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The Amistad Slave Revolt and American Abolition

The true story of the Amistad is told for students in the context of the times in which it took place. A great read aloud for elementary and middle schoolers!

Book Cover

"Unaware that his life would forever be changed in only a matter of minutes, twenty-five-year-old Cinque (Seen-kay) was enjoying a quiet walk in his African homeland in early 1839.... Cinque paused now and then as he strolled down the long road to look at the lush countryside that he loved, and he studied the nearby rice fields, one of which he intended to plant soon. He smiled when he looked at his plot of rich land. The future, he thought was most promising.

"But just ahead four Africans who had been looking for Cinque hid themselves in the bushes, and when he was within reach, they jumped him. Although Cinque was strong, he was no match for four men who had the element of surprise on their side. He was quickly bound and then given a choice of marching before his attackers or being dragged on the dirt road behind him. He agreed to walk.

"At first Cinque, who could get few answers from his attackers, believed that his capture was a terrible mistake. But later he remembered the fact that he had been unable to pay off a debt on time. Well aware that money lenders in West Africa sometimes sold slow-paying debtors to the slave market to recover their loans, he now suspected that he had been kidnapped to be sold."

So opens a new book about an important though not-often-talked-about (until now, with the release of Steven Spielberg's blockbuster movie!) event in the American anti-slavery movement. The book, The Amistad Slave Revolt and American Abolition, by Karen Zeinert, makes a perfect read aloud for elementary or middle school students whose curiosities will be piqued by all the movie hype -- but who won't be able to see the movie, which is rated R.


Zeinert's new book traces the events of the revolt on the Amistad. Along the way, the author -- a former schoolteacher -- provides for students the cultural and historical background needed to fully understand the events. She frames the actions of the Amistad slaves with facts about the Mende culture of West Africa from which they were removed. She couches the actions of the slaveholders in an explanation of the international slave trade "triangle." She sets the trial of the slaves with a description of a time when our country was deeply divided over the issue of slavery and when the abolitionist movement was steadily gathering steam. (In fact, Zeinert states, the issue of slavery was hardly a new one: "...slavery was a hotly debated topic when the Constitutional Convention met in 1787 to set up a new government. How, antislavery delegates demanded, could Americans fight in a revolution for freedom and then deny freedom to others?")

Zeinert's words paint vivid pictures for students as she describes the scene in the hold of the slave ship Tecora, the ship on which the Africans were transported to the Americas:

"Each deck in the Tecora had about four feet of space from floor to ceiling.... The men had to bend down in order to enter the area. More and more slaves were crammed in. They were forced to lie on the floor with no space between them and without even a blanket to cover themselves. For almost two months of a rough voyage, the men lay all day and night in the dark depths of the ship except for meals... The hold was hot and poorly ventilated. The men perspired heavily, and body odors built up quickly...."

Violence is part of the story of the Amistad slaves, and Zeinert doesn't stray from it. Nor does she dwell on it. (You might preview the book before reading it aloud to elementary school students, but most fourth graders have seen far more violence -- gratuitous violence, mind you! -- in movies and on TV.) Zeinert uses violence to effect when telling of the murders on board the Amistad or when she describes an earlier event in Connecticut in which anti-abolitionists stoned a school for black children run by Prudence Crandall, a white teacher. Indeed, pro-slavery Americans often resorted to violence, so fearful were they that abolitionists might gain a foothold.


Zeinert's book provides illustrations that include maps, well-known pieces of art tied to the events on the Amistad, sketches done at the time of a handful of the slaves, and portraits of those involved in the abolitionist movement. In addition, a timeline of important events in the history of slavery is provided as a preface to the book. And, where appropriate, Zeinert uses the actual words of people involved in the Amistad story. For example, she provides as a sidebar to the story the text of a letter written to John Quincy Adams, one of the lawyers who was to represent the slaves before the Supreme Court of the United States. That emotional letter, written by Kali, the young boy who was among the 53 slaves on board the Amistad, reads, in part:

Dear Friend Mr. Adams,
I want to write a letter to you because you love Mende people, and you talk to the grand court...
We want you to ask the Court what we have done wrong. What for Americans keep us in prison? Some people say Mende people crazy; Mende people [stupid] because we no talk America language. [America] people no talk Mende language; [America] people [stupid]?...

Dear friend Mr. Adams, you have children, you have friends, you love them, you feel very sorry if Mende people come and carry them all to Africa....All we want is make us free."

Zeinert closes the book with a "For More Information" section. Here she provides additional reading materials for students interested in learning more about some of the concepts and issues introduced -- for example, the Mende people, the triangular slave trade, or the life of a slave.


The Amistad Slave Revolt and American Abolition is a perfect read-aloud book for grades four and up. Take advantage of all the movie hype to share this amazing story. Open kids' eyes to a time period in America as you read about a pivotal event in history.

All the elements for a good read aloud are here. The story is an emotional story of a fight for human rights. It's a story of murder, and of political and legal maneuverings. It's a story of the rich and famous helping the poor and downtrodden...

Each of the book's six chapters could be read in a sitting of 15 to 20 minutes. And each chapter ends with a little cliffhanger, an issue unresolved -- an issue that might be solved in the next chapter. Then again, it might not.

When reading aloud, it would be a good idea to have a map handy. And teachers might want students to create timelines of events on the Amistad as the book is read.

When you're done reading aloud the book, stick it on the bookshelf. Many of your students will want to pick up this one and read it on their own!


Karen Zeinert has written numerous books for the youth audience. Following are a handful of her titles. Descriptions are offered where provided on

  • Captured by Indians: The Life of Mary Jemison by Karen Zeinert (Editor) and James E. Seaver (Linnet Books, 1995).
  • Cults (Enslow Publishing, 1997). Describes various types of cults including their history, characteristics, and danger to American society.
  • Elizabeth Van Lew: Southern Belle, Union Spy (Dillon Press, 1995).
  • Free Speech: From Newspapers to Music Lyrics (Enslow Publishing, 1995).
  • The Memoirs of Andrew Sherburne: Patriot and Privateer of the American Revolution by Karen Zeinert (Editor), illustrated by Seymour Fleishman (Linnet Books, 1993). Excerpts from the author's autobiography recall his experiences as a thirteen-year-old boy serving on an American privateer ship during the Revolutionary War.
  • The Persian Empire (Marshall Cavendish, 1996). Traces the rise and fall of the Persian Empire from its earliest days to the seventh century when it was conquered by the Arabs. The culture, artistic achievements, religion, and legacy of the once mighty empire are discussed.
  • The Salem Witchcraft Trials (Franklin Watts, 1989).
  • Those Incredible Women of World War II (Millbrook Press, 1994). Describing the heroic efforts of the many women who served during the Second World War, a collection of personal accounts relates their participation in the military, medicine, journalism, and in volunteer efforts, and notes their impact on women's equality.
  • Those Remarkable Women of the American Revolution (Millbrook Press, 1996).
  • McCarthy and the Fear of Communism in American History (due July 1998).
  • Those Courageous Women of the Civil War (due April 1998).

Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World® Editor-in-Chief
Copyright © 1997 Education World