Black Odyssey: The Case of the Slave Ship Amistad by Mary Cable

October 21, 2009
Black Odyssey: The Case of the Slave Ship Amistad, written in 1977 by author Mary Cable, depicts the true story of a nineteenth-century slave ship in an exciting yet thought-provoking manner, displaying the author’s unique writing style and love of history. Beginning the account, Cable launches into the retelling of the complex plot, describing it as the start of “a strange series of events that was to bedevil the diplomatic relations of the United States, Spain, and England [and] intensify bitterness over the question of slavery.” Including interesting exerts from newspaper articles, which explained the prevalent speculations about the alleged pirate ship, Cable begins by informing the reader of the initial inquisitive and somewhat excited reaction of the general public to the witness’ accounts of sighting the “pirate ship.” After the news spread of the first recorded encounter with the Africans on August 26, 1839, the nation’s curiosity continued to grow along with the complexity of the questions raised concerning the Africans’ voyage, destination, and ownership of the Amistad. Suddenly, the story became increasingly confusing when the Washington, a brig of the United States Coast Guard, claimed salvage rights to the ship. Upon boarding the ship, Lieutenant Gedney, commander of the Washington, discovered the true story of the Amistad, as told to him by Pedro Montes, an elderly Spaniard taken captive by the Africans.

According to Montes, the Amistad had sailed from Havana on June 28, 1839 towards Puerto Príncipe with forty-nine male slaves and a large cargo containing novelties and luxury goods. On the fourth night of voyage, the slaves managed to free themselves and took command of the ship. In the process they killed the ship’s captain, Ramón Ferrer, and the ship’s mulatto cook. Señor Montes was kept alive in order to navigate the ship; which he did, successfully steering the Amistad towards the southern coast of America.

After explaining how the story of the slave ship became public, Cable adeptly walks the reader through the in-depth legal fight between the officers of the Washington, the African slaves, the Spaniards, and the government of Spain. At first glance, it was clear that the Africans had committed the unlawful crime of murder and mutiny. However, since slave trading had been illegal in Spain since 1820, the Spaniards had also committed a crime: buying and selling slaves. Thus, according to Spanish law, the Africans were not really slaves. Amidst the legal dispute, a perplexing question arose: had Lieutenant Gedney, commander of the Washington, rescued the Spaniards from the Africans or the Africans from the Spaniards? As the two opposing parties argued back and forth over who had committed the greater crime, another legal fight began between the officers of the Washington and the Spanish government concerning the legal possession of the Amistad. Claiming custody of the ship, the officers of the Washington argued that they had lawfully claimed salvage rights. However, the Spanish government declared the United States had no jurisdiction over the subjects of Spain; therefore, they requested for the ship to be delivered to her Cuban owners. At the end of the trial, the Supreme Court came to the decision that the Africans were not the legal property of the Spaniards; therefore, they were free to return to Africa at anytime on their own accord and with their own funds. The Supreme Court also found the officers of the Washington entitled to salvage rights, and stated they should receive one-third of the cargo’s value.

After enduring two years of fighting for their freedom, thirty-five of the original fifty-three African captives boarded a ship called the Gentleman and began their voyage back to Africa. Accompanying them, a group of missionaries left their families and the comfort of their homes with the hope of sharing the gospel with the African tribes. However, with little experience and no immunity to the harsh climate and diseases prevalent in Africa, the struggle to survive would be greater than they had expected. In her own words Cable closes the story saying, “The missionaries and abolitionists who gathered in the pilot-boat cabin sang about ‘the pagan in his blindness’ and dreamed of a whole continent of black people, each neatly dressed in New England calico and carrying a Bible. If they had known what was to happen instead, their joy might have been mixed with astonishment, and they might have changed their song to ‘God moves in a mysterious way / His wonders to perform.’”


Throughout the book, I found Cable’s foremost purpose: to inform the reader of the case’s significance and of its national relativity to the development of the world’s view on slavery. Cable enforces this purpose by including a variety of interesting facts relating to that era’s view of slavery. Providing the reader with insight into specific viewpoints, she also adds key information about the lawyers, political leaders, and citizens working on either side of the case. Although Cable’s comments reveal her position as an abolitionist, she carefully provides the reader with opposite perspectives to allow further perception into the case. Another important characteristic of Cable’s writing style appears as she examines specific aspects of the story from a modern day point-of-view. She often compares the situation to a more current affair.
Cable’s documentary clearly explains the significance and relation of the Amistad case to the development of the slavery issue. Her work has inspired me to research the progression of international cultural issues, the historical events that have impacted them, and how those issues have influenced modern society.





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sally sunshine said...
Nov. 6, 2009 at 12:31 pm
duuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuudddddddddddddddeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee this looks like a cool book even though i hate reading its kinda odd to read if u have a perfectly good ttteeeeeeelllliiiiivvvvvviiisssiiioooooooooonnn so yah
 
daffodilsNblueskies This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. replied...
Jan. 9, 2010 at 5:29 pm
If you don't feel like reading the book, there's a movie that's based off of it: Amistad
 
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