essays

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Aug-Dec, 1839

Hannibal on the Amistad

The Collected Writings of Nathaniel Peabody Rogers

Rogers introduces Cinques and the Amistad rebels, who showed that a chance at liberty and autonomy was more precious than life under slavery.

Editor’s Note

For our next set of selections from abolitionist editor Nathaniel Rogers, we have a set of articles reflecting on Joseph Cinques and the Amistad Rebellion bookended by more abstract reflections on slavery and freedom. In our first article, Rogers responds to the proslavery argument that after emancipation the Caribbean economy collapsed. Without slavery, the region’s black population preferred to grow pumpkins and corn over sugar and cotton. To the proponents of a mechanized, modernized, fully organized society, emancipation was a demonstrable failure and market prices for export commodities were evidence that free labor was irrational labor. As Rogers writes, though, now that “the colored man is no longer doomed and devoted and sacrificed to sugar making,” he “has something else to do.” The revolutionary component of emancipation was not free labor’s ability to produce greater yields of cash crops; rather, liberty’s surplus was the power of individual choice. True self-governance is so valuable it supersedes the concept of value. Their masters desired to control everything, including the slave’s power over their own life or death, and slaves routinely attempted and committed suicide aboard-ship and on the plantation to exercise even the most meager control over their circumstances. During hunger strikes, slavers would use torture implements to force food down the offender’s throat. The message was clear: you have no rights, not even the right to die as you please. Slavery’s brutal violence was meant to inspire hopelessness and submission, which plainly worked—perhaps even in most cases. It also inspired legendary heroism and desperate revolution.

Africans like Joseph Cinques (Sengbe Pieh), a Mende farmer and warrior, often committed themselves to revolution or death. African slave traders captured Cinques in 1839 and sold him to Pedro Blanco, a Portuguese trader illegally transporting slaves across the Atlantic. The slave ship Tecora shipped Cinques and his company to Cuba and sold him to the Spaniards Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montez. Now aboard the Amistad, Cinques and his fellow members of the African martial circle, the Poro Society, planned and executed a successful revolt. The rebels killed the ship’s captain and cook, took Montez and Ruiz captive, and steered back to Africa. Montez and Ruiz sabotaged the course, hoping to attract Spanish naval attention, and the Amistad ended up off the coast of Long Island. The American navy seized the Africans and imprisoned them on charges of piracy and murder. Cinques and his conspirators for liberty quickly became celebrities beloved by some and villainized by most. Rogers’ initial impressions illustrate his commitments to individual liberty at all reasonable costs, without irrational fear of the cultural other. But Rogers was painfully aware that his universalist liberalism was a rare sentiment in the United States, and as his final essay mournfully suggests, Cinques’ prospects for liberty would have fared much better had they only made it a bit further north.

Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

A Collection from the Newspapers Writings of Nathaniel Peabody Rogers

Concord: John R. French. 1847.

“Emancipation in the West Indies,” Herald of Freedom 31 August, 1839

Complaints are frequently made that it does not work well. The great proof is, that the sugar crop is lessened. And why should not it be lessened, if emancipation works well or works at all? Before emancipation, the sugar crop was all in all. It was the whole crop and fruit of slavery. All was raised and made that could be, and as much exported and as little consumed at home, as could be. It was the slave’s business to produce—not consume. Now he is emancipated; and what follows? Why, there is something else to be done in the islands, beside the sweet work of making sugar to sell and nourish the idle masters. The colored man is no longer doomed and devoted and sacrificed to sugar making. It is not now “the chief end of man” there.

