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The Amistad Comes to Life!

Activities across the grades and across the curriculum bring to life the story of the revolt on the Amistad.

The story of the Amistad begins in 1839. The slave trade is illegal in many parts of the world -- but some slave traders pay no attention to the laws. In western Africa, Africans often kidnap their own to sell as slaves in other parts of the world

So it was, early in 1839 -- in a place called Mendeland (in the area that is known today as Sierra Leone) -- that a group of Mende Africans were kidnapped and transported to the African slave port of Lomboko. There a Portuguese slave trader purchased about 500 of the Africans and illegally transported them on the slave ship Tecora to Havana, Cuba. Nearly a third of the slaves died during the long trip -- some from malnutrition, others from beatings.

Upon arrival in Cuba in late June the slaves were separated and sold. Two plantation owners, Spaniards named Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montes, bought 53 of the slaves -- 49 men, one boy, and three girls. Ruiz and Montes packed their cargo and their slaves on board the schooner Amistad and set sail for their plantation at Port Principe, Cuba.

Just a few days out to sea -- on July 2 -- one of the Africans used sign language to ask the Spanish cook what lay in store for the captured slaves on board. The cook jokingly replied in sign language that the Africans would be killed and eaten!

That night -- frightened by the tale of the ship's cook -- one of the slaves, whom the Spaniards called Cinque, used a nail he found to pick the padlocks that kept him chained to another at the legs and wrists. Then he worked to unchain the others. Soon the Africans found on board some sugar cane knives with two-foot-long blades -- the perfect tools for their takeover of the Amistad. Two Africans and two Spaniards were killed in the ensuing struggle.

The African slaves, now in control of the boat, demanded that Ruiz and Montes sail east, toward the rising sun -- back to their African homeland.

But Ruiz and Montes hoped to be rescued from their captors. The crafty Spaniards tried to trick the Africans by heading east into the sun all day. But then, at night, the sailors slowly turned the boat back toward the Americas. The next morning they sailed east. And at night back they turned back again. This went on for nearly two months as the Amistad made a zig-zag trip up the Atlantic, off the coast of the United States. During the long trip from Cuba, ten of the Africans died.

Then, on August 26, the Africans beached at Long Island, New York. There they hoped to trade for badly needed supplies. Instead, sailors on the U.S. Navy brig Washington spotted the Amistad. The Navy sailors, after hearing the Spaniards' version of the story, took captive the boat, its cargo, and the Africans. The sailors thought they might receive a reward for capturing the Amistad. If not, they might be able to make money by selling some of the slaves.

The Washington towed the Amistad to New London, Connecticut. The sailors could have towed the Spanish ship to a nearby port in New York, but slavery was illegal in New York. There the sailors wouldn't have any chance of selling the slaves. In Connecticut, slavery was still legal (though, by most accounts, only about 20 slaves lived in the entire state at that time).

On August 29 in New London, based on the hair-raising tale told by Ruiz and Montes, the Africans were ordered to stand trial for mutiny and murder. They were transported to a jail in New Haven, Connecticut, to await trail.

But, so far, the Africans had been unable to tell their side of the story. They couldn't tell their story because they didn't speak English or Spanish. No one understood the language that the Mende Africans spoke. Soon the first of the trials would begin



By now, you know how the story turns out. The fight for the Africans' freedom was played out in a series of trials that resulted in the slaves being freed and returned to their Mende homeland. More important though, historically, is the role the story of the Amistad played in building the movement against slavery in the United States. The support these Africans received from Americans black and white is still remembered 150 years later!

Today the struggle of the African slaves on board the Amistad is the subject of a much ballyhooed new movie from Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks studios, a handful of curriculum guides, a wonderful documentary video available for classroom use, and a bunch of new books for children and adults. You can learn about these wonderful teaching tools in this week's Education World CURRCIULUM story, So You Want to Teach About the Amistad?

The focus of this story is a handful of activities that teachers can use (coordinated with any of the curriculum materials mentioned above) to bring to life the Amistad incident of long ago.

So let's get started...



Reading comprehension. Read aloud the story above that tells of the capture in Africa of the Mende free men and their subsequent travels on board the slave ships Tecora and Amistad. Then ask these ten questions of your students to check their reading comprehension:

