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John Warner Barber, 1798-1885
A History of the Amistad Captives: Being a Circumstantial Account of the Capture of the Spanish Schooner Amistad, by the Africans on Board; Their Voyage, and Capture Near Long Island, New York; with Biographical Sketches of Each of the Surviving Africans; Also, an Account of the Trials had on Their case, Before the District and Circuit Courts of the United States, for the District of Connecticut
New Haven, Ct.: E.L. & J.W. Barber, 1840.


A History of the Amistad Captives was written and published by John Warner Barber and his brother Edmund L. Barber in 1840. Born in Windsor, Connecticut in 1798, John Barber became a famous engraver, topographical draftsman, living most of his life from New Haven. Barber initially worked as an engraver of advertisements and labels, but business success gave him the opportunity to move into publishing. He wrote and illustrated religious and children's books, but his most famous works were historical, dealing with subjects including the towns of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York, scenes from the Western states and territories, as well as American and European history. Barber famously based these works on his visits to the locations and his own personal interviews with inhabitants of the towns and regions. He would employ the same methods in his profile of the Amistad incident.

Responding to the "unusual degree of interest" (p. 2) in the story of the Amistad, Barber collected information from "authentic sources" to give an accurate account of the incidents on the ship, profiles of the surviving Africans, and the trial as it had thus far progressed. In August 1839, "the public attention was somewhat excited by several reports, stating that a vessel of suspicious and piratical character had been seen near the coast of the United States, in the vicinity of New York" (p. 3). Upon boarding, the ship was discovered to be "the 'Amistad,' . . . bound to Guanajah, Port Principe, with 54 blacks and two passengers on board" (p. 3). Four days after setting sail, the 54 Africans onboard took over the ship, killing the captain and three crewmembers. Barber includes the text of an article published in the "New London Gazette" that describes details of the uprising, the ship's zigzagging through the Atlantic as the slaves attempted to steer for Africa during the day and one of the surviving passengers steered westward at night, and its eventual discovery and recovery by American authorities. Detailed descriptions of the ship's contents and the state of the passengers are also included (p. 4-5). The article is followed by documents describing the judicial and adjourned investigations of the ship, as well as a thank you card from Don Jose Ruiz and Don Pedro Montez, the surviving Spaniards aboard the Amistad, to the U.S. crew and commanders who recovered the ship (p. 6-8).

After these reprinted primary sources, Barber includes an extended section in which he provides a map of Mendi country in Africa (the homeland of the Africans aboard the ship), profile sketches, and brief biographies of each of the surviving Amistad captives (p. 8-15). Several references are made to phenologyThe information is drawn from the work of Yale linguist Josiah Gibbs, as well as his own interviews with the captives facilitated by the interpreter James Covey. Covey was himself a former slave named Kaw-we-li, also taken from Mendi country as a young boy (p. 15). After working for three years as the slave in Africa, he was sold to the Portuguese and put on a slave ship bound for America. But, a "British armed vessel" captured the ship and he was taken instead to Sierra Leone and given his freedom. Covey remained in Sierra Leone, where he learned to read and write English, and there a Christian missionary gave him the name James. In 1838, "he enlisted as a sailor on board the British brig of war Buzzard" and upon his ship's arrival in New York, in October of 1839 that he was connected with the Amistad case (p. 15).

The latter half of Barber's history is dedicated to documenting the ongoing trial in Hartford, Connecticut and describing the testimony of the Africans. Included are details of the horrid conditions aboard the slave ship from Africa to Cuba (p. 19-20). According to the description by Cingue, the leader of the revolt, and the corroborating testimony of his companions, Barber illustrated the three feet, three inch space in which the captives were forced to live on the ship. He also provides a sketch of a village in Mendi, the African's homeland, which is accompanied by details of their country, their religion, and lives as told to the young men from Yale who instructed them in the English language and the basics of Christianity (p. 24-31). The trial was still ongoing at the time of publication, and would be settled with the freeing of the slaves by the United States Supreme Court in 1841. This is a fascinating and eclectic document that sheds light not only on the history of the Amistad incident and its participants, but on America's early international relations, the complex legal issues swirling around the transatlantic slave trade and its final dissolution, as well as illuminating the lives and realities of the captured Africans who finally regained their freedom.

Works Consulted: "John Warner Barber scrapbook pages, 1832-1868" via the Archives of American Art, referenced 13 May 2013; "Barber, John Warner" via American National Biography Online, referenced 13 May 2013; "The Amistad" via the Encyclopedia of African American Society, referenced 16 May 2013.

Eric Meckley

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