The man has something else to do. He has houses to build, to live in. His land to carry on, to raise provision on. He eats some of the sugar he makes, and does not leave it all to swell the crop for the market. He has to help build the school-house and the chapel, ay, the CHAPEL. There is great call for chapels in the West Indies. Chapels are looking up there. Chapels are rising. There is fencing to make, we take it, and premises to rig up and repair and make comfortable. The women too are leaving the field, and turning their hands to house-work. They are quitting their sphere in the cane-field, and betaking themselves to domestic institutions. And the children—they are going to school, and instead of making sugar, making progress in the a b ab business. This draws off a good share of the effective force from the sweet business of the plantation. And after all, only one twentieth of the crop is diminished, from the utmost result of the whole slave force of the islands,—driven at the top of their speed, at high-pressure whip-power…such is the superior vigor and productiveness of free, over slave labor. The crop will by and by increase twenty-fold. Not all for exportation, to be sure—for [home] consumption…for there is getting to be HOMES in the West Indies. “Sunrise” no longer “brings sorrow” there. “Childhood is” no more “wintry” in the sunny isles of the Carribean. Other things will be raised there, beside sugar, which, sweet as it is, is but a poor and bitter staff of life. Man cannot live by sugar alone. How unnatural and gloomy, to have those glorious gardens doomed to that solitary production! To have the patient and generous earth enslaved and prostituted to the unsightly and unsocial production of a single article only, and that not the staff of life—not bread—not grown to live on, but to sell, to enrich those who did not sweat in its production, only as they toiled with the whip, to drive unrequited (or thus requited) labor out of the wretched slave.

The earth never would spontaneously give her strength to such an unnatural production. She wants to yield food for man and beast, and not mere merchandise. She wants to yield it, too, to free labor. She joys to have her bosom vexed with the free ploughshare, and shaven with the scythe and the sickle of the shouting husbandman, who owns her fee simple. She likes to be ploughed and dressed by her own lords paramount—“them and their heirs forever.” She likes to be freehold in the hands of those who cultivate her acquaintance and her surface. Yes, emancipation works gloriously in the West Indies. A friend told us this morning that a gentleman in New York, recently from Jamaica, complained to him that he had to leave, in consequence of emancipation. He was an overseer. He had to quit for want of employ, poor gentleman. Others had to do the same. There was nobody left in the island to oversee, or overlook. He brought an immense lot of gold and silver from the West Indies with him that he had earned there. The Wall street sharpers got hold of him, and eased him of the whole of it. It reminded us of the eagle plundering the fish-hawk. We are glad the money has got into comparatively honest hands.

“The African Strangers,” Herald of Freedom 21 September, 1839

We are inclined to treat their case as an abolitionist, rather than as an inquirer into their liabilities under the rules and regulations of this slaveholding country, called laws. As an abolitionist we say, defying contradiction, that they ought not for a moment to be kept under duress. The whole procedure against them…is all of a piece. It is pro-slavery violence all of it. This is what we take notice of. We shall not trouble ourselves or our readers to go through the legal authorities or arguments bearing on the case of these imprisoned men. If they would treat them as they do white men, we don’t so much care as to the result. Their lives are as important and no more so, than any other equal number of human beings of the great multi-colored and dispersed family. We look to see what hand slavery has in disposing of them, and to make what use we can of the whole occurrence against the infernal institution of slaveholding. And though we feel no small interest in the heroic Cinques, we don’t claim that he have his life and his rights merely because he is a hero or a master spirit, but because he is a man…We are aware that a good deal of enthusiasm displayed by the pro-slavery press is based upon any thing rather than justice and a love of the right. It forgets Cinques’ color, in admiration of his valor and his talent and personal prowess. But all this will evaporate by and by, when we call on it to carry out the feeling in behalf of three millions of Cinques’ brethren and sisters, who are now weltering in the slough of slavery in this country. Why don’t this sympathy rise for them? Who shall kindle at the wrongs of Cinques, and sneer at the infinitely greater sufferings of the plantation? If they hang Cinques, they won’t defeat him of the chief object of his rising. He rose for liberty. He has got that, and if he dies, he dies a freeman. Liberty will be cheaply purchased by death. Death is infinitely lighter than slavery. He loses his country, his sweet home, his dear wife and children…

