America beyond the clear bigotry and injustice. In 1960 the year I graduated, many Black leaders were talking about the way education distorted Black history. Malcolm X’s straight talk always thrilled me and made me seek more information.When I was assigned to a series of largely Black Junior and later Senior High Schools I began reading and researching like mad. What evolved as I learned was the long and complex international history of destruction and resistance that is the history of African Diaspora through slavery. I had always assumed that as this information became public, it would became the touchstone of what was being taught in our American schools. I certainly taught it. I was appalled to find that even today in some American classrooms the “Happy Slave” is still singing in those cotton fields back home.

Slavery is hardly a new institution. The Bible talks about slaves and slavery and this particular human arrangement was common across the globe. Sometimes those captured in war became slaves to the victors, also the poor would sometimes sell themselves or their children into slavery to avoid starvation (Aesop of Aesop’s tales was a blind slave in Greece). Slavery as a serious big business did not come along until the 17th century but before we go there let’s visit sub-Sahara Africa (Black Africa) in the 14th

Century at a time of African kingdoms Mansa Musa, ruler of Mali, had conquered much of Western Africa. He established the richest Empire in the world. No European ruler could match him for either his wealth or accomplishments . Mali under Musa was home to the most advanced system of education with top colleges and libraries many of them located in the fabled city of Timbuktu. As a Muslim, Mansa Musa took a pilgrimage to the City of Mecca, when he did, he became known to the Middle East and even Feudal Europe.

And what of racism you ask? The answer is simple, modern racism did not exist until the birth of modern slavery. For example, in 1604 a play premiered in London by a hugely popular English playwright named William Shakespeare. It was another one of his tragedies. All tragedies in Shakespeare’s day worked in an Aristotelian formula. First the playwright introduced a hero. The hero is noble, brave and beloved but that hero has one fatal flaw and that flaw will destroy him and his glorious promise. The hero in this play “Othello” was a Black man and true Shakespearian hero, a savvy general admired by all. His flaw, that an evil man manipulates, is jealousy and passion associated, in those days, with those coming from heated climates. He is married to a white woman. No law prevented it. Othello, the fallen hero was a true hero. And not so strangely until recent time few Black actors got to play that very meaty and very heroic general. It was most usually performed by white men in black face. That decision on casting, reflected the new slave trade that evolved after the presentation of that play. That kind of slavery was shaped by the New World and an evolving economic system called capitalism.
The Portuguese were first on that job, having won the chase for a short water route to the Far East by sailing around the Horn of Africa. Some ship owners found selling humans was not a bad trade during the time when land needed farming help and cities were being built. Their first capture were Japanese slaves. As I said slavery was a familiar system everywhere. Eventually this trade in Japanese humans done in Asia ended and the Portuguese were banned from even entering Japan for a very long time. As fate would have it the development of newly discovered lands in an unexplored region upped the demand for slaves.

Portugal looked to Africa for product. Some African Kings were happy to send off captured enemies and the impoverished, found the trade was quite profitable. However, not all African leaders thought selling off of their people, no matter enemy or poor was a good idea. None felt it more than the 17th century African Queen Nzinga of Ndongo and Matamb. She and her brother fought the Portuguese slave traders and offered the shelter of their lands to all escaping slaves. This slowed the slave trade but didn’t end it and with her death no profound opposition existed and the trade continued. It was not an easy business. As these items for sale were human and might rebel, harsh measures were installed when transporting them. There was care taken to not put people who spoke the same language together and horrific devices immobilizing were used. The ships were packed so that maximum bodies were available for sale, as some were sure to die or kill themselves along the way.

The slave trade that so influenced the United States was run mostly by the English who had established many colonies with many slaves to work them including their islands in the Caribbean. It worked like this, West African slaves were bought in Africa for trade goods such as brandy and guns. Slaves were then taken via the ‘Middle Passage’ across the Atlantic for sale in the West Indies and North America. Finally, a cargo of rum and sugar taken from the colonies was taken back to England to sell. It was a profitable business but eventually banned in the US in 1808, though by then many slaves were already in the early United State and smugglers happily continued that trade.
From the start those kidnapped and sold into slavery resisted in as many ways as they could find. The mid-passage was the longest part of the venture and in 1839 Portuguese slave traders abducted hundreds of Africans from Mendeland, in present-day Sierra Leone, to transport them to Cuba, a Spanish colony. The United States, Britain, Spain and other European powers had abolished the importation of slaves by that time, but the transatlantic slave trade continued illegally, and Havana was an important hub.

Two Spanish plantation owners had purchased 53 of the kidnapped Africans. The two landowners and their slaves –to-be set off to the Spaniards’ plantation in Puerto Principe. Several days into the journey, one of the Africans—Sengbe Pieh, also known as Joseph Cinque—managed to unshackle himself and his fellow captives. Armed with knives, they killed its Spanish captain and the ship’s cook.The Africans ordered the plantation owners to turn the ship eastward, back to Africa. But the Spaniards secretly changed course at night, and instead the Amistad sailed through the Caribbean and up the eastern coast of the United States. The U.S. brig Washington found the ship while it was anchored off the tip of Long Island to get provisions. The naval officers seized the Amistad and put the Africans back in chains, escorting them to Connecticut, where they would claim salvage rights to the ship and its human cargo.

Charged with murder and piracy, Cinque and the other Africans of the Amistad were imprisoned in New Haven. Though these criminal charges were quickly dropped, they remained in prison while the courts went about deciding their legal status, as well as the competing property claims by the officers of the Washington, Montes and Ruiz and the Spanish government. In January 1840, a judge in U.S. District Court in Hartford ruled that the Africans were not Spanish slaves, but had been illegally captured, and should be returned to Africa. After appealing the decision to the Circuit Court, which upheld the lower court’s decision, the U.S. attorney appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard the case in early 1841.

To defend the Africans in front of the Supreme Court, abolitionists enlisted former President John Quincy Adams, who was at the time 73 years old and a member of the House of Representatives. Adams had previously argued (and won) a case before the nation’s highest court; he was also a strong antislavery voice in Congress. At the heart of the case, Adams argued, was the willingness of the United States to stand up for the ideals upon which it was founded. “The moment you come to the Declaration of Independence, that every man has a right to life and liberty, an inalienable right, this case is decided," Adams said. "I ask nothing more in behalf of these unfortunate men, than this Declaration.”

On March 9, 1841, the Supreme Court ruled 7-1 to uphold the lower courts’ decisions in favor of the Africans of the Amistad. But I want you to understand the hero of this story is not Adams or the court but Cinque and his men’s refusal to be enslaved.

The institution of slavery from beginning to plantation was not a story of contented slaves but of men and women who fought against system which held all the power. It is also a story, lined with many rebellions and escapes against terrifying odds.
Next Installment: Fighting Enslavement in Colonial Times and the Beginning of Racism

Carol Polcovar

Carol Polcovar

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