Pitt History Professor Marcus Rediker to Discuss His New Book, The Amistad Rebellion, Nov. 15

Issue Date: 
November 12, 2012

On June 28, 1839, the Spanish slave schooner Amistad set sail from Havana for another Cuban port on a routine delivery of slaves who had been imported illegally from West Africa. After four days at sea, the captive Africans broke free, killed the captain, and seized the ship. The rebels were eventually captured by the United States Navy at Long Island, N.Y., and imprisoned in Connecticut.  Their legal case for freedom made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and, in a landmark ruling, they were liberated and allowed to return to their native Sierra Leone.

In his new book, The Amistad Rebellion: An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom (Viking-Penguin, 2012), Pitt Distinguished Professor of Atlantic History Marcus Rediker draws on previously unknown evidence—letters about the lives of the Amistad rebels back in Africa and their own oral histories of the rebellion—to sketch vivid, intimate portraits of the people who changed the very nature of the struggle against slavery. His book honors their extraordinary historic achievement.  

Rediker will discuss his findings at 6 p.m. Nov. 15 in Conference Room A on the third floor of Pitt’s University Club, 123 University Place, Oakland. The event, sponsored by the University’s Department of History and The Book Center, is free and open to the public.

In contrast to Steven Spielberg’s historical film Amistad (HBO Films/DreamWorks, 1997), which concentrated on John Quincy Adams and the legal drama surrounding the case, Rediker puts the African rebels at the center of their own story.  His “history from below” begins with their free lives in their native land, then narrates an epic odyssey of enslavement, deadly Middle Passage across the Atlantic, incarceration in the slave barracoons of Havana, rebellion aboard the Amistad, a long and dangerous freedom voyage, cooperation with abolitionists in Connecticut jails, and finally victory and repatriation.  Rediker offers a new perspective on a familiar event, showing how the self-emancipated Africans steered their own course to freedom, opening a way for millions to follow.

Kirkus Reviews praises the book as “a first-rate example of history told from the bottom up” and a “rigorous account of a slave-ship rebellion that altered American and African societies.” And Publishers Weekly says, “Spectacularly researched and fluidly composed, this latest study offers some much needed perspective on a critical yet overlooked event in America’s history.”

Rediker has written, cowritten, or edited six other books, including The Slave Ship: A Human History (Viking-Penguin, 2007), which won the 2008 George Washington Book Prize from the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, the C.V. Starr Center at Washington College, and Mount Vernon; the 2008 Merle Curti Award from the Organization of American Historians; and the James A. Rawley Prize from the American Historical Association. The book will appear in French, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Swedish, and Turkish.

Rediker’s Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Merchant Seamen, Pirates, and the Anglo-American Maritime World (Cambridge University Press, 1987) was translated into four languages and earned the 1988 Merle Curti Award for the best work in American social history and the 1988 John Hope Franklin Prize from the American Studies Association for best interdisciplinary work in American Studies.

Rediker cowrote (with the American Social History project) Who Built America? Working People and the Nation’s Economy, Politics, Culture, and Society, Vol. I (Pantheon Books, 1989) and (with Peter Linebaugh) The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Beacon Press, 2000), which was translated into six languages and won the 2001 International Labor History Book Prize from the International Labor History Association.

Rediker coedited Many Middle Passages: Forced Migration and the Making of the Modern World (University of California Press, 2007).  His Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age (Beacon Press, 2004) is in development with producer Alessandro Camon as a feature film.  His next book, Outlaws of the Atlantic: Sailors, Pirates, and Motley Crews in the Age of Sail, will be published in Fall 2013 by Beacon Press.

A scholar of early American history and Atlantic history, Rediker joined the Pitt history department faculty in 1994 and served as department chair from 2007 to 2010. In 2009, he was a senior scholar in residence at the Society for the Humanities at Cornell University. In addition to receiving numerous book prizes, Rediker has been awarded fellowships by the American Council of Learned Societies, the Andrew P. Mellon Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. In 2008, the Organization of American Historians named him distinguished lecturer.

Rediker has been active in a variety of social justice and peace movements, most recently in the campaign to abolish the death penalty. Prior to joining the Pitt faculty, Rediker taught history at Georgetown University. He earned his master’s and PhD degrees in history from the University of Pennsylvania.