But they won’t hang him. We are fearful they won’t try him. The sovereignty of Cuba is making application to Van Buren to deliver up this stray property. See if he will incur the frown of the South, and hazard the bauble of the presidency by refusing. Try them and acquit them and treat them as innocent men, or as MEN, the country won’t dare do, unless in this moment of excitement, and conquered for the hour by Cinques’ William Tell prowess…What will become of the Union? The South would get together in the Rotunda at Charleston, and with flaming speeches from Calhoun and Preston, dissolve it into non-entity. They would stare at the North so fiercely, that it would go into dough-faced hysterics. They won’t dare acquit. And to condemn will be a delicate matter. Counsel are engaged who will be compelled by their oaths to unfold the whole law, and to show forth their right of acquittal by our own Venetian justice, and the full reasons of acquittal will be recorded, and the nation will read it, and the blood of murdered Cinques will cry in ears that were deaf as the adder to the voice of Lovejoy’s. They will hardly dare hang. Cuba will relieve the republic. She will ask her imperial sister for her slaves. She will get them. The brave Cinques crosses the Gulf stream once more, and should God not open to his mighty genius some second way to victory and liberty, or his unwary tyrants slacken his chain, so that he might bound indignantly over the vessel’s side, and escape them in the depths of the ocean, they will revenge upon him the daring effrontery that raised hand against the divine prerogative of mastery. They won’t attempt to get him to the plantation. They have no fancy to undertake reducing him, breaking him, making his Hannibal form handy in the reptile harness. No overseer would covet the management of him. He would as soon harness the “unicorn” to “harrow the valleys after” him. He would gladly swap Cinques for almost any pro-slavery editor in the New England states, and pay that boot which is due to the servility of spirit that would make a slave. No, they would save his more docile and submissive companions for the plantation, but they would make of the gallant hero a signal example of slaveholder’s vengeance, which knows no bounds. Those laughing Afric girls would be reared to adorn, by and by, Don Jose Ruez’s harem, that young gentleman, who so interested the New London editor, and the United States naval officer. He would undoubtedly requite these republican sympathisers, should they hereafter visit his Cuba plantation, with all sorts of hospitality.

“Cinques,” Herald of Freedom 28 September, 1839

We are inclined to call the noble African by this name, although he is called by as many different titles as our republicanism offers reasons for enslaving his people. We have seen a woodcut representation of the royal fellow. It looks as we should think it would. It answers well to his lion-like character. The head has the towering front of Webster, and though some shades darker than our great countryman, we are struck, at first sight, with his resemblance to him. He has Webster’s lion-aspect—his majestic, quiet, uninterested cast of expression, looking, when at rest, as if there was nobody and nothing about him to care about or look at. His eye is deep, heavy—the cloudy iris extending up behind the brow almost inexpressive, and yet as if volcanoes of action might be asleep behind it. It looks like the black sea or the ocean in a calm—an unenlightened eye, as Webster’s would have looked, had he been bred in the desert, among the lions, as Cinques was, and if, instead of poring upon Homer and Shakespeare and Coke and the Bible, (for Webster read the Bible when he was young, and got his regal style there) it had rested, from savage boyhood, on the sands and sky of Africa. It looks like a wilderness—a grand, but uninhabited city—more on the whole like woods and wilderness than fields or villages. For, after all, nature predominates greatly in the eye of our majestic countryman.

The nose and mouth of Cinques are African. We discover the expanded and powerful nostril mentioned in the description, and can fancy readily its contractions and dilations, as he made those addresses to his countrymen, and called upon them to rush, with a greater than Spartan spirit, upon the countless white people, who, he apprehended, would doom them to a life of slavery. He has none of the look of an Indian—nothing of the savage. It is a gentle, magnanimous, generous look, not so much of the warrior as the sage; a sparing and not a destructive look, like the lion’s, when unaroused by hunger or the spear of the huntsman. It must have flashed terribly upon that midnight deck, when he was dealing with the wretched [Spaniard slavers].

We bid pro-slavery look upon Cinques, and behold in him the race we are enslaving. He is a sample. Every Congolese and Mandingan is not, be sure, a Cinques. Nor was every Corsican a Napoleon, or every Yankee a Webster. “Giants are rare,” said Ames, “and it is forbidden that there should be races of them.” But call not the race inferior, which in now and then an age produces such men.

Our shameless people have made merchandise of the likeness of Cinques, as they have of the originals of his (and their own) countrymen. They had the effrontery to look him in the face long enough to delineate it, and at his eye long enough to copy its wonderful expression.

