Yale and the Real Amistad Story--Tomorrow

It's coming soon to a multiplex near you: Steven Spielberg's "Amistad," the drama of a group of Africans kidnapped into slavery who rose up against their captors in 1839, fought for, and eventually won their freedom. Don't miss the movie -- even though what you'll see won't be quite accurate.

It’s coming soon to a multiplex near you: Steven Spielberg’s “Amistad,” the drama of a group of Africans kidnapped into slavery who rose up against their captors in 1839, fought for, and eventually won their freedom. Don’t miss the movie – even though what you’ll see won’t be quite accurate.

To get the real story, come to a free, public Master’s Tea on Thursday, Dec. 4, at 4 p.m. in Pierson College, 231 Park St., when Judith Ann Schiff, Sterling Memorial Library’s chief research archivist, will present “Yale and the Amistad: The True Story Behind the Movie.”

In conjunction with the opening of the movie, original letters, documents and drawings of the Amistad’s major players will be on view in Sterling Memorial Library, 120 High St. The exhibit, near the circulation desk, is free and open to the public during library hours.

Mr. Spielberg’s movie doesn’t stress it, but “From 1839 to 1841 New Haven was the focal point of the Amistad Affair, a milestone in the long struggle to end slavery in the United States,” wrote Ms. Schiff in her article for the November issue of the Yale Alumni Magazine.

Yale students, faculty and alumni joined with local abolitionists and others around the country – but not the Morgan Freeman character; he’s fictional – to help the 50 Africans who were jailed in New Haven on charges of piracy and murder. The Reverend Joshua Leavitt, Class of 1814, an anti-slavery activist, arranged for the prisoners to be defended in court by attorney Roger Sherman Baldwin, Class of 1811. Mr. Baldwin went on to become governor of Connecticut and later, a U.S. Senator. Josiah Willard Gibbs Sr., Class of 1809, a professor of Hebrew and philology, studied the captives’ language and then searched the wharves of New York City until he found a sailor who could translate from Mendi to English. A group of Yale divinity students, with their instructor George Edward Day, Class of 1833, taught the Amistad captives English, Christianity and practical skills.

“You tell our Judges let us free,” wrote rebel leader Joseph Cinque in halting English to defense attorney Roger Sherman Baldwin on Feb. 9, 1841. The original of that letter is on display at Sterling Library.

And that’s what happened: The Africans were acquitted, first in the Connecticut courts and, later, defended by former President John Quincy Adams, in the U.S. Supreme Court.

“The decision of the Supreme Court in the case of the Amistad has this moment been delivered by Judge Story. The Captives are free,” says another letter in the Sterling Memorial Library exhibition. This one was dashed off at noon on March 9, 1841, to let Mr. Baldwin know the outcome of the Washington trial. The letter is signed, “Yours in great haste and great joy, J. Q. Adams.”

While money was being raised to send the Africans home, they stayed in nearby Farmington, where they continued to study with Yale students and faculty. The group finally set sail on November 27, 1841, accompanied by five missionaries, and arrived in Sierra Leone in January.

“Among millions of slaves,” wrote Ms. Schiff, “they became some of the few who were able to return home, thanks to their own courage, a quirk of fate, and the aid of those at Yale and in New Haven who were committed to ending slavery.”

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Media Contact

Gila Reinstein: gila.reinstein@yale.edu, 203-432-1325