Today, art and slavery. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
The movie Amistad
tells the true story of a group of Mende people
taken into slavery. In 1839 they overcame their
captors on the Spanish ship Amistad
(which, by the way, means friendship). By day the
Africans forced the surviving Spaniards to head
east toward Africa. By night the Spaniards turned
the boat back toward Cuba. Their zig-zag course
finally deposited them in Long Island Sound.
The Africans were arrested and put on trial while
pro- and anti-slavery forces took sides. Some
preposterous legal maneuvering followed. The United
States wanted to return the Africans to Spain to
honor a treaty obligation. So they charged the
Africans with violating American anti-slave-trade
law by bringing a slave ship into American waters.
It finally took the Supreme Court to set them free
and put them on a ship back to Sierra Leone.
Now art historian Richard Powell goes back to those
times to offer us a window into American attitudes
surrounding the trial. His article is titled
Cinqué, which is what the Spanish
called the 25-year-old revolt leader, Sengbe Pieh.
America had by then created its own school of
portrait painting in an attempt to rival Europe.
While European portraiture presented the
aristocracy, ours became a popular reflection of
the egalitarian spirit of the Revolution. By 1839
portraits decorated every drawing room. And what
could complement those ideals as perfectly as the
tall, handsome young African, Cinqué!
Robert Purvis, a wealthy free black Philadelphian,
went to a New England abolitionist artist named
Nathaniel Jocelyn and hired him to paint
Cinqué. Jocelyn was a fine painter, and
Purvis had not miscalculated. While the case was
grinding through the courts, Jocelyn finished a
picture that fully expressed his own passion for
the abolitionist cause. He shows Cinqué in a
Roman-style toga, holding a cane rod which might as
well be a royal sceptre. Cinqué's eyes look
off past the viewer's left shoulder.
By 1840 we had color lithography to mass-produce
images. The abolitionists printed hundreds of
copies of Cinqué's portrait; it became a
rallying point for their cause. That was a
two-edged sword. Jocelyn had shown Cinqué as
a noble Roman. But he'd also shown a defiant Roman
whose cane staff might well be a weapon in his
fight for freedom. This Cinqué was a force
to be reckoned with. His gaze, drifting past us,
suggests that we white viewers are obstacles to be
bypassed. He did little to ease white fears.
And so the portrait kept stirring passions long
after the Amistad case was settled. It
stands as one of the great pieces of political art.
Perhaps the surest sign of its political power is
to be found in the movie version of the
Amistad story. For there stands
Cinqué on the deck, clad in that same white
toga -- wind-blown, noble, and in command. The
movie shows us Jocelyn's Cinqué. And, we
realize, that may well may be the truest
Cinqué after all.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds