Amistad: Fact vs Fiction

Steven Spielberg’s 1997 film “Amistad” is a true story with some fictionalized elements. It is based on the rebellion of enslaved West African individuals aboard the Spanish vessel La Amistad (which ironically means ‘friendship’), led by Sengbe Pieh, more known as Cinque. While they were later put on trial for murder in the United States, former President John Quincy Adams played a key role in their eventual return to their homeland. However, the movie sacrifices important characters and includes unrelated storylines, deviating from the actual events surrounding the Amistad case. Here are the true facts surrounding the case.


  1. Cinque (Djimon Honsou) did not free himself by pulling the nail from the ship’s floor to break his chains; instead, he used a file discreetly given to him by a fellow captive (a woman) from the Tecora, the ship transporting them to Cuba, where they were then transferred to the Amistad.


  2. When the Mende broke free, they first killed the ship’s cook Celestino, who tauntingly warned them about their captors’ intention to kill and eat them, followed by the captain. The film omits the ship’s cook and the sailors who escaped in a lifeboat. Additionally, two captives lost their lives during the struggle.


  3. Jose Ruiz (Geno Silba) and Pedro Montez (John Ortiz) had a creole named Antonio as an interpreter when the Africans told them to sail back to their country, but he is absent in the film.


  4. Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montez, sailing under African command at night, pass an English ship holding a party. However, no vessel came within sight of the Amistad following the mutiny. The ship was repeatedly sighted along the East Coast of the United States due to Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montez deceiving the captives by providing false directions to sail back to West Africa. Lieutenant Thomas R. Gedney, commanding the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service ship USS Washington captured La Amistad and the Africans with the help of his officers and crew after some Africans went ashore to find food and water.


  5. The elderly abolitionist and former slave Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman) who is a colleague to the Amistad case’s most important abolitionist, Christian activist Lewis Tappan (Stellan Skarsgard) while not a historical character, represents free and wealthy African-Americans during the 1800s even though the story is set in 1839. However, there were African-American abolitionists involved in the case (including one who was also a shipyard owner), but they operated separately from their white correlatives. Tappan’s real (and main) colleagues were Joshua Leavitt and Simeon Jocelyn, who co-founded the Amistad Committee to raise funds for the defence of the captives. Joadson may also have drawn inspiration from the African-American abolitionist and businessman James Forten who was an influence for Tappan as well.


  6. Lewis Tappan was indeed a prominent founder of the newspaper known as The Emancipator but there was no evidence that he owned several banks as the film implies and most of the businesses, he was involved in were related to the abolition of slavery. Instead, he worked strongly with the Christian Church and put his faith in God to fight for the Amistad captives.


  7. Roger Sherman Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey), the lawyer representing the Amistad captives, was an experienced and orthodox practitioner. Despite unknown personal beliefs regarding God, he respected Lewis Tappan’s approach of seeking faith for assistance in the case.


  8. When the elderly former president and politician John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins) is introduced, he is shown sleeping during a meeting at the White House who expects a statement from him and aware that he is about to be woken up, speaks with closed eyes. He never did this at any point and was always attentive in political proceedings.


  9. In the film John Quincy Addams says he neither stands for slavery nor does he go against it when Lewis Tappan and Theodore Joadson approach him to help join the case in the fight for justice concerning the Amistad Africans. Instead, he simply stated that while he was against slavery, he felt he could not take the case at which Tappan hired Roger Baldwin. Also unlike the film where Tappan and Joadson at first do not approve of Baldwin and only hire him when Addams turns down the offer to fight the case, Tappan was one of many people who appointed Baldwin and was completely open to having him represent the Mende whereas in the film, Joadson is the one slowly opening up to Baldwin and this convinces Tappan to do so after Baldwin proves that the captives came from West Africa and were transported from the Tecora to the Amistad in Cuba thanks to documents found aboard the Amistad since the prosecution during charging the captives with murder said that the captives came from Cuba itself.


  10. After the election of Coughlin as the new judge in the Amistad case, instigated by President Martin Van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne), much to the fury of Roger Baldwin Theodore Joadson to try to help Baldwin, visits John Quincy Addams in Massachusetts to persuade him to join the case. However, Addams had been reading about the case, and both Lewis Tappan and Baldwin separately attempted to convince him to join at different times although he still asserted he was not sure if he could join the case. Judson, the previous judge, was not entirely replaced and presided over the case alternatively with Coughlin, ruling in favour of the Africans as shown in the film.


  11. Josiah Gibbs (Austin Pendleton), an abolitionist, linguist, and theologist, tried to interpret the captives’ language. Learning to count from 1 to 10 in Mende, he chanted the numbers around the bay, hoping to connect with those who understood the words. Eventually, he encountered James Covey (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a former slave and sailor, who assisted him in translating the Amistad captives’ testimonies. The film simplifies the process, showing Gibbs teaching Roger Baldwin and Theodore Joadson to count in Mende, leading them to find Covey. Unlike depicted in the movie (where his real name is Kai Naiaguya), Covey’s African name was ‘Kaweli,’ meaning ‘war road,’ and he was under Lewis Tappan’s protection, not Baldwin’s or an African-American abolitionist’s. Charles Pratt, a British sailor, accompanied Covey but was not shown in the film, while Covey stayed in New Haven, and Pratt’s whereabouts remained unknown after leaving on another ship.


  12. No captives died in custody unlike what the film shows. Out of 49 Africans, only 35 survived. Some died during the mutiny, others were abused or drowned themselves. Also none of the Mende were tied and thrown overboard like in the film, nor were any of the women raped.


  13. Most of the story is narrated from Cinque’s perspective as he the only Amistad captive approached by Roger Baldwin and his defence team to testify before the federal court through James Covey. Only three of the Africans, including Cinque, spoke Mende and testified about their reasons for mutiny on the Amistad. Apart from an African-American on trial, no other African-American, even an abolitionist, could enter the White House or a courtroom. Baldwin’s defense team when going to meet Cinque, consisted of Lewis Tappan and several other abolitionists as they spoke to Cinque through Covey in prison before the court appearance, where he shared his story. Tappan also arranged for several Yale University students to tutor the captives in English.


  14. Nothing was ever mentioned about Cinque killing a lion that was terrorizing his people or keeping any animal tooth (unless it was a huge rock, it is highly unlikely that any stone could have killed a lion when thrown at the animal). Also, his family was only mentioned by him when he went to court.


  15. When various witnesses or people with knowledge of the Amistad case testify in court, Cinque, having mastered some English, impressively thunders ‘Give us free!’ in English, gaining admiration from supporters and fellow captives as well as African-Americans. Although he did try to learn English, he refrained from openly protesting in court.


  16. During the victory in the federal court where the judge rules in favour of the Africans, the film shows Seniors Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montez being arrested for transporting them, but in reality, they were simply sent back to their homeland and banned from setting foot in the United States. While it may have been possible that they continued being involved in slavery, their involvement in the slave trade and whereabouts remain unknown.


  17. When the case is appealed to the supreme court after victory in the federal court due to President Martin Van Buren who has been pressured by South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun (played by Arliss Howard), Theodore Joadson and Roger Baldwin are about to break the news to Cinque when Lewis Tappan who is furious at the decision to approach the supreme court splits up with his colleague and the lawyer. It is true that Tappan was disappointed at the decision to appeal the case to the supreme court and did leave but unlike the film it was only temporarily. In fact, after he departed, he and another attorney as well as abolitionist Ellis Gray Loring were asked by Baldwin to visit John Quincy Addams at his new home whereupon Addams agreed to join Baldwin to represent the Africans in the Supreme Court which later ruled in favour of the Amistad captives thanks to them. Although Tappan despite having attended the earlier trials, never attended the Supreme Court trial (and its verdict) in person, thanks to another person involved in the American Missionary Association which was an abolitionist movement that he was involved with, he learnt of the success in the supreme court wrote and sent a letter to Addams the next day thanking him and the two met a few days later to catch up on how they had been since the achievement of the case, and he did so with Baldwin after that as well. Unlike the film where Tappan believes martyrdom of the captives may help in the case, he never held such an opinion, especially from his commitment in hiring Yale University students to tutor the Amistad Africans in English as well as the Bible’s New Testament Scriptures and Christian hymns. Later realizing his dream of Christianizing Africa, he encouraged the Mende to take Christianity back with them and introduce the religion to their land after being able to raise enough funds to get them home.


  18. In the film, Roger Baldwin writes to John Quincy Addams to help with the case, and Addams eventually agrees. However, in reality, as mentioned above, it was not only writing to Addams but also requesting Lewis Tappan to approach the former president for assistance in the case and Addams agreed, thanks to Tappan. Also, unlike the film, Cinque was not familiar with investigating treaties and did not ask James Covey to take questions to Addams. Despite these differences, Cinque did not ignore Baldwin due to being disgusted and enraged at the case having reached the Supreme Court and agreed to retry the case, focusing on freeing himself and his comrades without any mention of potential freedom through a judgment.


  19. John Quincy Addams never met Cinque or James Covey. Also, during the case at the Supreme Court, when he argued for the freedom of the captives, his speech in the film was fictionalized and not as lengthy as portrayed even though he did declare the Africans to be free people. Addams also encouraged Roger Baldwin, not himself, to deliver the final statement. None of the Amistad captives, including Cinque or Covey, were present in court. Additionally, the African violet that moved Cinque which was kept by Addams was not native to West Africa but Tanzania (in East Africa).


  20. The court did rule in favour of the Mende captives, declaring them free individuals with legal and moral rights, including the right to combat those who denied them their freedom due to being kidnapped and sold illegally, thus dropping the charges of murder and mutiny against them, which were brought upon them by district attorney William Holabird (played by Pete Postlethwaite). However, the film depicts their return to West Africa and the destruction of the lomboko fortress where they were taken before being transported to the United States. In real life, since the President was not required to return the captives to Africa due to them having arrived on American soil as free people, efforts in fundraising to get them back to their homes were made by American courts, Roger Baldwin and abolitionists including Tappan to return them to Africa since they were no longer the property of Queen Isabella of Spain (Anna Paquin). The final arrangements were made by James W.C. Pennington, an escaped slave and abolitionist (as well as a Congregational Church minister) who was the founder of the United Missionary Society (but is not in the film) and they eventually returned home in 1841 aboard a ship called ‘The Gentleman’. The lomboko fortress was destroyed, and its slaves were rescued in 1849, ten years after the court ruling.


  21. Once Cinque returned home, he found his country torn apart by civil war and his family missing. In his quest to find them, he joined the war and conflicting reports about his fate emerged; some claimed he joined the slave trade, while others believed he returned to farming. Tragically, he never reunited with his family and suffered mortal wounds in the conflict, receiving a Christian burial at his request before passing away. Similarly, James Covey, who remained engaged in the civil war, fell victim to a mysterious illness and passed away after being moved between villages before Cinque’s death.



  22. The unsuccessful re-election of President Martin Van Buren as a result of the Supreme Court ruling in favour of the Africans was not the sole factor leading to the American Civil War in the 1860s. Queen Isabella of Spain, who was to receive captives if the case was lost in the United States, attempted multiple appeals to the supreme court for a retrial, all of which were denied. Additionally, the film’s portrayal of Queen Isabella as being in her early 10s contrasts with her actual age in reality (though it is unknown how old she was at the time of the case). The movie’s depiction of the Civil War includes references to films by Steven Spielberg and Morgan Freeman. Freeman starred in “Glory” (1989), directed by Edward Zwick, which centred on the first African-American unit fighting in the war (although the soldiers in the unit were fictionalised in the movie). Freeman portrayed a grave-digger who joins the unit, which was advised by real-life African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass (Raymond St. Jacques) and soldier Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick) who led the unit. Spielberg’s “Lincoln” (2012) continues the story of the Civil War, showing President Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) successfully appealing the Thirteenth Amendment to abolish slavery and involuntary servitude, with the aim of ending the Civil War and granting African-Americans the same rights as others. 


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