SUBJECTS — U.S./1812 – 1860 & Diversity;
SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Justice; Courage; Rebellion; Human Rights;
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Respect; Caring; Citizenship.
AGE; 14+; MPAA Rating – R (for violence and language)
Drama; 1996; 138 minutes; Color. Available from Amazon.com.
MOVIE WORKSHEETS & STUDENT HANDOUTS
TWM offers the following movie worksheets to keep students’ minds on the film and to focus their attention on the lessons to be learned from the movie.
Teachers can modify the movie worksheets to fit the needs of each class. See also TWM’s Historical Fiction in Film Cross-Curricular Homework Project and Movies as Literature Homework Project.
This movie is a fictionalized account of the 1839 revolt by illegally enslaved Africans aboard the Spanish ship, Le Amistad. When the ship was seized on the high seas by a U.S. Navy vessel, abolitionists filed a court case to free the Africans. The trial and subsequent appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court highlighted to the public the evils of slavery and is seen as a major step toward turning the North against the South’s “peculiar institution.” The litigation involved a sitting President of the United States, a former President, and the Queen of Spain. For the captives, the outcome would determine whether they lived their lives in freedom or in slavery.
SELECTED AWARDS & CAST
Selected Awards: 1998 Academy Awards Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Hopkins); Cinematography; Best Music; Best Costume Design; 1998 Golden Globe Awards Nominations: Best Picture; Best Director (Spielberg); Best Actor (Hounsou) and Best Supporting Actor (Hopkins).
Featured Actors: Djimon Hounsou, Morgan Freeman, Anthony Hopkins, Nigel Hawthorne and Matthew McConaughey.
Director: Steven Spielberg.
BENEFITS OF THE MOVIE
Amistad illustrates the horrors of the slave trade as it clarifies the divisive nature of the slavery issue in the United States. It exposes the tolerance of slavery by most Northerners as well as the power of the abolitionist movement. Moreover, the separation of powers in the U.S. Government, the workings of the court system, and the historical figure of John Quincy Adams are all important elements in the story
Using this Learning Guide: History and ELA classes: students will gain insight into the experience of captives, the efforts of abolitionists and the legal issues involved in slavery. They will exercise their research and writing skills through assignments at the film’s end.
Moderate: This film includes violence and brief nudity in its depictions of the captives’ ordeal. Amistad contains many historical errors, although the broad outline of the story is accurate.
This film may be shown in your child’s history class when the period of slavery is studied; but if not, it is a fine film to suggest that your child watches in order to become more viscerally aware of the history of slavery in the U.S.
OTHER WEBSITES AND LESSON PLANS
There are several sites on the Internet which provide excellent information on the case of the Amistad. They include:
- The Amistad Case and Its Consequences in U.S. History;
- The Amistad Revolt;
- Supreme Court Proceedings Relating to the Case;
- Mr. Adams’ Argument before the Court
Some of the original documents in the case are online at the National Archives. There is no need for this Learning Guide to restate the valuable information provided by these websites.
HISTORICAL ERROR IN AMISTAD
There are a number of articles on the web that discuss the many historical errors in the film: They include Review of “Amistad” by Sally Hadden of Florida State University; See also Sanello, Reel v. Real: How Hollywood Turns Fact Into Fiction, Taylor Trade Publishing, 2003.
The changes which the movie makes to historical fact include the following:
The changes to the historical record described in the last two paragraphs of the Pre-Viewing Enrichment Worksheet.
There is no basis to believe that Mr. Tappan wanted the Amistad Africans sacrificed for the benefit of the abolitionist movement. The scene in which he proposes this was, most certainly, placed in the film to raise the question of whether the ends justify the means. Mr. Tappan’s life was devoted to freeing captive slaves. “The Rev. Thomas F. Dipko [head of the United Church of Christ’s Board of Homeland Ministries, which is a descendant of the organizations which grew out of the Amistad incident] regretted that the film made no mention of the Job-like plagues both [Tappan and his brother] suffered because of their abolitionist activities. Mobs attacked Lewis Tappan’s dry-goods store, the largest in New York, and his brother Arthur’s mansion. Arthur once found a slave’s ear in a box in his mailbox. Insurance carriers canceled their policies after pro-slavery vigilantes put a price on the brothers’ heads….”
The trial and legal proceedings are portrayed as something completely foreign to the Amistad Africans. However, most of the captives were Mende. In Africa, the Mende governed themselves under a democratic system which also had a highly developed judicial system. Judges and trials were something the Mende knew from home. Thus, by testifying in U.S. District Court, Cinque was not acting in an environment that was completely foreign to him.
The Amistad Africans were not represented by some fly-by-night lawyer scratching for a living but fighting the good fight alone. Several successful lawyers represented the captives. They were Roger Sherman Baldwin (later to become a U.S. Senator), Theodore Sedgwick, and Seth Staples (who later founded Yale’s law school). Baldwin and Adams argued the case before the Supreme Court, with Mr. Baldwin making the arguments that the Court eventually adopted.
The film version of the argument before the Supreme Court misrepresents the real issues which were presented to the Court and on which it made its decision. The argument on behalf of the Amistad Africans and the decision of the Court focused on the legality of the slave trade on the high seas rather than, as shown in the movie, the captives’ inalienable right to freedom.
The abolitionist Joadson is fictional as is the crypto-Catholic Judge Coughlin that President Van Buren allegedly hoped to improperly influence. This second fictional character was unnecessary because the judge who heard the case was initially anti-abolitionist and prejudiced against the Amistad Africans. However, through the course of the trial he changed his mind. This could have been made extremely dramatic but was ignored by the filmmakers.
USING THE MOVIE IN THE CLASSROOM
Enrichment Worksheets are a TWM innovation containing text and questions designed to get students thinking. Questions are focused on comprehension, application, analysis, syntheses or evaluation. Questions can be answered in class or as homework, as quick writes, journal entries, formal essays, or research papers. For a version of the Worksheet in word processing format, click here.
Post-Viewing Enrichment Worksheet for Amistad
The Africans on board the Amistad had been seized and transported to Cuba, a Spanish territory, after Spain had outlawed the slave trade. The holding of the Supreme Court at the end of the trial was based on the law of Spain. The Court stated that:
. . . They are natives of Africa, and were kidnapped there, and were unlawfully transported to Cuba, in violation of the laws and treaties of Spain, and the most solemn edicts and declarations of that government. By those laws, and treaties, and edicts, the African slave trade is utterly abolished; the dealing in that trade is deemed a heinous crime; and the Negroes thereby introduced into the dominions of Spain, are declared to be free. The Amistad, 40 U.S. 518, 593.
The right of insurrection is a natural right of all men. It is the right to rise up and throw off an evil regime, and more broadly, to take violent action against oppressors. The right of insurrection is recognized in the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness — That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
The Supreme Court recognized the captives’ right of insurrection and rejected the claim that they were pirates or murderers:
If then, these negroes are not slaves, but are kidnapped Africans, who, by the laws of Spain itself, are entitled to their freedom, and were kidnapped and illegally carried to Cuba, and illegally detained and restrained on board the Amistad; there is no pretence to say, that they are pirates or robbers. We may lament the dreadful acts, by which they asserted their liberty, and took possession of the Amistad, and endeavored to regain their native country; but they cannot be deemed pirates or robbers in the sense of the law of nations… The Amistad, 40 U.S. 518, 593 & 594.
Question 1: What irony can be found in the fact that the courts issued this decision at a time when slavery remained legal in the U.S.?
The case of the Amistad had lasting effects on the United States for at least two reasons. Once it was recognized that the Amistad Africans had the same rights as anyone to freedom, to return to their families, and to revolt against their enslavers, the question then arose: “How are these black people, born in Africa, any different from black people born into slavery in the United States?” The obvious answer was that an accident of birth should make no difference at all. Once it was admitted that the Amistad Africans had the right to their freedom, there was no logical justification for the continued enslavement of blacks in the United States. Dramatically brought to the public’s attention by the Amistad incident, this logic turned many in the North against slavery. But abolitionists were still not a majority. That didn’t happen until sometime during the Civil War.
Question 2: Although the arguments of the abolitionists, as demonstrated by the case of the Amistad Africans are logical and compelling, the U.S. had to fight a bitter civil war to end slavery. What may be some of the reasons people in the North might have wanted to continue the practice of slavery?
The second lasting effect of the Amistad incident was that the committee of abolitionists formed to defend and care for the Amistad Africans stayed together. After the captives returned to Africa, the committee sent a mission to Christianize them and other Africans. The committee developed into the American Missionary Association (“AMA”) when it merged with two other missionary antislavery societies in 1846. For the next hundred years, the AMA sought to enhance educational opportunities for blacks and other minorities in the United States.
After 1850, the AMA focused primarily on abolitionist activities. During the Civil War the AMA opened schools for slaves freed by the Union Armies. These schools were open to all students and often operated as integrating institutions during Reconstruction. As the South recovered from the effects of the war and developed public school systems, the AMA gave its elementary and secondary schools, numbering more than 500, to state and local governments. It then concentrated on improving and expanding colleges for blacks in the South. Ten predominantly black colleges arose from the AMA’s efforts: Atlanta University, Berea College, Dillard University, Fisk University, Hampton Institute (now Hampton University), Howard University, Huston-Tillotson College, Le Moyne College, Talladega College, and Tougaloo College. The AMA also conducted educational and other social programs for Native Americans, Asians, and migrant laborers.
Question 3: Religion played a significant role in achieving freedom for slaves and assisting former slaves and black Americans as a whole to build a decent life. What do you recall from your study of the Civil Rights Movement that indicates how the impact of churches remains important in the advance of black Americans?
Although the film does a fine job of illustrating the issues and beliefs leading to the Civil War, it commits a historical error in the unduly harsh portrayal of the abolitionist movement. The abolitionists were serious forward-looking people. History has proved that they were right to protest a barbaric and inhumane institution. Yet in the film, abolitionists are shown praying and singing religious songs outside of the Africans’ prison. The implication is that they should have been doing something to help the captives. Their actions are portrayed as trivial. However, these abolitionists were “bearing witness.” Their purpose was to awaken the conscience of the country to the sin of slavery as well as to the plight of the Amistad Africans. “Bearing witness” has been an important part of any movement for social change from biblical times to the present. This power and honorable history of bearing witness is not only missed in the film, it is denigrated.
Another error lies in the fact that there is no basis to believe that Mr. Arthur Tappan, a historical figure, wanted the Amistad Africans sacrificed for the benefit of the abolitionist movement. The scene in which he proposes this was, most certainly, placed in the film to raise the question of whether the ends justify the means. Arthur Tappan ‘s life was devoted to freeing slaves. Both Tappan and his brother faced serious consequences, sometimes violent, from their anti-slavery activities. Lewis Tappan’s dry-goods store and Arthur’s home were attacked by angry pro-slavery mobs. Both men had a price on their heads in the South and on one occasion a slave’s ear was found in Arthur’s mailbox.
After the film has been watched, engage the class in a discussion about the movie.
1. In 1839, the time of the Amistad incident until well into the Civil War, most people in the U.S. either supported slavery or were willing to tolerate its existence. Can you explain this?
Many in the North correctly feared that insisting on an end to slavery would lead the South to secede and cause the country to split in two or to suffer a civil war. The U.S. was the longest-lived democratic country in the world at the time. If it could not hold itself together, the cause of democracy would be set back for decades, if not longer. Many Americans simply didn’t care about the fate of the blacks. Some people had a financial interest in trade with the South that they feared would be disrupted if slavery were abolished.
2. Why was the Amistad incident instrumental in changing attitudes of Northerners about slavery in the South?
The case illustrated vividly that there was no logical reason why a black person born in the U.S. should be a slave while a black person born in Africa should be free. This argument helped to convince many people that slavery could not be allowed to continue. Note, however, that the attitude of the majority did not change overnight. It took many years and heavy losses in the Civil War to convince most Northerners that slavery in the South should be abolished.
3. Which of the scenes in the film most clearly reveals the immoral and dehumanizing aspect of slavery?
Answers will vary. As long as the scenes mentioned are vivid and the reasons well supported, there can be no wrong answers.
For additional discussion questions, click here.
4. . Name two lasting effects of the Amistad incident on the United States.
First, the publicity over the fate of the Amistad Africans brought to the public’s attention the logical fallacy of treating black people born in Africa as free, while blacks born in the U.S. were enslaved for life. This turned many in the North against slavery. The second lasting effect was that the committee of abolitionists formed to defend and care for the Amistad Africans stayed together and eventually became the American Missionary Association. The AMA lasted for one hundred years. It sent missionaries to Africa and founded hundreds of schools and ten colleges in the U.S. For more details, see Helpful Background Section.
5. What was the legal basis cited by the Supreme Court to justify freeing the Amistad Africans?
The Africans on board the Amistad had been seized and transported to Cuba, a Spanish territory, after Spain had outlawed the slave trade. Spanish law governed their status and declared that they were free. The Court stated that:
They are natives of Africa, and were kidnapped there, and were unlawfully transported to Cuba, in violation of the laws and treaties of Spain, and the most solemn edicts and declarations of that government. By those laws, and treaties, and edicts, the African slave trade is utterly abolished; the dealing in that trade is deemed a heinous crime; and the negroes thereby introduced into the dominions of Spain, are declared to be free. The Amistad, 40 U.S. 518, 593.
6. What was the basis for the claim presented in court by the American naval officers?
International maritime law provided that the officers and crew of a vessel that saved another ship on the high seas were entitled to a percentage of the value of the ship and of the goods on board. Both the U.S. Constitution and the federal courts recognized this principle. (The purpose of the right of salvage was to encourage ships to save other ships, a difficult and dangerous maneuver, particularly when ships were powered by sail.) The officers of the U.S. Navy brig Washington filed a salvage claim based on the value of the Amistad and the property that it carried, including the value of the “slaves”. As to the value of the ship and the non-human property, the claim of the officers and crew was upheld by the courts. As to the Africans, the Supreme Court determined that the law of Spain controlled their status. The Court found that they had been captured and transported to Cuba in violation of Spanish law. It ruled that under Spanish law the Amistad Africans were free.
7. Many abolitionists demanded that the Amistad Africans be freed because slavery itself was wrong. Why didn’t the Supreme Court accept this argument? Give both a legal and political answer.
The legal answer is that slavery was sanctioned by law in the U.S. and the property rights of slaveholders were protected by U.S. law. The political reason was that most members of the Supreme Court were Southerners and were themselves, slaveholders. Asking for a decision on the basis of Spanish law allowed them to do the right thing without challenging the legal basis for slavery all over the U.S. That would have raised a firestorm of protest and moved the Southern states toward secession.
8. When the character of Cinque calls on his ancestors to help him with the hearing in the Supreme Court, he states that he was “the whole reason they have existed at all.” What do you think of this belief?
In the movie, Cinque is portrayed as believing in ancestor worship. This belief was based on a spiritual tie with his ancestors that was as real and strong as ties among living family members. He also appeared to believe that they had the power to help him in a trial in a land far away from their home. Ancestor worship is a characteristic of many religions, especially in Asia and Africa. Even modern science would recognize some truth to the statement made in the film. The biological role of any member of a species is to procreate and pass genes to his or her ancestors. So, as the Cinque character said, he was “the whole reason [his ancestors] have existed at all.” However, the character of Cinque was referring to a more complete set of beliefs about his ancestors.
9. In the movie, the character of the Spanish Ambassador told President Van Buren character that “If you cannot rule the courts, you cannot rule”. How did President Van Buren character respond? Do you agree?
President Van Buren character said, “It is the independence of our courts that keep us free.” This is a true statement. However, there are many other institutions in government and in society which play a role in maintaining freedom. Examples include: a free press (see e.g. Learning Guide to “All the President’s Men”); a constitution and laws which protect civil rights; citizens who participate in politics; free and fair elections; a legislative branch and an executive branch that respect the laws protecting civil rights; and a military that obeys the orders of civilian leaders even when they disagree with those orders (see e.g., Learning Guide to “Hotel Rwanda” and “Sometimes in April“). Note that in the movie, President Van Buren character tries to improperly influence the court proceedings. We have found no historical basis for this subplot.
10. Who was John Quincy Adams?
Adams was the son of the revolutionary era leader and second President of the United States, John Adams. John Quincy Adams served as a diplomat and Secretary of State under President James Monroe. Elected as the sixth President of the United States, he served one term from 1825-1829. Defeated by Andrew Jackson in his bid for a second term Mr. Adams retired to his farm. In 1830 a congressional district in Plymouth, Massachusetts, unexpectedly elected Mr. Adams to the House of Representatives. He served there for 18 years speaking his mind on the issues. He was an outspoken opponent of slavery. In 1848 President Adams died shortly after having suffered a stroke on the floor of the House.
11. Why did the John C. Calhoun character suddenly come to dinner at the White House? What message was he trying to convey?
Even in 1839 the strained relations that eventually caused the Civil War were beginning to show. (Actually, they were evident during the Constitutional Convention.) Sensing that freedom for the Amistad Africans would show a fundamental flaw in the various defenses of slavery, the Calhoun character wanted to make the point that the South would object if the Amistad Africans were freed.
12. The abolitionists aren’t portrayed as very attractive people in this film. The Tappan character is a fanatic and the religious singers appear to the Africans to be unhappy people who waste time by singing and praying. Is this an accurate portrayal? In your answer discuss what the abolitionists in this film are doing with regard to the concept of “bearing witness”.
See the Helpful Background Section.
See the Social Emotional Learning Questions and the Ethics-Ethical Emphasis Discussion Questions below. See also Discussion Questions for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction.
JUSTICE – HUMAN RIGHTS
1. Remember the argument between Joadson [played by Morgan Freeman] and the Tappan character [the rich abolitionist]? The Tappan character claimed that the martyrdom of the Amistad Africans would be a small price to pay if it helped end slavery. Do you agree?
This is the age-old argument of whether the ends justify the means. Generally, history has shown that people or countries who employ an “ends justify the means” logic often get into trouble. To be sure, slavery, as practiced in the southern United States, held millions in a brutal vise. It was not unusual for families to be separated or for women to be used as concubines or raped. Disobedient slaves and captured runaways were whipped, maimed or killed. But ignoring the need of the Amistad Africans for justice in order to make a case against slavery would have demeaned the prisoners’ worth as human beings. No one knew if their martyrdom would help the movement to end slavery. As it turned out, the captives were given their freedom and the movement for abolition still received a tremendous boost. (Note that there is no evidence that the abolitionists did not care about the Amistad Africans. Nor is there any evidence that the real Mr. Tappan ever thought about sacrificing the prisoners to the greater good of ending slavery. His entire history, so far as we have been able to determine, was spent trying to free slaves.)
2. The Africans of the Amistad won in court on the basis that Spain, whose law applied, had banned the slave trade and that the Amistad Africans had not been lawfully taken into slavery. While the court reached the right result by freeing the slaves, did it do so for the right reasons? What does this tell us about the U.S. justice system at that time?
From an ethical standpoint, the Supreme Court should have recognized that slavery was barbaric and criminal. It should have freed the Amistad Africans on that basis. Generally, until the Civil War, the U.S. justice system was complicit in the crimes of slavery. It denied that slaves were human beings who had the same rights as others. It recognized the property rights of slave owners. It is important to note that most of the judges on the Supreme Court that liberated the Amistad captives were Southerners who owned slaves. The Supreme Court in the Amistad opinion states that men are free unless some act of government enslaves them. The complicity of the courts with slavery was no different than most of the rest of the country, North and South. For example, Northern mills turned out cloth from cotton grown with slave labor. In order to keep the slave-holding border states in the Union, President Lincoln did not, at first, oppose slavery in the states in which it was already legal. It was not until the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1864 that slavery was outlawed throughout the United States.
3. If the case of the Amistad Africans had been brought after the Civil War, which provisions of the constitution would have governed their fate?
The Thirteenth Amendment which prohibited slavery.
4. Why did Queen Isabella want the Amistad Africans placed into Spanish custody? What would she have done with them and why does that make the result reached by the Supreme Court ironic?
The movie implies that Queen Isabella and the Spanish government would have given the captives to their “owners” to live out their lives as slaves. The irony is that Spain would not have enforced its own laws and that the U.S. Supreme Court used the laws of Spain to reach a result which the Spanish government didn’t want.
5. Do you agree with the President Van Buren character that justice for a few unlucky noncitizens should not be permitted to injure the broader interests of the United States in its desire for better relations with Spain? How does this reasoning relate to today’s “war on terror”?
To avoid a problem in U.S. relations with Spain, President Van Buren wanted the Amistad Africans kept as slaves and returned to the Cubans. It is not right to allow foreign policy to be carried out at the expense of the freedom of others. Again, in this case, the ends do not justify the means. As to the “war on terror”, many argue that it is a different matter and that we need to use torture, secret prisons, imprisonment without trial and other tactics that are against the traditions of the U.S. in order to win. They point out that the rights of others are always sacrificed in war, even the right to life itself. Other assert that if we employ an “ends justify the means” rationale for our actions we will lose our souls. This is a great question for debate.
6. Does slavery still exist today anywhere in the world? If so, name some geographic areas where slavery persists.
Slavery exists all over the world, despite the fact that it is illegal. By some estimates there are 100,000 – 150,000 people illegally enslaved in the U.S. See 21ST CENTURY SLAVES By Andrew Cockburn National Geographic; Sep 2003, Vol. 204 Issue 3, p2, quoting Kevin Bales.
COURAGE – REBELLION
7. What is the right of insurrection? Does it still exist? Who has it?
The right of insurrection is a natural right of all people. It is the right to rise up and throw off an evil regime and more broadly, to take violent action against oppressors. The right of insurrection is recognized in the Declaration of Independence: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness — That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
8. Who acted courageously in this film? What were their courageous acts?
The Africans who took over the ship; the Abolitionists who fought for their rights; and the judge who went against the wishes of the President in ruling for the Amistad Africans.
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS (CHARACTER COUNTS)
Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.
1. Describe some of the essential moral failings of slavery.
Slavery takes away the inalienable rights of the slave to attempt to find “liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Sometimes, when the slaveholder kills the slave, the right to life is taken away. Slavery also corrupts the slaveholder. The record of the sexual exploitation of slave women in the U.S. South is evidence of this. The brutality which is necessary to keep slaves in line can be transferred to the way that slaveholders treat their own family and friends as well as the members of their own community.
(Treat others with respect; follow the Golden Rule; Be tolerant of differences; Use good manners, not bad language; Be considerate of the feelings of others; Don’t threaten, hit or hurt anyone; Deal peacefully with anger, insults, and disagreements)
2. Do you think that the Africans on the Amistad acted ethically in trying to regain their freedom even if that meant killing some members of the crew? Answer this question using the analysis outlined in PRINCIPLED DECISION MAKING — HOW TO GET THE RESULTS WE REALLY WANT, MAXIMIZE OUR STRENGTH AND POWER, AND BE PROUD OF OUR ACTIONS.
This ethical question is fairly simple to resolve. The value which is paramount for the captives is freedom. This is an important value for which people have fought countless times. The values for the captain and the crew (the other stakeholders) are to keep their own lives. This too is an important value. An additional value for the “owners” of the Africans is to keep their illegally obtained property. Keeping possession of contraband is not a very important value.
