Friday, May 16, 2008

The Lessons of Amistad

Originally published on March 1, 2008. Reposted here to give an example of the future...from a lesson in the past...for us on which to engage.

If you haven’t seen the film Amistad, you should. The story is true, and the screenplay unusually true to the reality. There are some rather obvious lessons to be gleaned from the story, but some others that are perhaps less obvious but just as important.

March 9th is designated as “Amistad Sunday” in UCC. The then-Congregational churches, particularly in New England and eastern seaboard states, became intimately involved in the Amistad incident and were probably largely responsible for its somewhat favorable outcome.

So what was Amistad? It was a relatively small two-masted schooner of only 80 tons displacement, about 72 feet long, and drawing only seven feet of water. What this means is that the “ship” was more of a “boat.” Many of our coastal fishers today are as large and seaworthy. La Amistad had been intended as a coastal hauler...not as a transoceanic transport.

The U.S. government in 1839 (when the Amistad incident occurred) had a dualist position regarding slavery. While slavery was permitted within our country’s borders the importation of slaves was forbidden, and the U.S. Navy was actively interdicting any slave ships departing from West African shores. Slavers had to be sneaky and fast to avoid capture and seizure.

Most Americans today don’t realize that slaves exported from West Africa were actually captured and enslaved by other African tribes, who then profited by selling their tribal enemies to the slavers. To make the voyages profitable, the slavers had to literally pack hundreds of men, women, and even children into “racks” a little more than a foot high and filling the dark, dank hold from bilge to overhead, chained the entire time except for occasional forced trips on deck to be doused with buckets of sea water, or for punishment.

The occupants of the Amistad had been hauled from Africa to Cuba, where they were falsely registered by their Spanish captors as Cuban-born...because slave importation was also illegal in Cuba.

In short, the slaves on La Amistad found an opportunity to rebel and take over the ship from their captors as they were being transferred from one port to another in Cuba. They sailed instead to Long Island, where they were seized by the U.S. Navy and interred pending a trial for piracy and murder that ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court. Former president John Quincy Adams defended the Africans.

This is where our ancestor churches came into the story. Congregational churches throughout New England involved themselves immediately and directly by providing shelter, clothing, funds, food and medical care to the survivors, and logistical support to the legal team. Adams argued that these Africans were not criminals, but victims of an international crime. They were illegally deprived of their freedom, and therefore had an inherent right to take any action necessary to defend and/or free themselves. They were, in fact, free people of color in the eyes of the U.S.

The Court agreed, and the people were freed. Most returned within 2-3 years to their homes in Africa, but some stayed on.

“La Amistad,” by the way, means “friendship” in Spanish.

The more obvious lessons:
  • Slavery is not a good thing.
  • Bad actions often come from those closest to us (ie., Africans enslaving Africans).
  • Churches can make a significant difference in social justice simply by getting involved.
The less obvious lessons (?):
  • Governments can evade moral responsibility by using legal dualities (cf., it’s OK to own slaves, but you can’t import them from other countries).
  • Social justice doesn’t happen on its own, but only by aware and concerned people getting involved.
  • Churches have a responsibility under Scripture to become involved.
  • Doing the right thing on one occasion is no guarantee we’ll do the same right thing later. Case in point ... Congregationalists had an integral part in the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893, only 54 years later. An apology came forth some 100-plus years later (see “rusty tools” below).
Good things can come from bad events, regardless of how distasteful and horrible the nature of the event. However, for those proactive results to occur requires not only God’s intervention, but that of good men and women who look to their God for courage and resolve.

We are His tools in this life. Tools that are not used get rusty and resist working when they are finally picked (or knocked?) off the shelf.

“Amistad Sunday” commemorates not only the tragedy of those who died, but also the joy of the giving of freedom to those who deserved and fought for it. It reminds us of our responsibility as a church, and rightly also reminds us of our pride in a job well done in 1839.