Thursday, November 12, 2015

"Ghosts of Amistad" Comes to Paris

Marcus Rediker, Distinguished Professor of Atlantic History at the University of Pittsburgh and award-winning writer, is the author of a seminal work on the Amistad, the famous slave ship upon which Africans successfully rose up against their captors during a voyage from Havana to Puerto Principe, Cuba. Imprisoned in a Connecticut jail, they were eventually freed by the U.S. Supreme Court. Most of them returned to Sierra Leone, their homeland in Africa.

Rediker's book, entitled An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom (Viking-Penguin, 2012), was the impetus for the creation of a documentary called Ghosts of Amistad: In the Footsteps of the Rebels.

In 2013, Rediker partnered with film director Tony Buba and recruited a team of associates (all of whom were white Americans) to visit Sierra Leone to make this film. Rediker's intent was to bring forth the history of the Africans on the Amistad prior to their capture and to learn how the event is remembered by those living in their homelands today.

I met Professor Rediker and saw the video, which was presented in English with French subtitles, during a screening hosted by the U. S. Embassy at the Hôtel Talleyrand in Paris. It was part of a tour that he is undertaking to promote the recently released French translation of The Amistad Rebellion, which is entitled Les Révoltés de l’Amistad: Une odyssée atlantique (1839-1842) (Seuil, 2015).

The documentary begins with scenes from Freetown, where Rediker's group began its excursion. It then presents the story of the Amistad rebels, illustrating it with images from diverse sources - including a partial view of Hale Woodruff's mural The Trial of the Amistad Captives, and then focuses on the group's trek into the Sierra Leone countryside.

Screenshot - Hale Woodruff's The Trial of the Amistad Captives

Rediker attributes much of the success of the venture to Taziff Koroma, Professor of Linguistics at Fourah Bay College in Sierra Leone, who acted as cultural mediator for the group. Because Koroma had built solid relationships with village chiefs based on trust, he was able to bring the team into remote areas and gain access to people that they would never have been able to meet had they acted on their own. And because he understood the nuances of the various languages spoken throughout the country, he was able to offer different possible pronunciations of the names of people and places about which Rediker's group sought information.

Screenshot - Marcus Rediker and Taziff Koroma in Sierra Leone

The highlight of the trip was the successful location of Lomboko (referred to by Sierra Leone natives as "Jomboko"), an ancient slave-trading post or "factory" where the Amistad rebels began their transatlantic voyage. The screenshot below shows the view from the bow of the canoe in which Rediker and his companions were taken to the site, which many had long believed to be under water and therefore inaccessible.

Screenshot - Title frame from Ghosts of Amistad showing the voyage to Lomboko

Following this fascinating 56-minute video, Rediker fielded questions from the audience. Many attendees were French-speaking, so simultaneous translation was the order of the evening.

Marcus Rediker at the podium
© Discover Paris!

The audience was so engaged and Rediker so generous with his responses that the Embassy staff finally had to insist that we leave!

Ghosts of Amistad was awarded the American Historical Association's John E. O'Connor Prize for the best historical documentary of 2015. For more information on the film, including a link to a trailer video, click HERE.

For more information about Marcus Rediker, click HERE.


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