New Amistad Doc Offers A People’s History

Marcus Rediker sat just barely above water in a canoe weighed down by three historians and a fisherman. The narrow wooden vessel struggled to stay afloat as it ferried its passengers through the shark and hippo-infested mangroves of southeastern Sierra Leone.

Rediker, a celebrated historian of the Amistad revolt, and his two American colleagues were desperately searching for Lomboko: the infamous, makeshift slave depot that was the point of departure for untold masses, including the captives who would eventually take over the Amistad, as they made the harrowing transatlantic trip from freedom in West Africa to slavery in the New World.

Although Lomboko today is little more than an unassuming island with artificial sandbanks and overgrown vegetation, Rediker’s guides knew the exact spot of the former baracoons, or slave barracks. Through years of experience on those waters and generations of ancestral storytelling, these local guides helped bring to life a part of the Amistad story that Rediker and his colleagues had travelled thousands of miles to discover: a part of the story about the African captives themselves, told and remembered by contemporary residents of Sierra Leone.

Last Thursday night at the New Haven Museum, Rediker talked to a crowded auditorium about finding Lomboko and the complicated historical memory of slavery in West Africa. The occasion was a free screening of his new documentary, Ghosts of Amistad: In the Footsteps of the Rebels.

“What you have in this film is what you might call history from below: history from below in action,” Rediker said during a brief introduction to the film. “We decided to go to Sierra Leone and talk to people about history, and see what we could learn from them.”

This “history from below” forms the core of Rediker’s approach to understanding the story of the Amistad revolt and its participants, and was the primary impetus for his traveling to Sierra Leone and making this movie. An outgrowth of the 2012 book The Amistad Rebellion, in which Rediker looked deeply into the social and cultural background of the Mende warriors-turned-captives who took control of La Amistad in 1839, Ghosts of Amistad takes another step toward achieving Rediker’s goal of “restoring the African side of the story,” which he fears is all too often lost amid the attention paid to the courtroom drama and its famous American participants.

The movie follows Rediker and two other American experts on Sierra Leone as they wind their way through the West African villages where some of the original Amistad captives came from, and to where at least one, maybe two, returned. Some of the residents and village elders are skeptical of Rediker’s project, reluctant to speak to a white man who may be seeking retribution for the successful, violent overthrow of a Spanish slave-trading ship by African captives over 150 years ago.

But for the most part, the people that Rediker interviews are eager to talk: about the strength and heroism of their ancestors, about the nobility and preservation of their traditions. Though few residents can recall anything pertinent to the specific captives involved in the Amistad revolt, Rediker and his colleagues come to understand the complexities of talking about and remembering slavery in West Africa, a collective historical memory both deep and fragile, almost completely dependent upon oral tradition.

For this is the true revelation of Rediker’s travels and explorations in Ghosts of Amistad (at least for this audience member): The historical memories of these communities, particularly in the small, traditional coastal villages, are built and shared and passed down by stories told from one generation to another. These stories are rich in detail and remarkably accurate, but they are susceptible to one fatal flaw: the threat of premature death. As one person interviewed in Ghosts of Amistad says, there is still truth to the old African proverb that, when an elder dies, a library burns down.

Although Rediker’s movie reveals little new information about the Amistad captives themselves (except for a key discovery of a potentially unrecorded uprising by Sengbe and his fellow compatriots while imprisoned on Lemboko), Ghosts of Amistad succeeds most at capturing a critical, popular, and all-too-often overlooked perspective on this epochal event: that of contemporary Africans. This type of “history from below,” when done honestly and with empathy, offers the rare opportunity to better understand the ways in which different communities process, pass down, remember, and forget a history as monumental as that of slavery: a history that inextricably binds the people of America and Sierra Leone, New Haven and Lomboko.

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