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So You Want to Teach About the Amistad?

Students of all ages might not be able to view the movie AMISTAD, but rich curriculum materials are available for teaching across the grades about this pivotal event in American history.

Photo from production of AmistadThe year was 1984. Producer Debbie Allen had just finished reading a book of essays and articles titled Amistad I and II. She couldn't imagine why she'd never heard of the Amistad or of "Cinque," the courageous leader of the Amistad slave revolt.

"I was filled with so many different emotions," Allen recalls. "I felt empowered and excited that this had actually happened, yet I also felt robbed and cheated that I had never been taught about it in school. I knew it was a true story -- a pivotal moment in time -- that should be told to the world."

Now, with the December 12 debut of Steven Spielberg's movie Amistad (produced by Spielberg and Allen, with Colin Wilson), the story -- with some embellishments -- is finally being told. Future generations will know of many of the rich themes that surround the events of the Amistad. They'll know of Cinque and his fellow slaves, and of their rich Mende heritage. And they'll know something of a time in American history -- a time when 2.5 million black people were kept as slaves, mostly in the South; a time when the abolitionist movement was growing in strength; a time when President Martin Van Buren couldn't take a stand against slavery because he needed the votes of slaveholders in the South to win re-election....



Indeed, this little-known episode from our nation's past has found its way into few U.S. history texts. And less in the way of curriculum material has been available for teachers who wanted to teach about this "pivotal moment in time."

The balance of this article focuses on some of the curriculum tools available to teachers who want to work this inspiring historical drama into their classroom lessons. (For a brief retelling of the story, see The Amistad Comes to Life!, a story on this week's Education World LESSON PLANNING page.)



"All We Want Is Make Us Free" is a feast of a video documentary, available to schools from The Amistad Committee. Narrative is woven together with historical images, original source material, art, and a rich musical score. Voiceover readings -- including the hair-raising story of the revolt as told by one of the surviving Spanish sailors -- bring to life this important story.

"The story of the Amistad is one of murder and mutiny," states Priscilla Searles in the preface to the teacher's guide that accompanies the video. "Or perhaps it is really a story of how a firm belief in human rights and the strength to stand up and speak out for those rights really can make a difference."

"But this is not a story, it is a fact a page out of history, a page that contributed to the end of slavery in this country," she continues. "There are still lessons to be learned from this brief incident in history. The cooperation of peoples from different cultures and backgrounds and their determination and belief in the freedom of man still applies today."

The video includes an emotional retelling by actress Vinie Burrows of the story of Josiah Gibbs, a professor of languages at Yale University. Gibbs visited the Africans in jail. He was determined to break the communications barrier so that the slaves' stories could be told:

"He held up one finger, and the Africans told him their word for one: e-ta. He held up two fingers: fe-le. Then three: sau-wa. And four: na-ni. After learning to count from one to ten in the Africans' language, Gibbs went to the port in New York City hoping to find someone who could serve as an interpreter. He walked up and down the docks counting out loud until he found James Covey, a young African who himself had been captured by slavers, freed, taught English, and employed on a British warship. Professor Gibbs brought Covey to New Haven.
"One of the captives coming to the door and finding one who could talk in his own language took hold of him and literally dragged him in. All seemed to be overwhelmed with joy, all talking as fast as possible..."

This rich video retelling of the story of the Amistad is a "must-have" for schools -- especially for students too young to see the new R-rated (due to the intensity of its subject matter) theater release. The video and curriculum are recommended for use with students in middle and high schools, but I think they would make perfect additions to the elementary school American history curriculum. Most of the teacher's guide activities could be adapted easily for use across the grades.

The teacher's guide is divided into six sections that offer a sequential retelling of the story: Mendeland (the African home of the slaves on the Amistad), The Revolt, The Mende in America, Slavery in 1839, The Trials, and Return to Africa. Vocabulary and discussion questions accompany each section. Map and other extension activities are included along with a sample of Mende writing, a reproduction of the autographs of some of the Mende captives, a poem about Cinque written by 19th century poet and writer William Cullen Bryant, a glossary, and a bibliography.