By the way, Webster ought to come home to defend Cinques. He ought to have no counsel short of his twin-spirit. His defence were a nobler subject for Webster’s giant intellect, than the Foote resolutions or Calhoun’s nullification. There is, indeed, no defence to make. It would give Webster occasion to strike at the slave trade and at our people for imprisoning and trying a man admitted to have risen only against the worst of pirates, and for more than life—for liberty, for country, and for home.

Webster should vindicate him, if he must be tried. Old Marshall would be the man to try him. And after his most honorable acquittal and triumph, a ship should be sent to convey him to his country—not an American ship. They are all too near akin to “the low, long, black schooner.” A British ship—old Nelson’s line-of-battle, if it is yet afloat, the one he had at Trafalgar; and Hardy, Nelson’s captain, were a worthy sailor to command it to Africa. He would steer more honestly than the treacherous old Spaniard. He would steer them toward the sunrise, by night as well as by day. An old British sea captain would have scorned to betray the noble Cinques. He would have been as faithful as the compass.

We wait to see the fate of the African hero. We feel no anxiety for him. The country can’t reach him. He is above their reach and above death. He has conquered death. But his wife and his children—they who “Weep beside the cocoa-tree”—

And we wait to see the bearings of this providential event upon American slavery.

“The North Star,” Herald of Freedom 7 December, 1839.

John Pierpont has turned all free eyes to this glorious little arctic luminary, which is henceforward to be the queen of the night firmament. His “Fugitive’s Slave’s Apostrophe”…seems to us a star in the sky [of] poetry…

We cannot read this glorious “Apostrophe” without tears of admiration and wonder,—no more at the beauty of the thought and the starry magnificence of the numbers, than at the sublime appreciation it displays of the “fugitive’s” manhood—hunted by the man-robber of the South and his fellows-hounds;—while his mouth is thus filled with deathless poetry. We mark him henceforth as a poet, as well as “a man and a brother.” It is no fiction, though it be poetry, that the bard here sets forth. Our fugitive brother feels it all as he flies. His manhood awakens as he speeds his way, and the star he follows fills his soul with hope and inspiration. How keenly his dark vision scans the northern firmament for its evening appearance! How impatiently he watches till God lights his blessed lamp, and hangs it in his northward way! With what anxiety he witnesses the intervening float of the “fleecy drapery of the sky!” He scrutinizes the shrouded pole till it shines again.—There it is yet! He blesses God and “presses on;” his eagerness and his aspirations scarcely surpassed, in holy sublimity, by those of the men who followed the star of Bethlehem. He goes for liberty—HUMAN LIBERTY, a boon of inestimable preciousness. Men have learned here to undervalue it. He flees like Pilgrim—from the city of Destruction.

How inexpressibly tender the fugitive’s benediction for the gentle star-beam, that rests upon the spring where he stoops to drink, and where he reposes at approach of day;—and who can hear, without shrinking and thrilling with cold fear, “In the dark top of southern pines, I nestled when the driver’s horn,” &c.

But we can’t review. It is above our province. We can’t stay for it, any more than can our panting brother. We and he are on the way to liberty. We thank the noble bard in behalf of our flying brother and of our cause. We trust the time will come he need not fly. The Apostrophe is a star to guide men to our cause. It sheds lustre upon it in the eyes of all lovers of genius. Men cannot scorn the enterprise that enlists such talent. It will attract eyes not to be attracted by the flame of liberty.

But, O! shame to New England, that the fugitive cannot rest amid all her hills! That he must be fugitive still—along her bold streams! There is no rest for his tired foot in all her borders. The star of liberty rests not over the Pilgrim States. The “wise men” who follow it, do not find it “coming and standing over us.” Our mountain region, the very home and haunt for freedom—it in only the highway to liberty—and the indignant spirit, as it traverses it in quest of disenthralment, must say of it, as the surly Johnson did, when he said of Scottish prospects, that “the only fine one was the high road that led to England.” Our only natural fine prospect is that of the high road to Canada and liberty.


Further Reading:  Marcus Rediker, The Amistad Rebellion: An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom. Penguin. 2013.

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