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The Amistad Rebellion

An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Rebellion

Table of Contents

Introduction: Voices
Chapter One: Origins
Chapter Two: Rebellion
Chapter Three: Movement
Chapter Four: Jail
Chapter Five: “Mendi”
Chapter Six: Freedom
Conclusion: Reverberations

Excerpt — From Chapter Two: “Rebellion”

Now began “the whooh,” as Burna called the chaos of open rebellion that engulfed the small main deck. The commotion woke up the captain, who was sleeping on a mattress not far away, as well as the rest of the crew and the two passengers, Ruiz and Montes, who were in the cabin. Ferrer called out, “Attack them, for they have killed the cook.” Amid the “confusion and uproar,” as Ruiz remembered it, they scrambled frantically in the dark for arms, grabbing whatever was close at hand; there was no time to load pistols or muskets. Captain Ferrer seized a dagger and a club and fought furiously to defend his vessel from capture. The two sailors, Manuel and Jacinto, who were supposed to be the armed guard to prevent what was now happening before their very eyes, threw themselves into the battle, one with a club, the other with no weapon at all. Montes armed himself with a knife and a pump handle, screaming all the while at the Africans to stop, to be still. The unarmed sailor yelled to Montes to get the dead cook’s knife and give it to him. Ruiz grabbed an oar as he scrambled from his passenger’s quarters, shouting “No! No!” as he came on deck. Ruiz then “stood before the caboose and halloed to the slaves to be quiet and to go down into the hold.” They ignored the command of the (now former) master; indeed, more Africans escaped their chains and joined the fray, wielding fearsome machetes that had been found by the little girls, who had had free range of the vessel. Seeing that the situation was far beyond exhortation, Ruiz called to Montes to kill some of the rebels in order to frighten the rest and to restore order. He believed, wrongly, that the Africans were all “great cowards.”

At first the crew and passengers were able to drive the rebels from amidships beyond the foremast, and at this point Captain Ferrer, who desperately hoped that this was a rebellion of the belly, commanded Antonio to fetch some sea biscuit and throw it among the rebels in the hope of distracting them. He knew they were hungry—hunger had been a complaint since the voyage began. Antonio did as his master commanded, but the insurgents, he explained, “would not touch it.” Antonio himself opted for neutrality: he climbed up the mainstays, where he would watch the struggle unfold, safely from above.

Several of the Africans were reluctant to attack the captain until Cinqué exhorted them to do so. A small group formed a “phalanx” to surround him, machetes in hand. As the battle raged, Captain Ferrer killed a man named Duevi and mortally wounded a second, unnamed rebel, which infuriated the other Africans and made them fight harder. He also wounded others, as Kale recalled: “Then captain kill one man with knife and cut Mendi people plenty.” Two of the rebels attacked Montes with an oar, which he grabbed and used to hold them off. Montes wrestled with the men until one of the sailors cried out that he should let it go or they would kill him. At this point, a blow to his arm caused Montes to drop his knife. He groped desperately around the deck in an effort to find it. Ruiz continued to scream at the rebels to stop fighting and go below, but they ignored him, soon disarming him of his own makeshift weapon.

Suddenly the tide of battle turned—red. An insurgent wielding one of the machetes slashed one of the sailors, who cried out “Murder!” He and his crewmate saw not only defeat but certain death in the ever-larger mob, now armed with machetes, so they threw a canoe overboard—they would not have had time to lower the longboat, which was in any case heavy with the battered corpse of Celestino. They jumped into the water, leaving the remaining five to battle ten times their number. Of one of the sailors, Kinna recalled: “He swim—swim long time—may be swim more—we not know.” The two sailors, cut and bleeding, eventually crawled into the canoe and began paddling for land. They had about eighteen miles to cover and it was by no means certain they would make it.

Someone now gave Montes “a powerful blow on the head with a cane knife, and he fell senseless on the deck.” Stunned, with another deep wound on his arm and “faint from the loss of blood,” he roused himself, staggered from the battle scene, and fell headlong down the hatchway. Once below, he remained conscious enough to crawl into a space between two barrels and hide beneath a canvas sail. It was a frail hope against death.