Looking at the first four ethical tests it is clear that there is a conflict. Three of them don’t apply. The Golden Rule doesn’t apply because the captives either would not imprison anyone or would expect kidnap victims to resist. The rule of disclosure does not mitigate against insurrection because the captives had no problem with other people knowing what they had done. The rule of universality doesn’t forbid attacking the crew and taking over the ship because the captives on the Amistad would have no problem with all other illegally seized persons seeking their freedom. However, accepted principles of ethical behavior (at TWM we use Character Counts’ Six Pillars of Character) are in conflict. The Pillar of Respect instructs us not to hurt other people.
So, we come down to a conflict between the value of being free (a crucially important value) and the ethical principle of not hurting others. However, since the crew and the “owners” have used force against the captives by imprisoning them, the right of the crew and the “owners” to be free from assault is severely compromised. They have created a situation in which the most effective way for the captives to gain freedom is to kill or injure them. Clearly in this conflict of values most people would say that it was an ethical decision for the captives to rebel. Mahatma Gandhi may have disagreed. (See Learning Guide to “Gandhi”). However, it appears that the Amistad Africans had no choice other than insurrection and violence, and that is the point.
(Be kind; Be compassionate and show you care; Express gratitude; Forgive others; Help people in need)
3. Can a slave master ever really care about his slave, in the ethical sense of the word?
No. Caring means wanting what is best for the other person. Slavery is never best for the slave.
(Do your share to make your school and community better; Cooperate; Stay informed; vote; Be a good neighbor; Obey laws and rules; Respect authority; Protect the environment)
4. Remember how some abolitionists would pray and sing religious songs in public outside of the building which in which the Amistad Africans had been imprisoned? Why were they praying in public?
They were “bearing witness” to the suffering of the Amistad Africans and of all slaves and to the need to end slavery. For more details, see the Helpful Background Section.
5. Which character in the film sacrificed his chances for advancement to help the Amistad Africans? Which of the Six Pillars of Character was he honoring? (His actions honor more than one Pillar.)
It was the judge who heard their case. He honored the Pillars of Trustworthiness, Responsibility, Citizenship and Caring.
ASSIGNMENTS, PROJECTS & ACTIVITIES
Any of the discussion questions can serve as a writing prompt. Additional assignments include:
1. The Courts of the United States, North, and South, were complicit in the crimes of slavery. They often denied that slaves were human beings who had the same rights as others. They recognized the property rights of slave owners. This, in fact, was the law of the United States at the time of the Amistad case. Just eighty years later, the United States and its allies put jurists from Nazi Germany in prison for enforcing laws that denied the humanity of Jews and the handicapped. Write an essay evaluating how the Courts of the United States, particularly the U.S. Supreme Court in the Dred Scott case, would fare if they were held to the standards to which the Allies held the German courts after the Second World War. [Teachers, for background, see Learning Guide to Judgment at Nuremberg.]
2. Research the existence of slavery in today’s world and write an investigative report that includes information on the international slave trade, where the slaves are found, how they are transported and into which countries they are sold as well as the kind of work into which they are forced. [Teachers: For background on the international slave trade, see TWM’s Slavery: A World-Wide View, Then and Now.
3. Research some of the largely unsung heroes who devoted time, energy, and often their lives to the cause of abolition. Prepare and deliver a power point presentation to the class on your findings.
Many of the discussion questions set out above are good writing prompts.
- Students could be asked to do a report on the prohibition of the international slave trade and the treaties which were involved in the case of the Amistad.
- Students can research and write an essay on the historical errors in the film.
- Students can write a report on the life of John Quincy Adams.
BRIDGES TO READING
Rebels Against Slavery, by Patricia and Frederick McKissack, is suitable for ages 11 and up.
In addition to websites which are linked in the Guide and selected film reviews listed on the Movie Review Query Engine, the following resources were consulted in the preparation of this Learning Guide:
- Rebels Against Slavery, Patricia C. McKissack and Frederick L. McKissack, Scholastic, Inc., New York, 1996, for section on Mende society, pages 118 – 120; and
- Reel v. Real: How Hollywood Turns Fact into Fiction by Frank Sanello, Taylor Trade Publishers, 2003, pp. 84 – 88.