  • In what year does the story of the Amistad slave revolt begin? (1839)
  • How many slaves on the Tecora died during the trip across the Atlantic from Africa to Cuba? (about a third of the 500 slaves on board) What did they die from? (malnutrition and physical abuse)
  • In Cuba, two Spanish plantation owners bought 53 slaves and transferred them to another ship, the Amistad. Were the slaves mostly men or women? (Forty-nine of them were men; three were girls; and one was a boy.)
  • Why, do you think, did the African known as "Cinque" decide that the slaves must find a way to take over the Amistad? (He feared for his life; he'd had a sign language conversation with the ship's cook, who indicated that the slaves would be killed and eaten!)
  • How did Cinque manage to escape the chains that bound him to another of the slaves? (He had found a nail, which he used to pick the padlocks.)
  • How could the slaves tell that Ruiz and Montes were sailing the boat to the east? (They were sailing into the rising sun; the sun rises in the east.)
  • Why did the ship follow a zig-zag course rather that a straight line to Africa? (At night, Ruiz and Montes would change course. They were trying to trick the Africans.)
  • Where did the U.S. Navy ship Washington spot the Amistad? (Long Island, New York)
  • Why did the sailors on the Washington choose to take the slaves of the Amistad to Connecticut rather than to New York? (They wanted to be able to claim the reward money or to sell the slaves; slavery was illegal in New York, but it was still legal in Connecticut.)
  • Do you think the decision to put the Africans on trial was a fair one? Why or why not? (Accept reasoned responses; probably not, because the decision was based on the story told by Ruiz and Montes. The Africans hadn't had a chance to tell their side of the story.)

Make a timeline. Divide your students into pairs. Print out a copy of the story above for each pair to read together. Then invite each pair of students to create a timeline that shows the Amistad events of 1839 -- from their capture early in the year in Africa to their arrival in Havana and their eventual jailing in New Haven. Additional dates of importance:

  • September 23, 1839 -- Court rules that the Africans cannot be tried for murder because the revolt took place on a Spanish ship in Spanish waters.
  • January 13, 1840 -- The judge, Andrew Judson, rules that the Africans were brought from Africa to Cuba illegally. Therefore, they are not "property." (The Government appeals the decision.)
  • March 9, 1841 -- The Africans are freed by the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • November 1841 -- The Africans sail back to Africa.

(Older students might create a "History of Slavery Timeline" that includes many of the events that are part of the Amistad story plus other important events. Possible resources include this Slavery Timeline.)

Map skills. Students might do this activity in small groups. Print out a copy of the world map that shows the trail of the Mende Africans from Mendeland to New Haven via Cuba. Invite students to use an atlas to locate on their maps these important places in the story of the Africans on board the Amistad: Mendeland, Lomboko, Cuba, Havana (Cuba), Port Principe (Cuba), Long Island (New York), New London (Connecticut), and New Haven (Connecticut).
[Activity and map courtesy of The Connecticut Historical Society (CHS). For more information about the CHS-designed Amistad curriculum, see this week's Education World CURRICULUM story, So You Want to Teach About the Amistad?]

ABC order. Below is a partial list of names of the Africans on the Amistad. Invite students to arrange the list in alphabetical order.

Cinque (SEEN-kay) Grabeau (grab-OH)
Kimbo (KIM-boh) Burna (BUR-nah)
Foone (FOON) Fuliwa (foo-LEE-wah)
Moru (moh-ROO) Sessi (SESS-see)
Ndamma (en-DAH-mah) Bau (BOW, rhymes with "cow")
Ba (BAH) Shule (SHOO-lee)
Foulewa (foo-LAY-wah) Banga (BAHN-gah)
Kinna (KIN-nah) Faginna (fah-GEE-nah)
Yaboi (YAH-boy) Fabanna (fay-BAHN-nah)
Foni (FOH-nee) Shuma (SHOO-mah)
Kali (KAH-lee) Teme (TEH-may)
Margru (MAHR-groo) Sa (SAH)

Language. Use the Mende Language Sheet to create Mende vocabulary books. Students can work in groups, each group assigned to create a different book. One group can work on a Mende Book of Nature, another group can work on a Mende Book of Family and Friends, and a third group can work on a Mende Book of Animals (and so on). The Mende Book of Numbers could mimic a young child's number book. Students might use Mende-appropriate illustrations such as one (e-ta) continent, showing a picture of the African continent; two (fe-le) cups of rice, to represent a slave's daily food; three (sau-wa) schooners...

Interviewing. Pretend you were a friend of Josiah Gibbs, the Yale language professor. (See his story on the Mende Language Sheet.) Gibbs introduces you to James Covey, the interpreter he found for the Mende Africans. Covey will ask any questions of the slaves that you want him to ask. What questions would you ask Cinque and the other Mende people? (Based on their knowledge and research, students might also write the answers they might have heard to those questions.)

Math. Use the story of the Amistad above as the subject for math word problems. For example:

  • Cinque was 25 years old when he was kidnapped. When was he born? (If he was 25 in early 1939, he was probably born in the year 1814.)
  • Two of the African men on the Amistad were killed in the revolt. How many African men were left? (The journey started out with 49 African men, so 47 must have been left after the revolt.)
  • Cinque and his fellow Africans were finally returned to their homeland in 1842. How many years had they been gone? (three years)
  • The slave ship Tecora carried 500 slaves to Cuba. On route to Cuba, nearly one-third of the slaves died. About how many slaves died? (about 165; accept answers that are close)

The above questions are taken from or based on an idea from the Connecticut Historical Society's Amistad curriculum workbook; used with permission.

Critical thinking. The word "amistad" in Spanish means "friendship." Invite students to respond to the question: Do you think Amistad was a good name for the ship that sailed with the Mende African slaves? As students respond to the question, write their comments on a sheet of chart paper headed with the question and divided into two columns -- one labeled "yes" and the other labeled "no." You might have to encourage students to think about the story of the Amistad in positive terms. (Some students will think the name of the ship was a cruel joke because of what happened on it; others might think that the end result of the story -- the freeing of the Mende slaves -- was a positive one and that today the Amistad stands as a positive symbol of one step in the process toward the abolition of slavery.) At the end of the discussion invite each student to write a paragraph taking one side in the debate. Students must support their "yes" or "no" responses to the question.

History (of your community). Check out the Amistad Trail Web site. The site offers information about homes in Farmington (Connecticut) that are open to the public. Those homes played an important role in the lives of the Amistad Africans once they were freed by the courts but before the money could be raised to return them to their homeland. The residents of Farmington were among those who spearheaded the campaign to raise funds for the eventual return of the freed slaves. What homes in your community are of historical significance? Invite students to research and write the "stories" behind some of your community's historic homes and other places.

Read aloud. Read aloud -- if you can keep from tearing up! -- the touching Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt by Deborah Hopkinson, illustrated by James Ransome (Random House, 1995). As a seamstress in the Big House, Clara is luckier than the slaves who work in the fields. Still, she dreams of a reunion with her Momma, who lives on another plantation -- and even of running away to freedom. When she hears two slaves wishing for a map to the Underground Railroad, Clara creates a patchwork quilt that -- unknown to the white masters of her plantation -- serves as a map that points the way to freedom along the Underground Railroad.

Drama. Students might write a play telling the story of the Amistad slave revolt. Or they might act out the story in pantomime.

Research. Invite a small group of students to work independently on a report about Mendeland, its people, and its customs so others in the class will have a better idea of the culture from which the Amistad slaves came.

Using context to figure out meaning. Share the story of Olaudah Equiano, an 11-year old boy who was kidnapped into slavery from his home in Nigeria in 1789. As you read, ask questions that will help students understand unfamiliar expressions used by Equiano:

  • What, do you think, does the expression "...and she used to take particular pains to form my mind" mean? (She used to take time to teach me.)
  • What's another word for the italicized words in this statement from Equiano: "for they sometimes took those opportunities of our parents' absence to attack and carry off as many as they could seize." (kidnap)
  • Can you translate the meaning of "Immediately, on this, I gave the alarm of the rogue" in the context of the story? (He called out to others to warn them of a kidnapper nearby.)
  • What does the expression "when none of the grown people were nigh" mean? (when no grownups were near)
  • What does the italicized expression mean in this sentence: " ...and without giving us time to cry out, or make resistance, they stopped our mouths..." (They might have put something into the children's mouths so they couldn't make any noise; or they might have covered the children's mouths.)

Students can learn more about the life of Olaudah Equiano on the WWW. Other "slavery" resources on the Internet are listed below.



If you're looking for Internet resources related to the Amistad, be sure to check out this week's Education World CURRICULUM story, So You Want to Teach About the Amistad?

If you're looking for other sites related to the issues of slavery and the abolitionist movement, a handful are listed below.

Just a warning, before using slavery-related sites with your students: It's always wise to preview Internet sites, but in the case of the sensitive issue of slavery previewing is a must! Some of the slaves' stories can be intense; they can be violent; they can include raw language.

The African-American Mosaic
Check out the "Abolition" section of this site from the Library of Congress. It provides a good overview of the abolitionist movement around the time of the Amistad incident. See and read about anti-slavery advertisements and handbills, an anti-slavery children's publication, an abolition celebration in Washington, D.C., and much more. A safe site for students.

The Amistad Research Center
With more than ten million documents, the Amistad Research Center is the nation's largest independent African-American archives. The collection includes oral history and video collections along with a specialized library, traveling exhibits, publications, and a significant collection of African and African-American art. Online you can browse through the manuscript collection, the art collection, exhibits, periodicals, and more.

Excerpts from Slave Narratives
This wonderful resource includes more than 40 narratives including a European slave trader describing a shipboard revolt by enslaved Africans (1700); a doctor describing conditions on an English slaver (1788); Venture Smith relating the story of his kidnapping at age six (1798); a woman learning that her husband, who had been sold away, has taken another wife (1869); and a slave describing West African religious beliefs and practices (1789). Some of this material is appropriate only for older students.


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


Updated 10/2014