How the Amistad captives captivated the nation
This painting of Sengbe Pieh, or Joseph Cinque, by Nathaniel Jocelyn may be one of the most consequential works of art in American history.
In our sixth episode of the third season, we explore the incredible story of the Amistad rebellion and the myriad of factors that came together to tip the balance of power aboard that schooner. No one could have predicted the international sensation that followed. The media could not get enough of the story of these captives led by the noble Cinque; they soon became the subject of newspaper articles, a touring wax show and 135-foot-wide panoramic painting, and a popular play at New York’s Bowery Theatre, the largest playhouse in the country.
The “Mendi People” as they soon became known – even though they were from at least nine distinct parts of West Africa – became a media sensation, a spectacle exploited by many, and a unique opportunity for the cause of abolitionism. Lewis Tappan and the Amistad Committee became their greatest champions, striving to make the Africans free, and assimilated. And the rabble-rouser John Quincy Adams took up their cause to return to the Supreme Court more than 30 years after he last argued a case there – a Supreme Court where the majority of justices had owned slaves and five out of nine had been appointed by his archenemy Andrew Jackson.
In our final act, we look at the impact of the Amistad rebellion on one man named Madison Washington who helped lead the most successful slave revolt in American history aboard a ship called The Creole. Formerly enslaved in Virginia, Washington had made his way to Canada but came back to the United States to rescue his family. On the way back to Virginia, he stopped in Philadelphia to visit the Black abolitionist Robert Purvis. His visit coincided with the arrival of a painting Purvis had just commissioned of Cinque – the painting pictured here. According to Purvis, Washington was enthralled with the painting and the story of Cinque.
When his efforts to save his family failed and he was re-enslaved, Cinque’s story may have played a part in his decision to help lead a revolt aboard The Creole, a ship moving 135 enslaved Africans from Virginia to New Orleans.
The Amistad Rebellion: An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom by Marcus Rediker
The Nonfiction Madison Washington Compared To The Character in Frederick Douglass’s The Heroic Slave and Similar Civil War-Era Fiction by Stanley Harrold
The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements by William Wells Brown