For more information about the "All We Want Is Make Us Free" video documentary, write to Mr. Al Marder, The Amistad Committee, P.O. Box 2936, Westville Station, New Haven, CT 06515.



On the Internet you'll find a wide variety of sites with material related to the story of the Amistad. I'll hit a few of the highlights here, but for additional sites related to the Amistad and to slavery (in general), be sure to check out this week's Education World LESSON PLANNING story, The Amistad Comes to Life!.

Among the best sites are:

The U.S. Navy and the Amistad
A telling of the Amistad story from the U.S. Navy's Naval Historical Center. This site includes information about the U.S. brig Washington that discovered the Amistad anchored at Montauk Point, New York, on August 26, 1839; facts about the brig's officers; and a bibliography of related resources.

Amistad America
Read of the plans of Amistad America, Inc., a new not-for-profit educational organization formed to promote the building of a replica of the Amistad. About 160 years after the Amistad incident, the Amistad will sail again. The site also includes tons of history in an online exhibit.

The Amistad Case
A new site from the National Archives offers several primary source documents related to the case and a handful of activities for students to do using those documents.

The Amistad Rebellion
Hear Dr. Marcus Rediker's lecture on the Amistad rebellion.



Many books are being issued or reissued to coincide with the December 12 release of the film AMISTAD. Following is a selection of titles related to the Amistad incident. Descriptions are provided, where available, from

Books for elementary or middle school students:

  • The Amistad Slave Revolt and American Abolition by Karen Zeinert (Linnet Books, 1997). See a story about this book on this week's Education World BOOKS IN EDUCATION page.
  • Amistad by Joyce Annette Barnes (1997). The junior novel based on the movie screenplay.
  • Freedom's Sons : The True Story of the Amistad Mutiny by Suzanne Jurmain (Lothrop Lee & Shepard, due January 1998). "Freedom's Sons" tells the incredible true story of the only successful slave revolt in American history.
  • The Amistad Affair : A Thirst for Freedom by Walter Dean Myers (Dutton Childrens Books, due February 1998).
  • Amistad by Veronica Chambers and illustrated by Paul Lee (Harcourt Brace, due April 1998).

    For students who are doing research and for adults:

  • Mutiny on the Amistad by Howard Jones (Oxford University Press, 1987; revised 1997). Reissued to coincide with Steven Spielberg's upcoming motion picture, this true saga of a slave revolt and its impact on American abolition, law, and diplomacy is based on thorough research and provides excellent and detailed coverage of its subject. "A rousing and satisfying tale," says American Heritage.
  • A History of the Amistad Captives by John Warner Barber (1840; reprinted 1969 by Arno Press).
  • The Amistad Revolt 1839 by Helen Kromer (Franklin Watts, Inc., 1973).
  • Amistad : The Slave Uprising Aboard the Spanish Schooner by Helen Kromer (Pilgrim Press, 1997).
  • All We Wants Is Make Us Free by B. Edmon Martin (University Press of America, 1986).
  • Black Mutiny: The Revolt on the Schooner Amistad by William A. Owens (Plume, 1968; reprinted 1997).
  • Radiance from the Waters by Sylia Ardyn Boone (Yale University Press, 1986).
  • Amistad by David Pesci (Marlowe & Co., 1997). In 1839, 53 African slaves staged a rebellion on board the slave ship Amistad, and were held for trial in the United States. The fate of the slaves, hanging in the balance between the pro-slavery government and the abolitionist movement, makes a riveting story of hope against impossible odds and the will to be free.
  • Black Odyssey: The Case of the Slave Ship Amistad by Mary Cable (Penguin USA, 1997).
  • Amistad by Alexs Pate (1997). Novel based on the screenplay.


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


    Updated 02/03/2014